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Micronesia - Aspects of the Mariana Islands
- Aspects of the Mariana Islands
The megalithic columns and capitals of the Marianas
silently recall the once splendid architecture of northern Micronesia. At
the time of Magellan's arrival in the Marianas in 1521, the first European
contact with Micronesia, the native Chamorros were building impressive
structures on megalithic foundations called latte. The latte
consisted of two rows of stone columns supporting hemispherical capstones.
They are believed to have supported structures of wood. As social complexity
and competition for limited resources increased, the height and size of the
latte apparently increased. At the time of Western contact the stone
columns and capstones of the House of Taga on Tinian rose to the height of
16 feet, and an even larger structure had been started on Rota. Today the
magnificent stone remains are the most visible symbols of the ancient
Map of Guam
The Marianas consist of fifteen volcanic islands in
a curving arc that extends 420 miles from Guam in the south to Utacas (also
Farallon de Pajaros) in the north. Located in the northwestern extremity of
the Micronesian culture area, the Marianas lie between the Pacific Ocean to
the east and the Philippine Sea to the west. The largest of the islands are
Guam, Rota, Tinian, and Saipan, all toward the south of the group. These
probably always were the centers of population in the Marianas (Spoehr,
1957). Prehistoric architectural sites have been found on all four islands.
Primarily superimposed limestone terraces resting on volcanic bases, the
islands contain major areas of flat or gently sloping terrain suitable for
Based on linguistic similarities, the Philippines
or the islands of southeast Asia seem to be fairly widely accepted as the
most likely place of origin for the early settlers, who may have arrived in
the Marianas about 1300 B.C. Existing evidence suggests that the early
settlers may have had an effective sailing technology, and that they may
have engaged to return voyaging in the islands of their origins.
have been reconstructed to form an eight-column latte more than
seven feet high in a public park, Agana, Guam.
Concerning the latte, Peter Bellwood
(1979a:283) observes: "These structures give every appearance of being
indigenous developments in the Marianas, and the only outside similarities
lie in reports of some pile houses in the Palau Islands and possibly on Yap.
In basic principle, the form is simply a translation of the raised pile
houses of Island Southeast Asia."
Larger houses in Palau and probably the Marianas
were built on wood platforms raised above the ground on stone piers, while
the major structure of Yap had solid stone platforms elevated above grade.
The plans of major structures on all three island groups were based on
regularized proportions. Typical large meeting houses of Micronesia, such as
the pebacy of Yap and the bai of Palau, were rectangular or
nearly so in plan and had high roofs thatched with palm fronds or pandanus
leaves. Their ridgepoles, rafters, and plates were lashed together with cord
bindings, except on Palau, where certain main structural joints were
mortised and fitted. Yapese and Palauan houses often were elaborately
The rugged coastline of Guam
Early European observers noted that the Chamorros
built and sailed outrigger canoes with great skill. The boats of the
Marianas seem to have been somewhat similar to those elsewhere in
Micronesia. Called "flying proas" their main hulls were double ended for
sailing in either direction, and they employed single outrigger floats with
a lateen sail. The technology required for building these graceful craft
suggests the level of technology available for planning and constructing the
prehistoric architecture in the Marianas.
THE LATTE PHASE OF THE MARIANAS
Perhaps as early as A.D. 1000, latte houses
began to be built in the Marianas. The group of columns and capstones that
together comprise a single foundation structure is referred to as a latte
set. The number of stone columns with capstones observed in a latte
set varied from six to fourteen. The piers almost always were erected in two
parallel rows that varied from three to seven columns in length.
Scenic view of Guam
Near the ancient houses, food probably was
prepared, cooked and stored, and tools were manufactured maintained and
stored. Both extended and secondary burials consisting of collections of
bones are found under or near the houses. Brown-stained teeth found in
Chamorro graves attest to the antiquity of betel nut chewing in the
Latte often were grouped together, sometimes
in the series of rows, and were located inland from nearby beaches, where
canoe sheds or club houses may have been located. Village alignments usually
were parallel to the nearest coastline or river and may have been oriented
to take advantage of prevailing breezes. Chamorro villages frequently were
located near the sea, their principal source of protein, and near a source
of fresh water and areas suitable for farming. Even inshore villages were
not so far removed from the sea as to eliminate it as a food resource.
Latte building in the Marianas seems to have
continued until about 1650 and sites on Guam apparently continued to be
occupied until perhaps 1750. Large bones of pelagic fish appeared in the
Marianas during the latte building phase, suggesting off-shore fishing and
canoe building, but probably not trade or contact with islands outside the
It seems unlikely that a single person owned or
controlled a particular latte house. More likely, a household or
larger kin group was responsible for building and maintaining the structure.
