Review by Bruce Campbell Micronesian Educator January 1 1997
Lawrence J. Cunninghams textbook Ancient Chamorro Society and his accompanying Ancient Chamorro Society Activity Book are reflective of a 1960s approach of Pacific scholarship that aims at reconstructing with little critical reading of historic and archaeological evidence an essentialized version of ancient island society. For the first time pre-contact information of the archipelago has been gathered and presented by the author from numerous regional lay and academic experts to offer a concrete definition of understanding pre-contact Mariana Islands material culture and technology for island high school students. It is in this direction that sets the book apart form earlier offerings which merely touch upon the complexities of Pacific Neolithic lifestyles. Although Ancient Chamorro Society is designed primarily as a high school text given the paucity of comprehensive insights into the ancient Chamorros it is more than aptly suited for University-level Pacific studies.
Painting a realistic picture of pre-contact Chamorro society is an arduous challenge for any Pacific scholar but certainly possible given todays upgraded scientific analyses and desires for cultural renaissance. One of the major problems confronting an understanding of regional ancient history was its oral account in the case of the Chamorros the author states Most of it has been forgotten over the years. Despite the handicap of a harsh 400-year European colonial legacy which ultimately transformed a people a way of life and a sense of history the author has offered a plausible foundation that could prove given further analytic study worthwhile for future generations.
In typical ethnographic fashion the book is divided into 16 themes addressing such issues as architecture beliefs attitudes and values myths and legends customs and festivities and other aspects of any given Neolithic society one could envision. If should be noted that the categories are by no means exhaustive and further scientific analyses will continue to augment this study in the coming years. What struck me immediately about the authors arrangement was its user-friendly approach: Each chapter is a high school educators delight complete with emboldened words concise definitions excellent illustrations and lucid yet debatable arguments for the culturally uninitiated. The use of the Chamorro language is extensive lending an appropriate sense of authenticity and sensitivity to an often controversial subject.
The issue of sensitivity is witnessed in the chapter pertaining to artifacts and the extraction of artifacts for further study. We owe it to the ancient Chamorros and ourselves to let the past be examined by trained archaeologists. It is a violation of present law to disturb ancient artifacts. It is also a violation of traditional customs to disturb these artifacts p. 58. One may wonder today exactly how much violation of present and traditional customs has occurred over the years due to the tremendous development in the military and tourism industries.
The understanding of various stone pottery bone and shell artifacts vis-ê-vis settlement pattern and population estimates suggests the Mariana Islands were settled 30 centuries before the arrival of the first Europeans in 1521 p. 60 A map by noted Pacific archaeologist Hiro Kurashina pinpoints human settlements throughout coastal Guam based on excavations and radiocarbon dating and supports Cunninghams assertion that the population base during the Latte Period hovered between 24000 and 40000 for the entire archipelago. However since Kurashinas map focuses solely on Guam the perception of an archipelago-wide settlement is muted and left unclear to the reader. These population figures will undoubtedly be challenged as further archaeological studies continue to probe the depths if the islands soils.
Although the Ancient Chamorro population may be surprisingly smaller than originally presumed by scholars it is not to say that there was a lack of cultural richness and complexity the customs beliefs and attitudes were as intricate and well-developed as any insular Pacific society. Of particular interest is what the author describes as Chamorros core value: Inafamaolek or interdependence within the kinship group is the key or central value in Chamorro culture p.86. Cunningham states that inafamaolek within the family is based on mutualism rather than western individualism. To illustrate the Chamorro value system inafamaolek permeated all levels of society operating on the basis of chenchule -reciprocity- ayuda -help- emmok -revenge- mamahlao -deference- and gupot -celebration- in seeking general harmony within the family or village.
