Around 4,000 years ago, humans first made their way to Guam. These intrepid explorers were the Chamorro people, who became Guam’s original inhabitants. Today, the rich Chamorro culture remains a strong influence on Guam. You’ll see it in the warm, welcoming hospitality around the island, the traditional food served on Guam, and the strong family ties among the people you’ll meet.
If you’d like to learn more about the Chamorro people, keep reading to discover some lesser-known tidbits about the people who settled Guam so many thousands of years ago.
Chamorro or CHamoru?
If you’ve done any other reading on the Chamorro people, you may have seen several different spellings of the word “Chamorro,” including “Tsamoru,” “Chamorru,” and “Camuru.” Most recently, the Kumision I Fino’ CHamoru (Chamorro Language Commission) adopted the spelling “CHamoru.” For this article, we’ll use “Chamorro,” which remains the most common spelling of Chamorro (for now).
Fact #1: The Chamorros’ Journey to Guam Was an Extraordinary One
Archaeological evidence suggests that the Chamorro people arrived on Guam about 4,000 years ago, after setting off from Southeast Asia.
To give you some perspective on what else was going on in the world when the Chamorro people traveled almost 2,000 miles over open ocean to reach Guam:
- Stonehenge was being built around that time.
- Trade routes in Mesopotamia were being established, with exchanges documented on cuneiform tablets.
In other words, the Chamorro people made an extraordinary journey—and they did it 2,000 years before anyone else completed such a daring ocean voyage. For comparison, Hawaii was settled around 400 CE, or ~1,600 years ago.
Ultimately, the Chamorro people were truly frontrunners when it came to ocean exploration.
Fact #2: The Chamorro Were Skilled Seagoers Who Traveled via Sailing Canoes
Early European visitors to the Mariana Islands were reportedly amazed at the fast sailboats the Chamorro had built. They came to be known as “flying proas.” Although the Chamorro had at least six different types of boats, the sakman was the largest—and the one most suited for long trips. Its asymmetrical hull and triangular sail allowed the boats to pick up significant speed, and they could carry more than 100 people.
Unfortunately, during the Spanish occupation of Guam, many of these boats were burned. Additionally, the Chamorro boat-building traditions were suppressed. Today, we have drawings and written records to rely on, as well as a few groups who are reviving the ancient traditions. For example, 500 Sails, a non-profit based in Saipan, has used what knowledge and records remain to restore the boat-building tradition of the Chamorro people. The group has already amassed a small fleet, with more under construction.
Fact #3: The Chamorro People Settled All of the Mariana Islands, Not Just Guam
Geographically, Guam is part of the Mariana Island archipelago, along with Saipan, Rota and the 12 other islands that make up the Mariana Island chain. Although many today think of Guam as separate from the rest of the Marianas, that’s a political division that, of course, didn’t exist when the Chamorro arrived. The Chamorro people established settlements across the Marianas, using their canoes to move between islands.
In fact, it wasn’t until the end of the Spanish-American War that these islands were divided politically. The Treaty of Paris only covered the transfer of Guam to U.S. control, among other provisions. However, the rest of the Mariana Islands weren’t mentioned, so they remained under Spanish control until Spain sold them to Germany. The Northern Marianas were eventually passed to U.S. administration at the end of World War II.
Fact #4: The Ancient Chamorro Displayed Two Major Differences from Other Cultures in Oceania
Through examination of archeological evidence on Guam, scholars have noticed two differences that made the Chamorro distinct from other Pacific voyaging cultures:
The Chamorro Didn’t Bring Domesticated Animals
When the ancient Polynesians traveled to Hawaii, they brought along domesticated pigs, dogs, and chickens. However, archaeological evidence suggests that the Chamorros didn’t travel with domesticated animals. In fact, they didn’t seem to bring even one single dog on their voyage.
