Ritidian (Guam) : 3,500 years of Chamorro history

Alexie Zotomayor

Source - http://www.postguam.com/news/local/years-of-chamorro-history/article_182892b8-fe48-11e5-8486-bfcd0378234d.html

5708ebb4f3d23 image

Dr. Mike Carson stands among the rock art in one the caves in Ritidian – Laura Beauregard / USFWS

It’s like an ancient fossil entombed in amber. For thousands of years, Ritidian has endured the ravages of time and the elements and has preserved clues to what the ancient Chamorro settlements were like.

Archaeologists who stumbled upon this site years ago not only unearthed remnants of an ancient Chamorro village. Dr. Mike T. Carson and his team of archaeologists and anthropologists saw an unbroken record of natural and cultural history, depicting how the ancient Chamorros interacted with their environment and how such interaction evolved over time.

Ritidian is more than the ancient site it shelters. It is also home to endangered species which Ritidian — a sanctuary under the U.S. Fish & Wildlife — protects them from galloping fast into oblivion. The site is rich in scientific data that tell the story of how the remote Mariana islands evolved over the last 3,500 years. The scientific evidence spans from at least 1500 BC through AD 1700.

All these and more will be part of the book that will soon be made available so more people will get to understand the importance of Ritidian to Guam’s and Marianas’ history.

Ritidian has provided invaluable information about the Chamorro past, cultural heritage and development of a unique landscape system,” said Dr. Mike T. Carson, associate professor of archaeology with the University of Guam, who has been working at the site since 2005. “Every part of Chamorro cultural history, from the very first time people ever lived in the islands through the end of the Spanish-Chamorro wars, is preserved in the archaeological sites of the Ritidian area. Several other historical developments of course occurred here with impacts on present-day life and issues.”

Carson has written about his findings at the site of Ritidian in several academic and professional journals where he touted the abundant scientific data relating to the evolution of Ritidian’s natural-cultural system.

Ritidian is one of the earliest human settlements in the remote Pacific islands and preponderance of evidence lends credence to a transoceanic migration theory— the longest ocean-crossing by any group of people during their time 3,500 years ago. Before knowing about the early dating of Ritidian and other sites in the Marianas, some archaeologists concluded that the first remote-distance settlement was in Melanesia and Polynesia about 2,800 to 3,000 years ago.

Findings at Ritidian and other sites now disclose an earlier and longer distance ocean-crossing than previously was documented in Pacific archaeology,” Carson wrote in an article published in the Journal of Cultural Heritage Management and Sustainable Development in 2014.

Evidence of human settlement in the Marianas proved that the early settlers may have achieved the “longest ocean-crossing in human history of its time in excess of 2,300 km”

They first found artifacts buried deep below the ground, in areas that had been ancient shorelines more than 3000 years ago, noting that the first colonists may have lived at these shorelines, in stilt-raised houses near shallow waters. Pottery style and forms, Carson said , links to Southeast Asia while pieces of decorative shells show links to eastern Taiwan. These overseas links would change over time while the Marianas managed to maintain its unique culture and identity, he added.

The oldest archaeological sites at Ritidian include a small habitation area, originally on the ancient shoreline that now looks completely different due to a change in sea level and the accumulation of thick and broad layers of sand over the site. “When people were living in this ancient shoreline setting about 1500 BC, they left behind clues about their lives in the forms of broken pottery, stone and shell tools, and their food refuse,” Carson said.

He said the first colonists of the site accessed at least two of the nearby cave areas, perhaps for the sources of fresh water dripping from the cave ceilings or found inside water pools. “In later site layers, the archaeological evidence shows how people adjusted to the changing sea level and coastal ecology,” Carson said. “People needed to harvest different kinds of shellfish that were being affected by the transforming conditions, and they developed new styles and techniques of making their houses, pottery, and other aspects of their material culture expression that we find in the archaeological layers.”

Lascaux and Altamira may be two of the world’s famous caves known for ancient wall art but dwellers in ancient Ritidian too have their own artistic expressions immortalized on the walls of the caves. Carson said several caves at Ritidian have rock art with different colors and motifs. “We cannot specify the dating of particular art images because we do not have a good method for dating while keeping the rock art intact and unharmed,” Carson said. “The most reliable dating requires a small sample of the pigment. Although it would be minimal and probably not even visible, the idea of a destructive analysis is being avoided for now.”