The author further elaborates on the notion of interdependence as it related to nature and the natural order. Humanity and nature were intertwined ? they valued harmony. So they felt it was wrong to exploit nature p.94. Cultural presuppositions today often portray ancient Neolithic people living in tranquility without conflict and disease and being progressive without disturbing the natural order. Nothing could be further from the truth diseases existed conflict was rampant. Yet the author suggests nature natural order and mans place in that natural order were interwoven with the ancient religious structure. Developed without outside influence ancestor worship animism taotaomona -ancestral spirits- and the makahna who communicated with these spirits proffer a deep-rooted and defined religious structure that existed throughout the archipelago. If the perceptions of a paradisial natural order are combined with the mythological creationist forces of Puntan - the omnipotent ancestor -or god as numerous anthropologists have made reference- who created the universe upon his death and Chaife an evil ancestor who created would - a highly ethnocentric sense of singularity within the natural order is intimated.
The variety of inter- and extra-Micronesian trade discussed in the final chapter may counter the proposed ideas of discussed religious practice and mythical beliefs. Knowledge of other islands and areas within the western Pacific may have created pan-Micronesian creationist and philosophic motifs rather than singular ethnocentric developments. Unfortunately there is no proof cited to support the ancient Chamorros philosophical and religious belief systems.
It is known through 16th and 17th century historical records that Chamorros were able to explore and interact with other people of the western Pacific and Southeast Asia due to extensive navigation skills sleek canoe designs or perhaps accidental voyages due to severe typhoons. Cunningham suggests intra-island trade was limited. On the other hand Micronesia trade was extensive and consisted of lavalavas -fine textile skirts woven from banana stalk fibers- pandanus mats shells of various types coconut oil coconut fiber rope and wooden boxes -probably tackle boxes that float p. 195. An unusual reference is considered under the subsection Extra-Micronesian Trade: Metal was known in the Mariana Islands before the coming of the Spanish. This suggest some contact with the outside world if not regular trade.
The authors apparent strength lies in the discussion of the ancient social structure. In 1984 Cunningham published Ancient Chamorro Kinship Organization a standard-bearer for Marianas Anthropology and History students. Delving into this highly enigmatic social structure visions of rigid three-tiered caste-like hierarchy arise. The focus of the authors analysis is to classify Chamorro kinship organization as one of matrilineage and as avunculocal in its pattern of residence. A matrilineage exits when decent is passed only to individuals related to a common ancestress avunculocal rules of residence exist when bride and groom reside on or in the vicinity of the grooms mothers brothers land. Both form a compatible kinship organization: Cunningham stresses the role and influence of women in social political and economic realms while the importance of men can be witnessed in avunculocal residence patterns.
Cunningham present compelling arguments about matrilineage and avunculocal patterns of residence within the context of presented evidence however archaeological evidence is weak at best. Kurashina who examined the gun Beach site now located in the heart of the islands tourism sector cites archaeological evidence to bolter a matrilocal rather than an avunculocal residence pattern. Notwithstanding these distinct and different schools of thought the mystique of ancient Chamorro lifestyles remains intact.
Accompanying the Ancient Chamorro Society but sold separately is a student workbook - Ancient Chamorro Society Activity Book - designed to enhance the students concept learning critical thinking and retention skills. A 25-year veteran of Guams education department and now a research associate at the University of Guams Richard Flores Taitano Micronesian Area Research Center Cunningham applies innovative learning techniques in the ninth-grade reading level text and activity book that were acquired in part from the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory in Portland Oregon and Native American reading program concepts. Challenging crossword puzzles descriptive illustrations and thought-provoking essay questions dovetail with conceptual arguments found in the textbook. Educators may be interested in the answer key sold separately as well.
Ancient Chamorro Society is an important work detailing the finer yet debatable points of Marianas society. The book is written for the high school student but given the lack of resources currently available about this aspect of Pacific island culture it may be well-suited for the university student. Readers will also be impressed with the extensive use of the Chamorro language verified by noted Chamorro scholars Bernadita Camacho-Dungca Rosa Salas Palomo Clothide Goulde and Robert Underwood Guams congressman to the U.S. House of Representatives.
In spite of a number of selected content criticisms found in Ancient Chamorro Society which also includes the high $39.95 cost and the fact that students and teachers can only order through Bess Press in Hawaii the book does offer a forum for healthy debate that advances our understanding of a time and place shrouded in mystery. It also serves as a precedent for other Pacific islands to investigate and compile their pre-contact historical understanding. Look for the second edition of Ancient Chamorro Society sometime during the turn of the century.