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An insight into health and death of ancient settlers of Marianas

By Raquel Bagnol

We have always wondered about humanity's ancient past and such curiosity is the driving force for historians and archaeologists. How did our ancestors live? How did their lifestyles affect their health? What types of illnesses befell them?

Turns out, our ancestors suffered from certain bone diseases and dental conditions that contemporary science and medicine are now familiar with.

The health profiles of prehistoric inhabitants of the Marianas region were summed up in a 2016 report titled "Sex and Geographic Differences in the Health of the Early Inhabitants of the Mariana Islands" published in various journals.

The report was based on examinations of 333 skeletons from the latte period (A.D.900-1700), which were collected from 21 sites in Guam, Rota, Saipan and Tinian in a span of over three decades.

While the report did not touch on the ancient method of curing diseases, the study revealed the premature deaths of most early settlers. Only 9 adults died of old age.

The early settlers of Tinian and Saipan were less healthy than those living on Rota and Guam due to different qualities of their drinking water.

The study showed that larger settlements on Tinian and Saipan during the prehistoric period relied mainly on brackish well water, which was exposed to pollution from seawater, human and animal wastes. Although the degree of pollution was unknown, the water contamination impacted the health of inhabitants on these two islands.

The prehistoric inhabitants of Rota, in contrast, enjoyed the best source of drinking water from its many water caves. Guam, too, had comparatively good sources of drinking water from its flowing rivers and water caves, and it has a larger landmass for water catchment.

Besides the quality of water, other factors likely to have affected the health of the prehistoric inhabitants include microclimates, differential access to resources, vulnerability to natural disasters, climate change, social and linear networks and cultural practices.

The report was written by Michael Pietrusewsky, Professor Emeritus at the Department of Anthropology, University of Hawai‘I, and co-authored by Michele Toomay Douglas, Marilyn K. Swift, Randy A. Harper and Michael A. Fleming.

Pietrusewsky and his team studied several aspects of the skeletons including the dental structures, stature, limb bone fractures, spondylolysis infection, as well as dental modification and pathology.

Combined results from Guam, Rota, Saipan and Tinian showed that males had higher levels of cribra orbitalia, which refers to either active or healing lesions localized in the skull base, limb bone fractures, and spondylolysis (stress fracture of the lower back related to repeated stress to the lower lumbar vertebra under stressful conditions).

Females had more treponemal infections (endemic syphilis). There were little differences between the males and females in the four islands for the risk of anemia, infection or injury.

Betel-nut chewing affected the dental conditions of the prehistoric inhabitants of the Mariana Islands.

On Guam, childhood stress and infections were more common in males than females.

Results of the Rota study were similar to Guam. Fractures were more common in males and treponemal infection was more common in females. Males had more dental caries than females due to extensive betel chewing.

On Tinian, the only significant difference between males and females was the linear enamel hypoplasia (LEH), a disruption of enamel development on the grooves of the crown surfaces of the teeth during infancy and early childhood. LEH was 10 times greater in females than males, indicating that more females were chewing betel nut on Tinian.

On Saipan, males had a higher prevalence of LEH than females. Dental indicators on Saipan showed greater betel staining in female teeth than males, consistent with betel quid chewing.

The frequencies of LEH which are higher on Tinian females and Saipan males showed child stress indicators.


Human occupation in the Mariana Islands began approximately 3500 B.P. The population was concentrated in the coastal areas during the pre-latte period (1500 B.C.-A.D. 400).

As the population started to grow over time, the early inhabitants faced several geographical and environmental challenges such as small landmasses, remoteness, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, typhoons, fringing reefs, and sea-level fluctuations.

Pre-contact Chamorro survived on subsistence economies by cultivating tree and root crops including coconut, banana, yam, taro, rice -foods high in carbohydrates. They also hunted birds, crabs, and turtles and supplemented their economy with marine resources like fish and shellfish.

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