Ritidian is only one of several other sites in the Marianas chain of islands that contain rock art, Carson said. Elsewhere in the Marianas, cave art or petroglyphs were found in Kalabera Cave on Saipan, at Unai Dangkulu on Tinian, Liyang Chugal on Rota, and Liyang Gadao on Guam, which were identified in a separate study by Genevieve Cabrera and Herman Tudela.

In Kalabera alone, anthropomorphic images ranging in height from 5-10 inches are predominant and with some images denoting the distinguishing anatomical feature for males. Many of these images too are headless.

The fact that the majority of the pictographs are rendered headless and the fact that skulls were still present in the cave from the Spanish Period through the 1920s are strong indications that Kalabera Cave was a probable burial site for the ancient Chamorros and one that perhaps included the ritual painting of pictographs and the carving of petroglyphs as part of the overall cultural emphasis on ancestor worship.” Cabrera and Tudela wrote in the Micronesian Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Archaeological findings in Ritidian indicate that caves are special places for ancient ceremonies and rituals. “The hard evidence has been lacking until now, so now we can begin to think more clearly on the actual dated material facts,” Carson said.

The rock art, he added, is “especially informative for the concentration of a number of caves within one place, with different kinds of rock art portraying a diverse range of colors, motifs, and probably time periods as well.”

On dating the cave art, Carson said without direct dating of the rock art, archaeologists can examine the associated cultural layers inside and outside the caves. “In most cases, those archaeological layers are dated within the last 1,000 years, and it is rare to find anything older than that near caves. Over the last few decades, archaeologists have been aware of cultural artifacts and layers at caves dating as early as 500 B.C., but it was very curious that nothing of the oldest settlement period around 1500 B.C. had yet been discovered,” Carson said.

Beneath the sheltered area outside two of the caves at Ritidian , archaeologists found layers and artifacts dating back at least as early as 1500 B.C. “This dating is equal with the first cultural presence at the site and in fact in the Mariana islands overall. In other words, we can view the Ritidian site as one of the places where people had lived at 1500 B.C., as part of the larger picture of initial cultural settlement in the Marianas,” he added.

Near the caves, people lived in a residential habitation at the ancient shoreline of 1500 B.C., and these people may have accessed the two nearby caves for “special kinds of activities at this ancient time.”

At a recent public forum organized by the Northern Marianas Humanities Council on Saipan, Carson said the use of the two caves centered on specific kinds of activities “that we do not yet understand precisely.”

By comparing the habitation site with the caves at Ritidian, the archaeological materials look significantly different from one another,” Carson said. “The shoreline-oriented habitation site contained dense amounts of shellfish food debris different from those consumed at the nearby habitation, and the pottery and other artifacts included extremely rare and finely made products that suggest special events or associations with rare kinds of activities different from the daily life at the habitation area.”

Archaeologists, however, have yet to establish the nature of ceremonies or rituals the ancient settlers were performing. “The rare forms of decorated pottery, shell ornaments, and other artifacts can be recognized as rare kinds of objects that had been dedicated for specific purposes, and we can develop various ideas of what those purposes might have been,” Carson said.

Dr. Carson has been working on the western side of the Guam National Wildlife Refuge since 2005 where the public access to the site is not as restricted compared to that of the eastern site owing to the natural habitat studies by the USFWS. In November 2014, it was on this east side of the refuge where Dr. Carson and USFWS employee Brian Leon Guerrero found an ancient latte site that remains intact.

USFWS is working on how to manage access in a responsible and respectful manner,” Carson said. “Along with maintaining Chamorro traditions and beliefs about these ancient places, USFWS is obligated to follow several serious US government laws about protecting archaeological sites. Many sites have been destroyed during World War II or during urban developments, and many others are inaccessible in private properties or in sensitive U.S. military bases.”

When walking through the ruins of the latte village today, we can see the individual personalities and expressions of how each latte house was constructed, and we can see the overall patterns and connections of the multiple components of the latte village system. Furthermore, we can appreciate how the people who made this village had inherited countless generations of cultural knowledge and investment in this place at Ritidian.”

From these archaeological treasures, Carson said, the modern world “can learn about how people in the past have adapted in some ways successfully but in other was unsuccessfully when they faced challenges of changing climate and sea level, natural habitat impacts, population growth and density, and various social and political conflicts. We can learn about how best to manage our current and future challenges, and we can incorporate the lessons from Chamorro ancestors into modern life.”