Making use of available resources

Archeologists learn about societies and cultures of the past by looking at the objects or artifacts that people left behind.  Some of the most useful artifacts to study are tools.  A tool is an object or implement that is taken from the environment and modified to perform a new function.  With this simple definition, tools can be almost anything, such as sticks, rocks or shells.  But tool manufacture and use by humans is more complicated.  In fact, the ability to make and use various tools is often cited as a key feature of humanity.

Tools can tell us a lot about culture and the people who made and used them.  By studying tools we can see how people utilized the resources in their surrounding environments.  We can appreciate the technology and skill applied to make and use tools, as well as the kinds of tasks the tools were designed to help carry out.  The ancient CHamorus had a number of tools they used to adapt and survive in tropical islands. What do these tools teach us about ancient CHamoru culture and society?

Identifying tools from the past

Archeologists excavate through layers of soil and other deposits to look for artifacts.  But, how can an archeologist know something was used as a tool, and is not simply a rock or shell lying in the dirt?  Sometimes, artifacts are obviously manmade—such as pottery or sculptures—or there is other evidence of modification by human hands.  It is not always easy, but archeologists are trained to look for identifying marks or other clues to indicate that something might be a tool.

For example, ancient tools often are of the size and shape that are easy to hold and operate with a single hand. Stone tools generally will have evidence of retouching, where one of the surfaces of the rock has been shaped or sharpened. Shells may have holes or grooves where fiber cords would have been attached, or sharpened edges for cutting and scraping.  Evidence of wear that does not resemble what would occur if only natural forces had acted on a stone is also important for assessing whether an object was modified or used as a tool.

This training is not foolproof and mistakes are made, but for the kinds of tools found among archeological assemblages in the Mariana Islands there are some features to look for, including the kind of materials used to make the tools, the shape of the tools, and their placement in the overall context of the excavation site.  There are also historic accounts that archeologists may refer to that describe tools used by the CHamorus at the time Europeans first traveled to these islands.  Sometimes comparing tools used in other cultures—both ancient and contemporary—is helpful for painting a picture of ancient CHamoru tools and tool use.

Archeology of Ancient CHamoru tools

Like other Pacific Island cultures, ancient CHamorus used a variety of tools made of stone, shell, bone, wood and other plant materials.  Because of the tropical climate and environmental conditions of the Marianas, however, plant and wood tools have not been preserved well.  Nevertheless, archeologists have been able to recover numerous shell, bone and stone tools used by the ancient inhabitants of these islands. Close examination of ancient CHamoru tools show some similarity in form and function to certain modern hand tools.

Most of the recovered tools are from sites associated with the Latte Era (about 1000 to 250 years ago).  This may be because of the rarity of Pre-Latte Era excavations or other undetermined factors. Archeologists have also seen an increased diversity of tools and raw materials for tool-making during the Latte Era, which could reflect changing lifestyles and movement between coastal settlements and more inland residences. It could also indicate networks of trade between islands for certain kinds of raw materials, such as basalt and other volcanic rocks, which are more abundant in the northern islands.

Archeologists have also found variations in shell tools, like adzes, made of Tridacna (giant clam) and Terebra (sea snail) shells.  Shell adzes appear in both coastal and inland settlements but in larger numbers at coastal sites.  Large, single stone basalt mortars with several holes or depressions for grinding and pounding are more commonly found at coastal sites and are associated more with Latte Era excavations.  Harpoon and spear tips of bone are also associated with Latte Era sites, rather than Pre-Latte, which may indicate that Pre-Latte inhabitants either did not use human bone to make spear tips, or the full range of Pre-Latte tools have not yet been found.  Fishing tools and implements are also more diversified in Latte Era sites, including an array of weights and sinkers, lures and fishhooks.

Probably the most significant indicator of culture and tool change can be seen in Marianas pottery and ceramics forms.  Studies of CHamoru pottery reveal changes in subsistence patterns, food preparation and storage.  The design characteristics, such as composition and vessel form, show a high level of skill and complexity that archeologists have used to piece together a time sequence of Marianas history.

Stone tools

Most stone tools in the Marianas were made from volcanic rocks, such as basalt (atulong), as well as coral and limestone.  Another volcanic rock called pumice, which is very porous and rough, was also used as grinding stones.  Grinding stones help to sand or polish wood, stone or shell, making them smooth to the touch.  Grinding stones can also sharpen tool edges.

The easiest way to fashion tools from stone was to strike them with other rocks.  This is called flaking.  A hard rock would be struck with another hard rock and cause flakes to break off.  The flakes would have sharp edges that could be used for cutting or scraping.  The flakes could be further shaped and polished by retouching with other tools.