A senior member of the household or kin group may have been awarded certain
rights to use, but the control of the house probably was retained by the
Latte stones, Guam
Megalithic foundations may have had symbolic
meanings that related enduring stone to enduring social position. One reason
for building elevated structures may have been related to the idea that
increased height once symbolized increased authority and importance in much
of Oceania. As the height and number of columns per latte increased,
size and social rank apparently gained in importance. Foundation size may
have been related to wealth and the power to control labou8r.
The height of latte varies widely in the
Marianas, but the maximum is about 8 feet with the exceptions of the 16-foot
high House of Taga on Tinian and the unfinished structure in the quarry at
As Nieves on Rota that would have been perhaps 18 feet high. The
significance of these exceptionally high structures is the subject of
differing interpretations by scholars. One view holds that the House of Taga
probably represents the emergence of a third level in the Chamorro society
about the time of European contact. Thus, the superordinate height of the
House of Taga's foundation would suggest the emergence of a single paramount
chief above all the lesser chiefs of Tinian. Similarly, the unfinished
megaliths of the quarry at As Nieves might suggest the emergence of a
supreme ruler on the island of Rota.
Another scholarly interpretation of the
significance of the unusually high House of Taga latte is that it
represents the presence of one of two compelling factions on Tinian.
Historical documents of 1660 to 1680 indicate that no supreme ruler existed
on the island at that time. Instead, two alliances existed, one dominated by
Makpo village in the southeast area of the island and the other by the Taga
area on the west side. Both interpretations are latte as symbols of ranking
but disagree on the social organizations they represent.
Only two of the
House of Taga's 16-foot-high columns and capstones remain standing
today on Tinian. (Photo: Bihop Museum)
A 1565 diary entry by a member of the Miguel de
Legaspi expedition, commissioned by the Spanish crown to sail from Mexico to
the Philippines, offers this description of the Chamorro housing. Their
houses are high, well kept and well made. (They) stand the height of a man
off the ground, atop large stone pillars, upon which they lay the flooring
... These are the houses in which they sleep. They have other low houses, on
the ground, where they cook and roast food. ... They have other large houses
which are used for boathouses. These are not dwellings, but communal
(houses) in which they store the large proas (double-ended sailing canoes
with a single outrigger) and (which) shelter (their) canoes. In each barrio
(a group of dwellings forming a distinctive unit) there is one of these
engraving illustrating the House of Taga latte in 1742 shows
all twelve columns erect with capstones in place.
The diary entry clearly mentions three types of
structures residences built on latte, small cookhouses built on
grade, and large community houses not necessarily associated with latte.
A communal house may have served purposes other than canoe storage, such as
a men's clubhouse, a community storehouse, a meeting place, or other public
functions. For example, in 1671, Padre Diego Luis de Sanvitores noted that
"the bachelors have some public houses ..." Whole some latte may have
served other purposes as well, they apparently were primarily residences.
Coral pebble paving has been found adjoining and
beneath latte houses at Objan, Lau Lau, and Unai Bapot on Saipan,
Nomna Bay on Guam, Tachognya on Tinian, and other sites. this suggests that
work areas may have been located near or below the raised floors of latte
houses. Earth ovens found near many latte houses indicate the same
manner of cooking that is used widely in Micronesia. Separate frame
cookhouses in Saipan and elsewhere in the Marianas suggest that latte
houses originally may have had frame cookhouses nearby.
THE ANCIENT CHAMORROS
The Chamorros were prolific potters who are not
known to have employed highly decorative designs. Their cutting tools were
made more frequently from shell than from stone. Other tools were made of
bone and wood, but metal was unknown prior to Western contact. The Chamorros
used books and nets for fishing and ate seals and turtles. Pigs were unknown
in the Marianas until Europeans introduced them. The Chamorros' subsistence
economy was based on agriculture, fishing, gathering mollusks from the
reefs, limited hunting for girds, bats, and crabs, and gathering wild
vegetable products. Coconuts, yams, breadfruit, several types of taro,
bananas, and sugarcane were important crops. The Chamorros appear to have
been the only people in Micronesia who grew rice. Digging sticks with stone
blades were the primary agricultural implements.
Plaza de Espana is the site of a
complex of structures built by the Spanish beginning in 1669 as
the seat of government in Agana.
