History of Guam

Posted by on Jun 23, 2014 in About Guam | 0 comments

Chamorro_people_in_1915The original inhabitants of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands are believed to be descendents of Austronesian people originating from Southeast Asia as early as 2000 BC. These people evolved into the Chamorro people. Most of what is known about pre-contact (“ancient”) Chamorros comes from legends and myths, archaeological evidence,Jesuit missionary accounts, and observations from visiting scientists like Otto von Kotzebue and Louis de Freycinet.

When Europeans first arrived on Guam, Chamorro society had three classes: matua (upper class), achaot (middle class), and mana’chang (lower class). The matua were located in the coastal villages, which meant they had the best access to fishing grounds, whereas the mana’chang were located in the interior of the island. Matua and mana’changrarely communicated with each other, and matua often used achaot as an intermediary. There were also “makåhna” (similar to shamans), skilled in healing and medicine. Belief in spirits of ancient Chamorros called “Taotao mo’na” still persists as a remnant of pre-European culture. When Magellan arrived on Guam, he was greeted by hundreds of small outrigger canoes that appeared to be flying over the water, due to their considerable speed. These outrigger canoes were called Proas, and resulted in Magellan naming Guam Islas de las Velas Latinas (“Islands of the Lateen sails“).

Pigafetta described the “lateen sail” used by the inhabitants of Guam, hence the name “Island of Sails”, but he also writes the inhabitants “entered the ships and stole whatever they could lay their hands on”, including “the small boat that was fastened to the poop of the flagship.” “Those people are poor, but ingenious and very thievish, on account of which we called those three islands the islands of Ladroni.”

Guam, the only Spanish outpost in the Pacific Ocean east of the Philippines, became the regular port of the Manila galleons between Acapulco, Mexico, and Manilafrom 1565 to 1815, and (since Philippine independence) the most western outpost of actual United States territory in the Pacific. It is the biggest single segment of Micronesia, the largest islands between the islands of Kyushu (Japan), New Guinea, the Philippines, and the Hawaiian Islands.

Latte stones are stone pillars that are found only in the Mariana Islands and are a recent development in Pre-Contact Chamorro society. The latte stone was used as a foundation on which thatched huts were built. Latte consist of a base shaped from limestone called the haligi and with a capstone, or tåsa, made either from a large brain coral or limestone, placed on top. Using carbon-dating, archaeologists have broken Pre-Contact Guam (i.e. Chamorro) history into three periods: “Pre-Latte” (BC 2000? to AD 1) “Transitional Pre-Latte” (AD 1 to AD 1000), and “Latte” (AD 1000 to AD 1521).

Archaeological evidence also suggests that Chamorro society was on the verge of another transition phase by 1521, as latte stones became bigger. Assuming the larger latte stones were used for chiefly houses, it can be argued that Chamorro society was becoming more stratified, either from population growth or the arrival of new people. The theory remains tenuous, however, due to lack of evidence, but if proven correct, would support the idea that Pre-Contact Chamorros were in a transitioning society.