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  • By Raquel Bagnol

Clues to past: How the ancient Chamoru people ‘recycled’ human bones

The ancient Chamoru used human bones as tools and weapons. Photo courtesy of Guampedia

A five-paragraph preliminary report by the Guam Historic Preservation Office on 12 ancient burials discovered at the construction site in Marine Corps Base Camp Blaz offered clues about the intriguing traditions and complex burial practices of the ancient Chamoru people. A study of some skulls, for example, indicated probable use of the teeth as tools.

“Skulls of three individuals are removed, and one individual is a secondary bundle burial of both skull and appendicular skeleton. Two burials contained two individuals each: an adult cradling a child; and two older adults stacked head to foot,” states the preliminary report.

Overall, the SHPO said, results of the examination into the ancient remains appeared consistent with previous historical accounts of allowing remains to decompose and then storing skulls in the home, as well as partial cremation. “It’s not clear why so many different practices are going on at once though; maybe they represent different periods or different treatments for individuals with different statuses,” SHPO said.

While the SHPO has yet to release the final report, existing archeological studies provide pointers about prehistoric mortuary rituals and other cultural practices, such as the “recycling” of human bones, which were used as tools and weapons.

In a 1988 article, D.B. Hanson wrote that a corpse was either left on the ground to decompose to make the bones easier to pluck, or buried and then dug out at a later date. The recovered bones were then used to fashion fishhooks and spear points.

These practices, among others, were observed in the succeeding archeological discoveries on Guam, such as the 152 skeletal sets from the latte period (AD 1000-1521) found in 1990 in the Apurguan site in Tamuning, where a waterfront project was being developed. The excavation was done by the International Archaeological Research Institute Inc. (IARII) of Honolulu.

According to a November 1997 report published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, the osteological analysis was conducted at the IARII laboratory from 1990 to 1991. The skeletal samples were later returned to Guam and reburied close to where they were originally found.

The report titled "Skeletal Biology of Apurguan: A Precontact Chamorro Site on Guam" was authored by Rona Ikehara-Quebral IARRI, Michele Toomay Douglas and Michael Pietrusewsky both of the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.

The authors said it was difficult to determine the cause and method of death, but inferences were made from at least two burials. A female buried with a newborn infant suggested that both may have died from childbirth complications. A young adult male may have died from multiple spear wounds as gleaned from 10 human bone spear points, indicating a ritualized slaying or execution.

According to Guampedia, the long bones were fashioned into effective weapons by creating a sharp tip, and then adding a double or triple row of barb-like teeth, so that the spear tip would enter the body easily but be difficult to extract or break off leaving a barb inside the victim’s flesh. “Some of the best examples of human bone spear tips have been retrieved from excavations in Saipan,” according to Guampedia. “Usually, it was the long bones of enemy corpses that were used to make spear points and other tools, so great care was taken to bury loved ones near their homes in order to prevent rivals from retrieving their skeletal remains.

In the report related to the Apurguan excavations, the authors noted that skeletons of pigs and dogs were used for ceremonial, decorative and functional purposes such as dogtooth bracelets, boar tusk bracelets, awls and small bone tools. “Because the prehistoric populations of the Mariana Islands showed a lack of those mammals, the inhabitants needed to use human bones,” the report said.

It was also observed that although many of the burials had been disturbed for cultural purposes, the skeletal remains were generally fair incompleteness and preservation.

The skeletal remains were those of 51 children (including five fetuses) and 101 adults-53 males and 43 females. The sexes of five of the adults could not be determined.


Among the highlights of the report:

· Healed fractures were common in the skeletal remains, including different parts of the body like the skull, rib and forearm and cracks in the vertebrae.

· Females lived longer than males. Fewer adult males reached the age of 50, presumably because they were more exposed to risky activities like warfare and accident. Deaths among children mostly occurred between the ages of two and nine.

· The skeletal remains showed remarkably good oral and dental health, believed to be influenced by the practice of betel-nut chewing as well as the minimal standard of living. In some skeletons, a possible alteration had been observed in the teeth. In one adult male, all four incisors were lost, but there was no other tooth loss in the dentition. The tooth loss patterns showed that the incisors of both jaws were deliberately removed, a cultural practice documented in Hawaiian skeletal remains.

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