Presidential Lecture: Francis Hezel peers into the little-known pre-latte period
What was Guam like prior to the latte stone period? How did the people live then, and where did they come from? These were the types of questions members of the community explored while listening to Father Francis X. Hezel’s presentation at the 37th Presidential Lecture Series at the University of Guam on Jan. 22, 2019.
“I’m a person who is not a historian, but a person who is always curious about the absences of things — the absences of information where there should be,” Hezel said.
His intrigue inspired him to bring together the work of archaeologists and researchers, including UOG Associate Professor of Archaeology Michael T. Carson, into a documentary that he created, “Before We Began Counting Years.” The video offers a theoretical glimpse of early, pre-latte settlements on Guam, Saipan, and Tinian — or settlements dating from 1500 BC, when people first settled the Marianas, to about 900 AD — and what life could have been like during that time.
Settlement of Oceania
“I think we all understand that the original thrust for the settlement of Oceania came out of Taiwan. If you were to go to Taipei and walk into any museum, you would see things that remind you a lot of what you would find in Yap, Pohnpei, Palau, and here,” he said.
By about 2500 BC, people were moving down the islands between Southern Taiwan and the northern part of Philippines and down to Indonesia. But from where did people first arrive on the remote islands in Micronesia and the Marianas?
Migration to the Marianas
“For a long time, there’s been two schools: The people who favor Java — if not Java, some part of Indonesia — and the people who favor the Philippines, and as this video pointed out, evidence is beginning to move strongly in the direction of Luzon,” Hezel said.
Of all of remote Oceania, his documentary shows that the Marianas was settled first.
Researchers have found that the people settled in coastal communities in which houses were built on stilts and caves were used as community centers. The early people of the Marianas were around five feet tall and slighter in bodily form compared to the stockier latte period population. There is no evidence of weapons, but that may simply mean weapons were made of wood that have since disintegrated. No burial sites from these early years have been found — the earliest was around 500 BC.
Distinct features of the Marianas
One of the distinct features of the people of the Marianas, he said, was their use of navigation.
“When a group of people have navigation on a big island, they generally lose it within 100 years — that’s pretty much standard, but not in the Marianas,” he said. “Because of the distance between the high islands in the Marianas, you had this long-distance traveling that was maintained much longer than in Yap or Palau, Chuuk or Pohnpei.”
Additionally, he said the CHamoru language is unique in this region the Pacific.
“There is no doubt that CHamoru is one of the oldest languages in the Austronesian family, along with the basic Filipino languages,” he said.
Transition to the latte period
The presence of stone structures, or megaliths, on islands around the Pacific — including Nan Madol in Pohnpei, the Lelu Ruins in Kosrae, the monoliths in Palau, and the mo’ai on Easter Island — occurred all around the same time of about 1000 AD, suggesting a renaissance in response to a possible global warming at that time.
“There was a new sort of vision in the Pacific, and places with basaltic rock took advantage of them to create monuments — not just spiritual monuments, but monuments that attested to status, as the latte stones seem to have done here in the Marianas,” he said.
More work to be done
With all that is known about the early Marianas people, there is much more that remains unknown, Hezel said. “We don’t know a lot,” he said. “A good bit of work still needs to be done on the latte period, in particular the pre-latte period.”
Hezel’s lecture can be viewed here.
DVDs of his documentary, “Before We Began Counting Years," are available by request by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Lecturer
Francis X. Hezel is a Jesuit priest who has worked in Micronesia for 50 years. During his early years in the islands, he taught at Xavier High School in Chuuk and then served as principal and director of the school. As a young teacher, he co-authored two Micronesian social studies textbooks and tried his hand at other curriculum development projects, including individualized instruction programs.
Following this, he shifted to public education in 1982 as he became the full-time director of Micronesian Seminar, a Jesuit-sponsored research-education institute that embraced the entire region. In this capacity, he has organized several conferences on current issues and has written and spoken widely about social change and its impact on island societies. He has also published well over 100 articles and several books on Micronesian history and culture, including “The First Taint of Civilization and Strangers in Their Own Land.” His most recent book, “Making Sense of Micronesia,” was written to help newcomers appreciate some of the basics of culture. He has produced more than 70 video documentaries for local broadcast, including a seven-hour series on the history of Micronesia.
Currently, he is working in a parish on Guam, where he also assists migrants from Micronesia. He continues to provide modest assistance to the islands as opportunities present themselves.