Ancient Chamorro Horticulture

For most people on Guam today, getting something to eat is as easy as a trip to the grocery store or your favorite restaurant. This is different from a century or even a few decades ago, when many families on Guam had their own ranches where they grew vegetables or fruit, or raised animals for their families to eat.

Because very few of us actually grow our own food, it is easy to take for granted the abundance of food around us. Most people don’t know how food actually gets from farms to food processing places, and finally, to the local grocery store and the dinner table. But actually, food collecting is one of the most important activities in order for a population to survive. Food nourishes us—without food we cannot perform other functions of life. Additionally, the kinds of food available often depend on the environment and climate, which, in turn, can affect population size and social complexity—like the type of economy or political system a society has. Some foods are also given social, political or cultural meanings, and become important parts of traditions and customs. Can you imagine Thanksgiving without turkey, or a village fiesta without hineksa’ aga’ga’ (red rice)? We can learn a lot about a culture not only by the foods people eat, or by what occasions they use certain food items, but also by the way people collect, prepare or process, and even store food.

Archeologists are interested in how people of the past collected and used food. The earliest inhabitants of the Mariana Islands probably lived in small populations along the coastlines where they could easily gather food resources from the lagoons and reefs, or sail into open water for larger fish. Plants, such as seeded breadfruit and coconut, were also abundant and easily obtainable. Eventually, these islanders were able to cultivate food items that were not only native to the Marianas but other plants they brought with them from their ancient homelands in Southeast Asia, including seedless breadfruit, taro, bananas, sugar cane and rice. This shift from food collectors to food producers reflect other lifestyle changes for the ancient Chamorros.

Anthropologists describe three food production systems among different societies—horticulture, intensive agriculture and pastoralism. Of the three, horticulture probably best describes ancient Chamorro society. Horticulture involves the growing of food plants and other crops using relatively simple tools and methods. This is different from intensive agriculture, which may involve making large changes in the natural landscape to accommodate fields for crops and the use of more complex irrigation systems or tools. Archeologists use evidence from excavations, radiocarbon dating and other records to paint a picture of how ancient people acquired and processed the foods they relied on for life.