They Cultivated Rice
Like other cultures in Oceania, the Chamorro cultivated taro, yams, and breadfruit. However, the Chamorro people also grew rice, which wasn’t cultivated anywhere else in Micronesia or Polynesia.
Fact #5: The Ancient Chamorro Stained Their Teeth as a Sign of Beauty
Every culture has its own body modification rituals, and the ancient Chamorro were no exception. While their neighbors in what are now known as the Marshall Islands practiced tattooing, the Chamorro stained their teeth. Some chewed the bright-red betel nut, while others applied a black paste to the tooth’s surface, as documented by Spanish missionaries.
Archaeological evidence also suggests the Chamorro carved designs on their teeth. Skeletons with distinct cross-hatching patterns have been unearthed in the Mariana Islands. Although these rituals didn’t make it into written European accounts, examples can be seen at Hawaii’s Bishop Museum.
Fact #6: Women Held Significant Power in Chamorro Society
The Europeans who arrived in the Marianas were surprised to see that women played a central role women in Chamorro society. Women held the family wealth and land, as well as definitive influence over everyday decisions. Family lines were traced through mothers and grandmothers, rather than fathers and grandfathers. All of this stood in stark contrast to the culture and expectations of the European arrivals.
Fact #7: There’s Still Some Disagreement About the Ancient Chamorro Culture & Traditions
The more research you do on the Chamorro people, the more you’ll realize that there’s still significant debate between scholars concerning many elements of ancient Chamorro society.
One of the reasons for this is that Chamorro language wasn’t written down until visitors arrived from Europe. Additionally, many of traditions were lost during the Spanish occupation of Guam, when the Chamorro language, culture, and practices were violently suppressed by the island’s colonizers.
As a result, a lot of what we know about the ancient Chamorro comes from: 1) archaeological records or 2) accounts from Europeans who documented what they saw on Guam. Obviously, both have their limitations. Anthropologists and other researchers have done their best to piece together a picture of Chamorro society based on the clues left behind, but questions still remain.
Fact #8: Under Spanish Rule, the Population of the Chamorro People Declined Significantly
The strict rule of the Spanish, the battles fought between the Chamorro people and their colonizers, the diseases introduced by arrivals, and emigration to other islands decimated the native Chamorro population. From 1668, when the Spanish established a significant presence on the island, to 1690, the population on Guam dropped from around 12,000 to 1,800. It was a difficult time for the Chamorro people, to say the least.
Fact #9: Inafa’maolek Has Become an Enduring Core Value of the Chamorro Culture
However, despite the many hardships the Chamorro experienced, their culture still lives on today on Guam. One of the core values you’ll see reflected on Guam is the Chamorro concept of inafa’maolek, which finds its origins in the following Chamorro words:
maolek: Good; fine; well.
fa’maolek: Fix; repair; make good.
Although the literal translation of inafa’maolek is “making good,” the broader meaning has to do with restoring harmony, or making good for each other. Others have described it as interdependence, the idea that the members of a community are interconnected and rely on each other for well-being.
On an island like Guam with limited space and resources, inafa’maolek makes all the sense in the world. It’s a blueprint for maintaining balance and harmony within a closed ecosystem. Additionally, it’s just one of the several cultural values that have endured within the Chamorro culture today, all of which offer guidance for building and maintaining a strong community.
Discover More About the Chamorro People
If you’d like to know more about the Chamorro people and their culture, what better way than making a visit to Guam? (Maybe your visit will even turn into a longer stay…!) Come experience the warm hospitality you’ll find on Guam, learn more about Chamorro history, and enjoy the rich cultural traditions of the original inhabitants on Guam. Immersing yourself in the deep-rooted and abiding aspects of the Chamorro culture is one of the best ways to truly understand what it’s all about.
And if you’re planning on making your stay in Guam permanent, we’d be happy to help you make the move! Our Tamuning-based team can get you started with a complimentary quote—and answer any questions about their experiences living on Guam.
Tell us about your move!