Men's work seems to have included clearing land
planting, cultivating, and harvesting, cooking large quantities of food in
earth ovens for special feasts, building houses and canoes, and
manufacturing tools. Women apparently fished on the reefs with small hand
nets and sometimes stored part of their catch in stone-lined holding ponds
along the shore. They also prepared daily meals by boiling food in locally
manufactured pots, wore baskets and mats from pandanus, made pottery,
prepared medicines, performed domestic chores, and probably assisted in
Laura Thompson (1945) suggested that Chamorro
households were extended families usually based on some form of of
matrilineal descent. According to Ross Condy (1983c), two strata existed in
Chamorro society, chefs and commoners. Early Spanish observers reported that
latte houses were occupied by members of the chiefly class rather than by
Umatic, Guam - 1962
The larger islands of the Marianas traditionally
seem to have been divided into several alliances of independent villages,
each influenced by the highest-ranking chief within the alliance. Smaller
islands may have been under the control of a single alliance or village. The
alliances were not consolidated into large, well-knit political units. As
representatives of lineages, the chief's controlled all or most of the
village land and fishing grounds.
Warfare, feuding, and shifts in alliances were
common. Not subject to a high degree of organization, warfare was conducted
primarily by stealth and ambush. the weapons of the Chamorros included
barbed spear points, made from human bones or wood, and sling stones.
Competition for status and rank probably was a constant in the Marianas as
elsewhere in Micronesia.
The art of the Marianas probably was expressed
primarily in perishable materials that have long since disappeared.
Ornaments that have been found include highly decorative carvings, beads,
bracelets, and pendants. Burial artifacts generally are lacking.
In 1521, Antonio Pigafetta recorded the first
contact between European and the people of Micronesia: he described the
following incident in Magellan's three ships approached what may have been
the coast of Guam: "On Wednesday, the sixth of March, we discovered a small
island in th4e northwest direction, and two others lying to the south-west
... Captain general wished to touch at the largest of these three islands to
get refreshments of provisions; but it was not possible because the people
of these islands entered into ships and robbed us, in such a way that it was
impossible to preserve oneself from them. Whilst we were striking and
lowering the sails to go ashore, they stole away with much address and
diligence the small boat called the skiff, which was made fast to the poop
of the captain's ship, at which he was much irritated, and went on shore
with forty armed men, burned forty or fifty houses, with several small
boats, and killed seven men of the island; they recovered their skiff".
In the years immediately succeeding Magellan's
initial contact with the Marianas, the islands remained in relative
isolation. During the seventeenth century, however, Spain established a
prosperous trade route between Acapulco and Manila, and Guam became an
important base for galleons plying the sea lanes. The people of the Marianas
suffered from the severity of seventeenth-century colonialism, not because
of the economic value of their islands but because they were situated
strategically on the Acapulco trade route and the Spanish at that time
considered it essential to missionize and convert.
In 1668, Padre Diego Luis de Sanvitores established
a mission on Guam. Within two years the missionaries became caught up in
political enmities, and the Chamorros began to resist forced conversion and
the missionaries' efforts to disband community clubs. The Spanish introduced
European diseases, such as measles and smallpox, to which the Chamorros had
After three decades of epidemic, warfare, and two
disastrous typhoons, the Chamorro population declined sharply. The maximum
population of the islands before European contact has been estimated in the
range of 50,000. By 1710, the year of the first Spanish census, the number
of surviving Chamorros had been reduced to 3,439. To improve political
control after severe depopulation, the Spanish concentrated all of the
Chamorros in the Marianas on Guam during the late seventeenth century,
except for a small group on Rota and a few on Tinian. The Chamorros were
required to change their traditional settlement patterns to European models.
The present-day population of the Marianas is thoroughly mixed with Spanish,
Filipino, American, Chinese, Japanese, and others.
After the Spanish-American War, Spain ceded Guam to
the United States and sold the other islands of the Marianas to Germany. In
1914 Japan occupied the former German possessions in Micronesia,
relinquishing the islands at the conclusion of the Second world War to the
United States according to the pr9ovisions of a United Nations mandate.
During the latter 1970s, the Mariana Islands north of Guam became a
commonwealth of the United States. Guam continues to be a possession of the
United States. Unlike most of the other islands of Micronesia, Guam, Tinian,
and Saipan suffered extensive destruction as a result of the Second World
War. The disappearance of prehistoric architectural sites in the Marianas is
a result of both the construction of military installations and the
destruction during battles for control of the islands. Urban expansion on
Guam in recent decades also has resulted in the loss of many ancient sites.
fortunately, most of the remains on Rota have been spared the ravages of war
and subsequent developments.
Having 215 square miles of land area, Guam is the
largest island in Micronesia. It also is the southernmost island of the
Mariana archipelago. The Yap Island group is 530 miles to the southwest, and
Truk Atoll lies 630 miles to the southeast. The highest point on Guam is
1,334-foot-high Mount Lamlam. Fringed by coral reefs, the 30-mile-long
island ranges from 4 to 12 miles wide.
Southern Guam is basically volcanic with an
elongated mountain range dividing the inland valleys from the coastline.