Stone tools included scrapers (guesgues), which could be used to peel fruit or scale fish, and knives (se’se’), for scaling, cutting and gutting fish.  Stone tools were also fashioned into hammerstones (mattiyu), mauls (acha) for grinding or driving in wedges, and anvils (acha’on).  The chopping edges of adzes (guaddukon) and axes (gachai) and hoes (akao) were also made of stone.  Stone could also be worked to make drills and chisels (asuela) with beveled edges to shape other hard objects of wood or rock.  The most common material for these stone tools was hard basalt.  Adzes, though, were made of either basalt or shell.  Indeed, the capstones and pillars of CHamoru latte stones may have been quarried and shaped using hammerstones, chisels and adzes.

Stone was also smoothed into spherical, globular or oval shapes to create sinkers for fishing (katgaderu) and slingstones (acho’atupat) for warfare.

Slingstones were believed to have been introduced to the CHamorus shortly before the Latte Era.  They have been found in many sizes from about five to ten centimeters in length, showing varying degrees of workmanship.  Typically football-shaped, some were made of limestone or marble, and some of fire-hardened clay.  Slings (atupat) for firing off slingstones were woven from coconut fibers, but also pandanus and pokse’ (hibiscus fibers) could have been used.  The fibers were woven together to create a small pouch in the middle to hold the stone.  The long strands of the sling would be held with one hand and the sling swung overhead to increase force before releasing the stone toward its target.

The acho’achuman was a special kind of spherical sinker (poio) made of stone that was used to catch achuman, a type of mackerel.  The poio was attached to a half coconut shell filled with coconut mash and lowered into deeper water.  The fisherman would shake the sinker to release the coconut mash and attract the fish to feed.  Over the course of a few days or weeks, the fisherman would raise the sinker gradually to the surface, thus training the fish closer where they could be more easily caught with a net.

Large stones could be shaped into mortars (lusong), pestles (lommok), and grindstones (guasa’on) for grinding, crushing and processing plants and herbs for food or medicine.  Mortars and pestles would also be used to process seeds to release poisons used for fishing.  Most mortars and pestles were made of basalt but sometimes limestone (acho’) was used.  Sometimes a large wooden pestle, known as fayao (or falu), was used.  Some mortars appeared as single stones with a single hole or depression, while other mortars were part of larger cave or rock shelters and had several depressions rounded out from constant pounding.

Bone tools

The ancient CHamorus had a few implements made of bone.  Fish bones were shaped into lures for catching octopus and squid.  Small bones could be used to make needles or awls, which are pointed tools for piercing holes.  These tools were useful for sewing together jewelry or ornaments, or preparing thatch for houses.

As there were no large mammals native to the Marianas, the ancient CHamorus used human bones to make certain kinds of implements.  The human tibia or shinbone was used to make barbed spear points for warfare or fishing.

The tip would be sharpened, then a double or triple row of barb-like teeth would be carved so that the spear tip would get stuck inside the victim’s flesh. The tip would be lashed onto a wooden shaft about eight feet long with coconut fiber cord.  Archeologists have found burials with these barbed spear points still lodged in the skeletal remains.

Shell tools

Another useful material for tool-making was shell, usually from mollusks, such as snails, clams or oysters.  Shells are relatively hard and strong enough for certain tasks, but relatively easy to shape using stone tools.  Oyster (Isognomon) and giant clam (Tridacna, or hima in CHamoru) shells made the most durable tools for cutting and scraping.

Adzes could be made of stone or shell such as hima. The shell would be shaped into a blade and honed with a beveled edge. This edge would be sharpened. The shell could be attached using fiber cord to the top of a piece of wood shaped into a handle, similar to a small axe. The adze could then be used to chop or shape wood.  Adzes were essential for constructing canoes by digging out the hull and for forming the planks for the sides and outrigger. The shell blade could also be used to plane wood and open young coconuts.

Other shell tools include fishhooks (haguet), both J-shaped hooks and V-shaped gorges, as well as the shaft and barbs of compound hooks.

Turbo shells could be sharpened into lalassas or scrapers to peel off skin or fruit rinds. For harvesting partially mature rice, sharpened mussel shells, known as palos, were used. The harvester would hold the shell in their right hand, and strip the rice from the stalk by pressing it against the shell’s sharpened edge.  Another rice harvesting implement, known as a sainan dogas, was a sickle-like tool made from a spider conch shell.  The shell was shaped by rubbing it against a flat, but coarse, rock.  It was used for general harvesting of mature rice.

