The Wayback Machine -
A Brief History of the Chamorro


Linguistic and archaeological studies have indicated that two thousand years before the birth of Christ, the remote islands of the Mariana archipelago were settled by people from Southeast Asia. These people, the ancient ancestors of the archipelago's contemporary Chamorro population, were accomplished horticulturalists, mariners and fishermen who skilfully adapted to an environment made challenging by periodic droughts and powerful tropical storms. After evolving over a period of three millennia in relative isolation, the Chamorro had the doubtful honour of being the first people of Oceania to receive European callers during the early sixteenth century.


Click on the above map for a larger and more detailed map

The Chamorro were the indigenous population of the Mariana Islands when Magellan first visited Guam in 1521. It was not until 1668 however that the Jesuits and soldiery set about converting and subduing the islanders. Several great typhoons at the end of the 17th century were nature's footnote to the carnage.

By 1710 an estimated population of 100,000 Chamorro had been reduced to little more than 3,500. A few Chamorro escaped to the neighbouring Caroline Islands where they kept their identity as a people. This massive population loss had been commonly attributed to a policy to genocide supposedly carried out by the Spanish military. This explanation is not in keeping with the historical facts as the principle aim of the Spanish mission was not the extermination of the Chamorro population but rather its religious conversion.

It is more likely that high mortality rate of the late 17th century can be attributed directly to the introduction of deadly diseases into the archipelago in conjunction with the concentration of the scattered Chamorro population into mission villages.

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To facilitate religious and cultural conversion, scattered
Chamorro populations were concentrated into mission villages,
a practice referred to as the reduccion. This sketch, dating to the
19th century depicts a typical historic period settlement.
Drawing based on a photograph by A. Marche. Courtesy of the Micronesian Area Research Center

In the years that followed, the Mariana Islands north of Guam became completely depopulated. By the late 19th century, although the population of Guam had increased again, it had become a mixture of Chamorro, Filipino and Spanish stock. The indigenous language had survived but the oral traditions had been swamped by introduced elements with only fragments of recognisable oceanic themes remaining.   

Linguists have classified the Chamorro language as Austronesian, being part of a broad grouping of languages which they suspect originated in Southern China and spread into Island Southeast Asia via Taiwan sometime around 4000 BC. One of a number of divergent theories on the origin and spread of the Austronesian language suggests that an earlier form of the language referred to as Proto-Austronesian was brought into the northern Philippines sometime around 3000 BC, eventually evolving into the Malayo Polynesian subgroup. The Malayo Polynesian subgroup again split into Western Malayo Polynesian subgroup and the Eastern Malayo Polynesian subgroup. The former came to include languages spoken in the Philippines, Sulawesi, Madagascar and Vietnam as well as in the two Micronesian archipelago of Palau and the Marianas. Eastern Malayo Polynesian developed following migrations into Melanesia, and after additional sub-groupings into the Oceanic languages spoken in Eastern Micronesia and Polynesia.

What little is known about early prehistoric life is inferred from changes in artifacts and other archaeological materials, primarily ceramics. It was roughly about 1,000 years ago that a new round of cultural adaptations began to appear in the archaeological record. Included among these were a new architectural form and possibly a growing social complexity. It is this period that archaeologists have termed the Latte Phase, after the distinctive stone columns and caps which began to appear throughout the archipelago around 1100 AD.

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Latte shafts and caps, Tinian Island, photographed in 1939

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Image: Courtesy of Dr. Hiro Kurashina

Historical research has suggested that pre-historic Chamorro society was made up of three distinct social classes, a noble or chiefly class (matua), a demi-noble class (atchoat) and a low class (mangatchang). This conventional view of Chamorro social organisation is in consistent with the results of recent archaeological and historical research, and with the structures of other traditional Micronesian societies.

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The first known sketch of a Chamorro made in the 1590's
Image: Boxer Codex. From Leveskue HM 2

Although research on the nature of pre-historic Chamorro society continues, the preponderance of archaeological and historical data clearly suggests that Chamorro society was organised at the village level and comprised two or three general levels of relative rank.

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The earliest known portrait of a Chamorro woman drawn in the 18th century. Females played an important role in ancient Chamorro society and were responsible for the perpetuation of the indigenous language and aspects of traditional culture following the imposition of Christianity.

Ravenet 1792. Courtesy of the Micronesian Area Research Centre

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Image: Courtesy of Division of Historic Preservation

Ancestor worship was an integral part of ancient Chamorro culture. According to historical account, skulls were exhumed from grave sites after the flesh had decomposed, a practice illustrated by this photograph of a headless burial from Saipan. Leg bones were also removed for the manufacture of spear points.

The adjacent sketch is the only detailed drawing of a traditional Chamorro canoe known to exist. It was prepared on Tinian in 1742 and depicts the major features of the flying thrower including a narrow, asymmetrical hull, single outrigger and lateen sail. The largest sailing canoes were known as sakman.

Adapted from Haddon & Hornell, 1975

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A fishing party using nets woven from plant fibres.
Net fishing was an efficient capture technique.
Unpublished versions of sketches from the Freycinet Expedition.
Courtesy of the Commonwealth Museum of History and Culture

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The sketch above is of a Chamorro woman with a wooden
pestle (fa'lu) used to husk rice. The large stone mortar, known as
lusong, are found at ancient sites throughout the Marianas. The sketch
also depicts de-husked rice, or pugas, on a woven mat spread out next to the lusong. 
Unpublished sketch from the Freycinet Expedition.Courtesy of the Commonwealth Museum of History and Culture 

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Large basalt lusongs similar to this one are often
found at Latte Phase sites and are suspected of being
associated with the cultivation of rice.
Courtesy of the Field Museum, Chicago, Illinois

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A slingshot called atupat and ancient slingstones.
This replica atupat is made of woven pandanus leaves.
Slingshots were hurled with deadly accuracy by ancient Chamorro warriors.
Photograph by Turt Klemstein

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A Chamorro slingstone. c. A.D 1500

The affairs of a village were probably run informally by the respective chiefs along the lines of an extended family. Activities such as warfare, canoe building, navigation and fishing were practised by the males. Women on the other hand, were responsible for taking care of the young children, maintaining the household and working in the garden. Another important female occupation was the production of woven mat which were used to fashion mattresses, blankets, hats and other articles.

The missionaries noted that Chamorros did not marry relatives and that they were monogamous. It was also apparent that while the men may have been the warriors and navigators, the women were the heads of the household and were quick to assert their prerogatives. The important and powerful role exercised by women in the traditional Chamorro society has been summarised as follows. Females, in particular elder women in the clan, who were married and mothers were powerful in all spheres of the traditional society. Through matrilineal kinship system, women exercised control over family life, property and inheritance. They assumed a central role and possessed strong bargaining powers in their marriages. Their esteem status was also reflected in rituals, legends and ceremonial events. 

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A Chamorro accepts shell money from
a grass-skirted woman for two bottles of petroleum

The information on this Web site is drawn largely from the researches of Scott Russell in his definitive book Tiempon I Manmofo'na which was published as No. 32 of the Micronesian Archaeological Survey, Report Series, produced by the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) Division of Historic Preservation.

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