Central and northern Guam are primarily limestone plateaus uplifted 300 to
600 feet. Near the north end of the island sheer cliffs drop precipitously
into the sea. Although the island is much larger than Rota and Tinian, the
area between the escarpment and the beach that is suitable for human
occupation on Guam is relatively limited. Chamorro village sites on Guam
apparently were more numerous, but on the average probably smaller, than
those on Rota and Tinian.
Coral terraces, Guam
Guam's maximum prehistoric population may have been
at most thirty thousand Chamorros. Prehistoric settlements in the central
and northern areas of the island generally were locate4d in coastal areas,
where springs occur at regular intervals at the base of the limestone
uplifts. Southern Guam has clayey soils. Her rain water runs off quickly and
areas suitable for human occupation are limited except near streams.
Six to twenty latte sets per settlement are the
standard for most sites on Guam, except in the southern area, where two or
three sets are the norm. An exception is the Nomna Bay site in southern Guam
where seventeen latte are located. Many sites were in low-lying areas within
a few hundred feet of the nearest beach or near inshore streams, although a
site at Tumon bay 1,500 feet from the shore, and such sites as Mepo and Fena
are found near the center of southern Guam. In 1668, Sanvitores counted 180
villages on Guam. Of these, only 7 villages remained in 1698.
The latte stones of the House of Taga on Tinian are
some 16 feet high, about twice the height of the next highest stone
foundation in the Marianas. Located some 100 miles northeast of Guam, Tinian
is separated by a 3-mile-wide channel from Saipan to the northeast. The
coastal area of the island is mostly suitable for villages and contains a
high percentage of productive land. Inland Tinian, like inland northern
Guam, is a limestone plateau with no potable water and thus is unsuitable
for human habitation.
The 12-mile-long island is at most 6.5 miles wide
and encompasses a land area of 39.3 square miles. The highest point of land
is 614-foot-high Kastiyu Hill, well less than half the height of Mount
Lamlam on Guam. No streams are found on Tinian. Here water collects in pools
at the foot of high ridges or in wells.
The island consists of two major raised limestone
plateaus separated by the fertile Makpo Valley near the southern end of the
island. The coastline largely consists of limestone cliffs dropping abruptly
into the sea, but several beaches and sandy coves interrupt the rocky coast.
Of particular importance is the Tinian Harbour area on the southwest coast,
the principal landing area on the island and the local center of population
since prehistoric times.
The three major areas of latte sites on the
island are Tinian Harbour represent4d by the Tachognya and Taga sites in
this study. Makpo Valley, and Unai Dangkulo along the northern east coast.
Alexander Spoehr (1957) found three latte sites near the fresh water swamp
of Makpo Valley. The largest of these sites consisted of two latte
located 40 feet apart. The northern set contained ten stone columns and
measured 13.5l x 45 feet. The best preserved of the shafts was trape-zoidal
in shape and rose 3 feet above the ground. In 1984 Darlene Moore found more
than twenty latte in a single large coastal site at Unai Dangkulo
Like Tinian, the island of Rota was densely
inhabited in prehistoric times and today yields some of the most notable
remains of prehistoric architecture in the Marianas. A 1980 survey of the
island identified 46 separate latte sites containing some 113 individual
structures. The stone columns and capstones in the As Niegves Quarry seem to
have been intended for a foundation even higher than the House of Taga on
Tinian. The largest member of latte in a single site was found at Mochong on
the north coast of
Rota. The site contained at least 47 structures in
a single large settlement.
Rota, which lies about 30 miles northwest of Guam
in the direction of Tinian, is approximately 12 miles long and 5 miles wide
and contains a land area of 32.9 square miles. Composed of calcareous rock,
Rota is dominated by 1m,627-foot high Mount Savana near its center. Five
freshwater streams along the south-central coast and numerous wells supply
fresh water to the island. today dense tropical vegetation covers much of
Rota, but no large trees are found.
Latte sites on the island generally are found along
the north coast and on the east end well away from the escarpment of Mount
Savana. Rota's main settlement today is the town of Songsong, the Rotanese
word for village. The town is located on a peninsula that extends out from
the southwest end of the island, the probable location of the earliest
prehistoric settlement on Rota. Rota's population in 1984 was perhaps 1,100.
Although the island's prehistoric sites have been disturbed considerably
over the years, particularly by a Japanese coastal trenching system during
the Second World War, Rota has more latte sites intact today than do
Guam, Tinian, or Saipan.
The earliest European contact with Rota probably
occurred when the Spanish ship Santa Margarita struck a reef on the
island in 1601. Rota became a center of Chamorro resistance against the
Spanish, but a Sergeant-Major Quiroga subjugated the island in the last
uprising of 1684. Most of the Chamorros were relocated to Guam in 1696..,
but part of the population was permitted to remain on Rota "and thus
maintained a continuity with the prehistoric past unclaimed by others of the
Federated States of Micronesia
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