Wood and other plant materials

Although wood and other plant materials do not preserve well in Guam’s tropical environment, the ancient CHamorus did make use of plants to make tools or attach objects together in the construction of different kinds of useful objects. For example, the wood from the lemon di china tree was used to make handles for tools, such as adzes, much as it is today. Wood was also used to make spears (fisga) and harpoons. Sometimes, the tip would be sharpened and hardened by fire, and other times, barbed tips made of bone would be attached. Human bone was the more desirable, but sometimes fish bones were used.

Wood was also used to make implements for cultivating and processing plants.  There were three types of hoes used by the ancient CHamorus. The dagua was a four and a half foot long hoe made of either mangle (mangrove tree) or gagu (ironwood).  It was about two and a half inches in diameter.  It could function as a weapon, too, if necessary, or as a yoke for carrying loads from the shoulder.  The end of the stick was shaped like a knife.  A similar tool for planting suni (taro) and opening hard coconuts was the tanum, which had a sharp point. The tanum was also particularly useful for planting rice in muddy or swampy land.  The akao was more like a shovel or spade with a long blade.  The handle was about five feet long, and the blade was a flat, sharp stone about three inches wide and over an inch thick.  Coconut fiber rope was used to attach the blade to the handle.

Each of these tools was used to prepare the holes for planting seeds, and then for weeding and harvesting.  Another tool, known as damang, had a wooden handle that was fitted with a sharp cutting stone or bone point.  It was used as a farming implement for hacking at weeds and branches, as well as a weapon during times of war, although eventually, it was replaced by the Spanish machete.

Bamboo (pi’ao) was used to make knives for harvesting rice in the field but also for cleaning and gutting fish.  Bamboo stalks or tubes could be used as containers for carrying water, especially over long journeys.  Bamboo was also used as a construction material to make flooring for houses.  The stalks would be split in half and flattened.  Bundles of bamboo strips also could be lashed together to make long, strong ridge poles.  Bamboo strips were also good for attaching thatch.  Aside from latte stones, homes were constructed primarily of plant materials.  Thatching made of coconut leaves (higai) was most readily available.  The leaves would be split and woven together.  Nipa and swordgrass were also fashioned into thatch and sewn onto strips of bamboo using bone awls.

Lashings or cords were formed from coconut husk fibers.  The fibers would be separated by soaking in water, then left out to dry.  The dry fibers were rubbed together to form a strand.  The strands could then be woven together to form ropes and lines, called sennit.  The fibers from the bark of the pago (wild hibiscus) plant, called pokse’, could be used, as well, to make rope.  The bark would be separated from the plant, cut into thin strips and dried before twisted together.  These fiber ropes and cords had a variety of uses as fishing lines and nets, or for attaching jewelry, ornaments, to lashing together canoe hulls, or adze blades to wooden handles.

Both coconut sennit and pokse’ were used to make different kinds of nets used primarily for fishing, but also for catching fanihi (fruitbat).  These included large drag nets (chenchulu), gill nets (tekken) and hand nets (laggua’).  Floats made of gourds or mangrove plant seeds were used to support lines and nets for both reef and offshore fishing.

Wide-mouth gourds were also useful for storage.  When holding water they were called sumag, and tagua when holding fish.  The littlest gourds used as buckets were called linghig.

Coconut, though, was one of the most versatile plants for the ancient CHamorus.  The palm fronds and leaves could be used to make a number of different tools and objects.  Fronds could be split and tied together to make long lines called gadi’ which were used to drive fish towards nets set up along the reef.  The young leaves could be woven into baskets, fans, sandals and hats.  The mature leaves could be used to make thatching for houses.  Coconut leaves could also be used to make torches or sulo’ which were useful for seeing in the dark and for fishing at night.  Coconut oil could be used for cooking as well as to fuel torches, or rubbed on the skin as a lubricant or water proofing substance.  The trunk could be worked to make house posts and other useful items.  As mentioned before, coconut fibers could make sennit for lashing or slings; even the shell could be used for making fishhooks, fish lures and eating utensils.

Other cultural implements

The CHamorus made many tools and implements that are more easily described by their function.  This includes woven items like baskets and mats, and other objects like pottery.  Some of these objects were described by French explorer Louis de Freycinet, who arrived in the Marianas in 1819.  De Freycinet obtained most of his information from Don Luís de Torres, a CHamoru-Spanish informant who was the Vice-Governor of Guam at the time, but his descriptions give a picture of the tools and implements that were important to the CHamorus.

Included among the many objects were a variety of containers woven from coconut or pandanus leaves.

