By Ben Ikenson

So lush is the jungle on Guam, a Japanese soldier who fought in World War II was able to conceal himself within it until 1972, nearly 28 years after the United States regained control of the Pacific island. Last summer, Guam National Wildlife Refuge maintenance worker Brian Leon Guerrero and University of Guam visiting archaeology professor Mike Carson came upon evidence of human habitation that far precedes 20th-century warfare.

After exploring a cave in a closed area of the refuge near Ritidian Point, the pair were poking their way through the jungle when Carson spotted a large black mound, a possible indication of a site used for burning by the island’s ancient Chamorro people. With scattered pottery shards on the surface, they soon found the remains of a significant village completely overgrown with vegetation.

“It was really exciting,” says Guerrero. “Almost immediately, within 30 to 40 feet of the mound and completely buried by jungle, we started finding ‘latte’ sites.” Lattes refer to stone pillars that the Chamorro erected to support their dwellings above the jungle floor.

Long before Spanish galleons appeared on the horizon, the Chamorro people flourished throughout the Marianas archipelago. Ferdinand Magellan landed on Guam in 1521, bringing an era of prolonged colonialism to the entire region. The site at Ritidian, which included at least 15 homes, would have been the first village the Spaniards saw after three months at sea. Artifacts scattered throughout the island suggest that the original Chamorro community there was the very first to settle in the Pacific islands of Oceania, some 4,000 years ago. 

Guam is home to many remnants and ruins of these ancient people, and the site Guerrero and Carson found, in fact, had been previously discovered in the 1920s by Hans Hornbostel, an anthropologist with the Bishop Museum of Hawaii. A former Marine, Hornbostel was also covertly gathering information on Japanese activities in the Northern Mariana Islands for the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence. While he did document 3,000-plus-year-old Chamorro artwork in nearby limestone caves, he didn’t conduct a thorough inventory at the Ritidian latte site, which was soon swallowed by time and the jungle. 

After rediscovering the latte site, refuge staff cleared some surface vegetation and contracted a cultural resources inventory with Carson, who spent several months diligently documenting, collecting and cataloging items.

“We knew the site existed, and it was exciting to come across it, but what really makes it special is that these 15 home sites are amazingly intact,” says Carson. The site “contains the remains of an entire village complex, dating to the last time when a native Chamorro village system was operating in the region. The Spanish-Chamorro wars of the late 1600s concluded with the forced re-location of survivors into a few easily controlled villages under Spanish colonial authority, and original villages, like at Ritidian, were abandoned as places of residence and cultural life.”

The refuge hopes that the site, which is sacred to the local Chamorro people, soon will be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The refuge is currently developing a guided tour program for island residents, among other visitors, to learn more about the important cultural legacy left behind by their ancestors. 

“When you pick up a piece of pottery, you can’t help but imagine that last person to use it. What a different world they lived in,” says Laura Beauregard, manager at the Mariana Islands Refuges & Monument Complex, which includes Guam Refuge. 

Adds Carson: “Now, after more than 300 years of shifting foreign colonial regimes, these ancient village sites in the jungle are … reminders of an older heritage prior to the transformations of colonial rule, [and] the ability for people to reconnect with an ancient Chamorro village is priceless.”

Ben Ikenson is a New Mexico-based freelance writer.