Possible sacred connection

The latte is a manmade construct carved from limestone or basalt that was used as a foundation for a shelter against the elements or as a structure which may have represented a sacred place. The latte was constructed and used by the CHamorus throughout the Mariana Islands during the Latte Period from 1,000 Before Present (BP) to 500 years BP. There has not been too much written on the possible sacred significance of these massive stones, other than alluding to their importance of burying the dead.

Latte are monolithic slabs composed of two separate pieces. The base of the latte is called haligi (pillar). Latte vary in height and range from three feet to 16 feet tall. Each stone, if complete, held a capstone of limestone known as a tasa (cup), hemispheric in design and mounted on top with its curved side down, flat side up. The latte for each building were usually aligned in two rows of paired sets. Most buildings had eight or ten sets of latte.

Creation of the latte may have signified for the builder a sacred connection to a particular activity of the ancient CHamoru’s societal structure and as such, it may be that the latte serves as a model for the sacred ritual and belief.

The latte stones can be conceived of as having been built as the result of the ancient CHamoru concept of aniti (spirit), and a sense of origin, life and passing to the next life within—theoretically—the protection of the latte. The latte possibly symbolized a sacred space for the CHamoru who buried the dead between the stones as part of that construct of space made sacred. It should also be noted that the deceased were also buried within the house, on each side of the house and, especially, on the ocean side of the house. Having deceased ancestors buried next to dwellings demonstrates the CHamoru practice of ancestor veneration.

The use of latte demonstrates the importance of the stones in the life of the ancient CHamorus. The latte was also used to support such structures as the Guma’ Uritao (House of Bachelors), which was a place for educating young men, the houses of the CHamoru noble castes (Matua and Acha’ot), as shelters, and a place to build and protect canoes from the natural elements. Each of these structures were central to CHamoru society and were considered important spaces.

The ancient CHamorus, in hewing the great stones from the earth, may have been expressing the fundamental connection of spirit and nature. CHamorus made use of the land and sea in their everyday lives, consequently placing the latte in proximity to their living experiences. By exploring those artifacts created by the CHamoru as one who builds, worships and lives, we can tentatively construct a sense of the ancient CHamorus and their idea of what artifacts are deemed sacred, what constitutes sacred space and sacred place.

By Fred Rodriguez, MA

For further reading

Carson, Mike T., ed. “Archaeological Studies of the Latte Period.” Micronesica 42, no. 1/2 (2012): 1-79.

Coomaraswamy, Ananda Kentish. Selected Papers: Traditional Art and Symbolism. Vol. 1. Bollingen Series 89.  New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1977.