Infant cradles (fagapsan) were plaited from pandanus leaves. The sides of the fagapsan were strengthened using little pieces of wood. Cords could be fitted to the basket to make it more portable for long journeys. This carrier, known as aktu, could be carried over the shoulder using a stick. Another woven container was the hagug, which was a large basket shaped like a case. It was used primarily to carry food reserves and war supplies.  Measuring almost three feet across, the hagug was carried on the shoulders using large ropes or straps. The balagbag was a medium sized container with a closed top. Unlike the hagug, the balagbag was carried at the hip.  Another container, called a danglon was about ten inches wide, much smaller compared to the hagug.  Additional baskets included the alan tugtug, which was a container divided into two equal sized compartments, the roughly woven coconut leaf pupung basket, and its smaller counterpart, the ala.  Both the pupung and ala were utilitarian baskets for carrying less precious commodities like yams. Freshly caught fish were carried in guagua’, and tataho baskets carried freshly picked rice.

Other items woven from pandanus included different kinds of mats, generally referred to as guafak. Guafak functioned as sleeping mats, blankets and funeral shrouds, but were also used for laying out fish or other food items for drying. Mats used at mealtimes were called tefan.

Some woven baskets carried only food. The alan tchin-o, for example, were food containers kept inside the house. Satghe’ were platters or trays used at special ceremonies such as weddings, for carrying gifts of pyramid-shaped rice cakes known as hineksa’ sinagan. Other gifts of rice were sent in square-shaped woven baskets known as kottot (kotud). Other containers held only betel nut.

Betel nut (pugua’) chewing was a common social practice among the ancient CHamorus. Men and women chewed pugua with papulu (pepper) leaves and slaked lime (åfok). Woven baskets called alan mamaon were used to carry the pugua’ which they shared often with others.  These betel boxes, made of pandanus, measured about eight square inches and were fitted with circular wooden handles.  The saluu was another kind of woven box that closed like a sachet.  It was used during large feasts to carry betel nuts that were to be shared with other feast participants.  The åfok or lime was kept in a small container usually made of coconut shell (ha’iguas), bamboo, or seashell, such as the turbo shell (alilang pulan).  A hole was drilled in the bottom of the shell to allow a coconut fiber cord to be strung through so the container could be suspended.  A shell tool, such as a clam shell, could then be used to scoop out the lime as needed.

De Freycinet also mentioned typical household furnishings of ancient CHamorus including the kamyu, which was a shell scraper attached to a wooden base for grating coconut meat, and the large wooden trough, called a saluhan.  He also mentioned the presence of stone mortars (lusong) and small wooden mortars called putud (or putot) and wooden pestles called falu (fayao). These pestles were meant to be used while standing to husk rice or crush other foods.

One object, though, whose function was not described by early visitors to the Marianas is the tunas, a wooden implement carried only by bachelors.  It was a long wooden stick decorated with geometric designs and colored orange by the mango’ or turmeric root. A tassel of pokse’ fibers was attached to the top. Although the purpose of this implement is not described, the tunas resembles the carved “love sticks” carried by bachelors from Chuuk. Perhaps the tunas, similarly, was used in courtship rituals with unmarried women.


The ancient CHamorus produced different kinds of ceramic vessels for storage, display and cooking. Because of the observable changes in pottery styles and materials, it has been possible to develop a timeline for CHamoru prehistory, as well as to understand how CHamorus acquired and processed food.

The older Marianas pottery found in the Pre-Latte Era is characterized as wide-mouthed, shallow and flattened on the bottom. In general, Pre-Latte pottery was smaller, lighter and more decorated with white limestone-filled incisions. Some pottery fragments have been found with design motifs not seen in the later Latte Era ceramics. The smaller pot size seems to coincide with the mobile lifestyle of the early inhabitants of the Marianas, as well as the processing of limited quantities of food for a small population.  Therefore, larger storage pots were not necessary.

Latte Era pots, on the other hand, are characterized by having larger, rounder or cone-shaped bottoms with small mouths.  These shapes were ideal for retaining heat, possibly for cooking or boiling.  Some pots were used for storage, reflecting the need to store limited food and water for larger populations.  In between the Latte and Pre-Latte Eras are pottery forms that possibly indicate a time when the population was increasing in size and becoming settled into larger, more permanent residences, perhaps including a movement into the interior of the island.  Bigger pots, therefore, were more functional as people began to rely more on plant foods that needed to be stored or cooked.  Larger pots were also needed to store water.  Whatever the reasons for this transition, pots are complex tools that reflect the changing lifestyle patterns and needs of the ancient CHamorus.

