Mariana Islands: Ancient people wore clothes, probably chewed betelnut
Junhan B. Todiño
People in the latte period might have chewed betelnut, according to archaeologist Dr. Mike T. Carson, citing his findings at the Ritidian site on Guam.
The ancient Chamorros also wore clothing with decorative accessories, he said in his presentation last week at the Pacific Islands Club on Saipan.
“In the oldest pottery, we see the white lime powder used as part of the artful decoration,” he added. “The powder was one of the key ingredients in chewing betelnut, so it is likely that people at that very early time were already chewing betelnut.”
Other studies conducted by archaeologists Steve Athens and Jerome Ward found that betelnut pollen first appeared in the Mariana Islands about 1500 BC, Carson said.
“So the betelnut tree evidently was imported by the first people to sail across the ocean and live in the Mariana Islands,” he added.
The betelnut tree may have originated somewhere in Southeast Asia, but this possibility will need to be further developed in detail, Carson said.
An associate professor of archaeology at the Richard F. Taitano Micronesian Area Research Center of the University of Guam, Carson said the Ritidian site on Guam holds a continuous record of 3,500 years of natural and cultural history of the Mariana Islands.
The site is now preserved within the Ritidian Unit of the Guam National Wildfire Refuge and is well-known for its many painted images inside caves, as well as for the remains of a latte village last occupied in the 1600s during the time of early Spanish contact, he said.
His recent presentation at PIC was sponsored by the Northern Marianas Humanities Council with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and is part of the council’s ongoing community lecture series.
Carson is also on the faculty of the Australian National University and has published many books with his wife, Dr. Hsiao-chun Hung. These include “The First Settlement of Remote Oceania: The Philippines to the Marianas,” and “First Settlement of Remote Oceania: Earliest Sites in the Mariana Islands.”
According to Carson, the oldest Marianas sites were situated directly on the ancient shorelines of their time.
When people lived at those sites, they had direct access to shellfish and certain fish, as well as turtles, seaweed and other resources, he said.
“We see in the archaeological deposits that people ate birds and probably fruit bats at this early time.”
The people were also engaged in some forms of managing the native forests to harvest their preferred food, including fruits and nuts, as well as varied root-tuber crops, he added.
A few of those plant foods were available naturally in the Marianas before people ever lived here, but many others must have been imported from overseas, Carson said.
He also mentioned the discovery of some small beads used in clothes.
Based on archaeological evidence, he said people in ancient times definitely wore clothing plus several decorative accessories.
“This information is contradictory to some of the historical references that imply no local clothing. I am not sure how the historians or others might interpret this evidence.”
Asked why red, black, white and brown were the prevalent colors, Carson said the colors were those of the available raw materials.
He added that red was usually found in iron-rich minerals which are still evident today in reddish dirt soil.
Black is easily created by burning any plant material and making charcoal while white is the color of calcium carbonate found in shells and coral as well as lime powder for chewing betelnut, Carson said.
Each color has a cultural meaning and association, he added.
Carson said in 1500 BC, the Marianas were the only islands of the remote Pacific where any people lived at all.
“After that, we see the oldest evidence of people living in Palau at about 1100 BC,” he said, adding that the next major population movement occurred a few centuries later at 1000 BC in the islands of southern Melanesia and west Polynesia.
Carson said the atolls of Micronesia did not emerge above sea level high enough to have a fresh water lens until close to AD 100.
Accordingly, he said the oldest archaeological sites there date to around AD 100 when people could have found inhabitable land with a fresh water lens floating above sea level.
Carson said that over time people explored and inhabited more and more of Pacific Oceania.
By 1000 BC, people lived over a much larger region of the Pacific, inhabiting Fiji, Tonga and Samoa.
He said that about AD 100, people expanded through most of Micronesia.
About AD 1000, people expanded farther eastward to live in the islands today known as French Polynesia, Easter Island (Rapa Nui) and the Hawaiian Islands.
During each of those time periods when people came to inhabit a larger portion of Pacific Oceania, Carson said the cultural knowledge of the region grew larger as well.
“It is difficult to pinpoint the specific location of any homeland for any of these population movements, because people were inter-connected over large regions.
“Most likely, the homeland in each case had involved a fairly sizable region with its own unique characteristics yet incorporating a range of diversity as well.”
Asked about the significance of his recent research, findings and study on the culture and arts of ancient island people, Carson said: “If we think of ourselves today as ancestors in training for the future, then we can learn very much from our elders and from the ancient people who lived before us. One day, we all will become elders and eventually become ancestors, but meanwhile we should learn as much as we can from the lessons of archaeology so that we can comprehend how people have coped with challenges over a very long time scale.”