A Chamorro odyssey
The ancient Chamorros may have undertaken the longest trans-oceanic migration of their time as more artifacts are now turning up, lending credence to this theory.
Archaeologists Dr. Mike T. Carson and Dr. Hsiao-chun Hung are back on Saipan exploring further an ancient archaeological site in Laulau called Unai Bapot, where years ago they uncovered a 3,500-year-old early Chamorro settlement replete with artifacts that point to a possibility that the early Chamorros may have migrated from southeast Asia, perhaps the Philippines or Taiwan.
Based on the pottery trail and the uncanny similarities in designs of the pottery, it may be possible that the early Chamorros may have embarked on an ocean crossing of more than 1,242 miles. The Chamorros were the first group to have inhabited the Micronesian region and were the first to have settled in the area hundreds of years before there were settlers in the Lapita region, Yap, Palau, or in other remote islands in Oceania. Although they have yet to complete their work and to finalize their analyses of the data, Carson, an associate professor in the University of Guam, offers an overview of their latest work on Saipan.
“We expect to be ready to share all of the detailed results with the public around April 2017. Between now and then, we are working closely with the CNMI Historic Preservation Office (HPO) for studying the materials. We provide periodic updates for HPO at least once per month, sometimes more frequently if we have more information available,” says Carson.
So far, Carson is pleased with the progress of their work at “unai bapot,” describing their 2016 excavation as “successful in documenting several layers of cultural occupation at the Bapot site, at the north end of Laulau Bay on the east coast of Saipan.” Carson says their 2016 project concentrated on a specific location, where they expected to find the central part of the 3,500-year-old habitation along the ancient seashore.
Carson’s prior work in 2005 had shown definite indications that people lived on an ancient beach in this vicinity about 3500 years ago or possibly earlier. But the test excavations were limited. “One limitation was the sizes of those 2005 excavations, which are not quite large enough to discern the full details in the deeply buried layers— 1.5 to 2.2 meters deep,” Carson said. “Another limitation was the exploratory nature of the 2005 work, at that time still needing to test the area for where precisely to search for the most intact ancient layers beneath the ground.”
He added: “We can be more confident about where precisely to excavate for opening a window into the 3,500-year-old shoreline. We targeted a location that currently is 120 meters from today's shoreline and buried 1.5 to 2.2 meters deep, but in fact it was within a few footsteps of the ancient beach surface 3,500 years ago. Based on our other research since 2005, we now have a much clearer understanding of the ancient seashore environment and we can use this knowledge toward targeting the most intact ancient site layers. Those ancient layers, of course, are deeply buried and completely unrelated to anything that we can see on the surface today, but we were able to
calculate where to search according to the ancient sea level elevation in conjunction with the depth of the 2005 excavations. This strategy proved successful in the 2016 excavation, where we uncovered a very densely occupied ancient seashore layer.”
2005 archaeological dig In 2005, Carson explored a potentially old site on Saipan at “unai bapot.” Standing on the shoulders of giants, by looking at the findings made by previous archaeologists, Carson sought to clarify the archaeological layers, their dates and contexts in 2005.
“I had excavated there back in 2005, as part of an effort with HPO to nominate the site in the U.S. national register of historic places. Based on those 2005 findings, plus prior reports from the 1970s and 1980s, Hsiao-chun hung and I proposed a new excavation in a slightly different portion of the site,” Carson said.
The multiple cultural layers that Carson found indicated a continuous habitation of the Bapot site for 3,000 years, with human colonization happening in the years 1600 through 1420 B.C. for three millennia of settlement at unai bapot. The site was only deserted after 1670 AD. It turns out Carson and the team has struck gold at unai bapot which revealed around 10,000 shards of pottery, an assemblage comprising “every major type in the known prehistoric ceramic sequence for the Mariana Islands in stratigraphic order.” In an article published in the Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology in 2007, Carson noted that “some of the early Marianas pottery vessel forms, design techniques, and decorative motifs are comparable to those of ceramics in the Philippines dated between about 2000 and 1000 BC and of lapita pottery in Melanesia and West Polynesia dated about 1500–600 BC. Of particular interest are redware and blackware vessels, some of which are decorated with lime-filled patterns of dentate stamping or incisions. Superficial comparisons suggest a shared ancestry or contact network for populations that
dispersed into near and remote Oceania, apparently around 1500–1000 BC.”