Gender and class considerations

As in other areas of CHamoru culture, the role of class or gender in the manufacture and use of tools was apparent. Weaving was largely in the realm of women’s activities. Women from the low class mañåchang wove baskets, mats, cradles, fishing lines and nets, canoe lashings and other implements.  However, because of the strict observance of class status, the women of the upper class matua and acha’ot would weave their own baskets, mats, cradles and other implements and utensils for their personal or family use.

Fishing implements such as hooks, lines, sinkers, harpoons and nets were used primarily by the privileged upper class men. Lower class men could not use these tools and had to settle for clubs and sticks while fishing in freshwater streams and rivers. Women and children, however, assisted men in communal fishing activities involving large lagua’ nets, used for catching mañahak (baby rabbitfish) during their seasonal runs.

Also in the realm of women’s work was the processing of rice. Rice harvested from the fields was placed in large square baskets called kottot kumukka. Large mats would be placed under the newly harvested rice stalks.  Women would trample the rice to release the grains from the stalks.  The grains, still in their husks, were then collected on a flat piece of matting two and a half feet in diameter with an upright wooden rim, and poured into bags.  The rice would be husked using the lusong and falu when ready to be cooked and eaten.

Studying tools in ancient societies

The CHamorus, like other ancient societies, had a number of examples of practical and functional tools and implements made of materials from the natural environment. Tools made of rock could be used for hammering or grinding; shell tools could be sharpened for cutting, chopping or scraping; wooden tools could be used for digging or attached to other tools to form handles. Many tools were designed for a variety of uses. A stone may have functioned as a hammer in one context, and then a grinder in another; or a slingstone, which would normally function as a weapon, could be modified with holes to make a sinker for fishing. In addition, some tools were used to make other tools. For instance, rock grinders could hone the edge of a shell to make a knife or scraper.

Probably the most unique aspect of ancient tool-making was the way humans anticipated future uses for the tools they created. Rather than disposing of a tool after a task was completed, people made tools to keep and use again and again.  A lot of thought and planning went into making tools. Ancient CHamorus, for example, would wait for a buried human body to decompose fully before retrieving the leg bones. The bones would be carved and shaped to create deadly barbed spear tips for war or harpoon points for spear fishing.

In general, tools help humans adapt and survive. Therefore, studying tools tells us about how people used the resources available to them in their environment. We know that in the Marianas, for example, there was an abundance of shell, limestone, and different plants like coconut, pandanus and wild hibiscus that could provide raw materials for tools. CHamorus made implements that were useful for catching fish, such as hooks, nets and sinkers, and knives for gutting and removing scales. Other implements were useful for cultivating plants and processing fruits and tubers that were part of the CHamoru diet.

Tools also change over time, and different implements may show variations in style and function. By looking at these changes, we get a sense of the skill, technology, innovation and cultural change that occurs as a society adapts and finds new uses for their tools. Gorges and compound fishhooks, and the complex poio sinkers used to lure fish, are examples of developments in CHamoru fishing tools and techniques. Ancient CHamoru pottery also shows changes in form, style and function over time, becoming increasingly larger and more plain in samples from later time periods.

In a way, tools reflect the character of their creators and the culture from which the tools are used or have meaning.  Tools also give evidence for relationships or networks with other cultures—for example, ancient CHamoru tools may have shown similarities with tools from Southeast Asia or the rest of Micronesia.  Certain raw materials may have had to be transported from one place to another.  This could have important ramifications for our understanding of the origin and peopling of this part of the Pacific, as well as the idea of continuing contacts with other cultures over the long course of CHamoru prehistory.  Future studies in this area would be important.

By Dominica Tolentino

Did you know?

Preparing Pandanus – Unlike coconut palm leaves, pandanus leaves have thorns which must be removed before the leaves can be plaited together. The thorns are stripped off using a knife, then the leaves are rolled and left in the sun to dry. The longer they are in the sun, the whiter they become. The dried leaves are then unraveled and ready for use.

For further reading

Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Division of Historic Preservation. An Overview of Northern Marianas Prehistory. By Rosalind L. Hunter-Anderson and Brian M. Butler. Micronesian Archaeological Survey, Report Number 31. Mangilao: MARS, 1995.

Cunningham, Lawrence J. Ancient Chamorro Society. Honolulu: Bess Press, 1992.

Freycinet, Louis Claude Desaulses de. An Account of the Corvette L’Uraine’s Sojourn at the Mariana Islands, 1819. Translated by Glynn Barratt. Saipan: Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Division of Historic Preservation, 2003.

Russell, Scott. Tiempon I Manmofo’na: Ancient Chamorro Culture and History of the Northern Mariana Islands. Saipan: Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Division of Historic Preservation, 1998.