A decade later, Carson and the team acquired new information and fresh perspectives about the oldest archaeological sites of the Mariana Islands. “For instance, Hsiao-chun Hung and I excavated a large area of more than 90 square meters near the House of Taga site in Tinian, where we were able to define in great detail the oldest forms and styles of pottery and other artifacts of the first time when any people lived in the region about 3500 years ago,” Carson said.
Carson’s research at Ritidian on Guam clarifies the natural environmental setting of the first settlement period. “It was very different in so many ways from today's conditions, plus the Ritidian site provided a rare glimpse into the most ancient use of different kinds of settings of the former seashore, nearshore resource zones, and ritual cave areas.”
He added that they have gained more confidence in the radiocarbon dating of the first cultural presence in the Marianas, pegging the date at 3,500 years ago or slightly earlier than that.
“This conclusion is based on the dating at several sites, including the Bapot site in Saipan, house of Taga in Tinian, Ritidian in Guam, and others. Additionally, enough exploration now has been accomplished through the Marianas archipelago to strengthen our view of the large picture, and we can be very confident that indeed we have found the archaeological layers of first human presence in these islands.”
He added that concurrent with the ongoing research in the Marianas is the progress that Dr. Hung and her team have made in their research about ancient sites in the Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan, coastal China and other areas with potential relation to the early settlements in the Marianas 3,500 years ago.
“In this large scale cross-regional view, the first Chamorro settlement in
the Marianas 3500 years ago can be linked with a slightly older archaeological horizon in southeast Asia. Furthermore, this can be linked back to the eastern coast of Taiwan about 4200 to 4000 years ago. Bringing the available information together, we noticed that the Bapot site in Saipan had produced dating that could be interpreted as slightly older than 1500 BC and we wanted to pursue this possibility with a new excavation and updated techniques. Also, compared to our work at House of Taga and at Ritidian, the 2005 excavation at Bapot was rather small in size and therefore constrained in what we could interpret about its material contents,” Carson said.
Returning to Unai Bapot recently, Carson and Hung are zeroing in on a location that would lead them to the 3,500-year-old habitation in an ancient seashore.
In this latest work, Carson and Hung are also joined by Dr. Henghua Deng who is an expert in identifying ancient plant remains under the microscope. Dr. Deng, according to Carson, flew directly from Beijing to Saipan, to participate in the excavation and recovery of soil samples for microscopic analysis.
“My prior work had shown definitely that people lived on an ancient beach in this vicinity about 3500 years ago or possibly earlier. But my 2005 test excavations were limited. One limitation was the size of those 2005 excavations, which were rather small and not quite large enough to discern the full details in the deeply buried layers, about 1.5 to 2.2 meters deep. Another limitation was the exploratory nature of the 2005 work. At that time, we still needed to test the area for where precisely to search for the most intact ancient layers beneath the ground,” Carson said.
The members of the team are more confident now in looking for the precise location where to trace the ancient shoreline.
Along with staffers from the CNMI’s Historic Preservation Office, Carson and Hung uncovered nine different cultural layers which they
described as “successively older with depth beneath the present surface and each deeper layer containing different forms and styles of artifacts, food remains, and remnants of habitation features.”
While on Saipan, Carson and Hung are working collaboratively with the CNMI HPO and the Northern Marianas Humanities Council as part of the 2016 research. “The staff members actually are quite experienced in archaeological field operations, but the 2016 project at Bapot offered a unique new opportunity of a deep excavation with multiple layers representing the full scope of Chamorro cultural history and archaeology,” Carson said. “The HPO staff gained first-hand experience of uncovering multiple successive layers in a controlled archaeological excavation. We will continue to work with the HPO staff for the next few months to analyze the materials recovered from the excavation.”
According to Carson, the artifacts mostly consisted of broken pottery, while other items included stone and shell tools such as slicing tools, as well as diverse shell ornaments like beads, pendants, and other objects. “The pottery was the most abundant material and it very clearly changed in form and style through time. For each time period, we can see that people made different types of pottery, and currently we are working on the details of precisely what the pottery looked like within each time period. Additionally, we noticed that some of the stone tools and the shell ornaments changed in their appearance through time, and we can clarify the types that belonged to each time period,” Carson said.
The two archaeologists have yet to complete their project and are still going through analysis of the data that they have gathered. But Carson said they will continue to update the media and the community on whatever new artifacts and data they unearth.
“We will continue with the information-sharing events after we can compile more new information, especially after we complete the analysis of the 2016 excavation materials,” Carson promised.