by Dominica Tolentino

Editor’s note: Few know how special Guam is like the folks behind Guampedia.com. Their latest endeavor is “Hasso’: Chamorro Heritage Sites Project.” In conjunction with the upcoming debut of the project’s film, Stripes Guam is partnering with Guampedia to feature one of these special sites each week to offer a glimpse into our host territory’s rich cultural heritage.  We begin with an introduction to this heritage and the inspiration behind the project.

Few things speak more loudly about ancient cultures than the tangible elements they leave behind – buildings, tools, drawings, skeletal remains – physical reminders that a people once lived and breathed and died in a particular place within a specific historical context.

These elements take on great meaning when the ancient culture is an ancestral one, rooted in the past but with descendants who exist in the present. For modern day descendants, often times showing these tangible links to the past can be empowering and very useful to demonstrate unity, identity, distinctiveness and relevance in a global world.

In Guam, there are many places of historic value or interest. All over the island are visible remnants of Guam’s history in World War II–from guns, to pillboxes to the extensive cave system bored in the hillside of Hagåtña. There are buildings from the Spanish era – Fort Soledad in Umatac, Fort Santa Agueda in Hagåtña, the old administrative buildings next to the Plaza de España, and arched stone bridges in Hagåtña and Agat.

Even the ancient Chamorros left behind structures that remind us of the people that lived in the Marianas long before Europeans began traveling around the world. Rock shelters, modified caves and latte sites show where ancient Chamorros lived, fished, gathered and processed materials important for their daily lives.

These sites may not be well understood or visually spectacular sights to behold, but the historic places of ancient Chamorro society are important cultural resources and part of the unique heritage of the Chamorro people.

The power of place

To learn and discover more about Guam’s ancient past, many have looked to archeology. Many of the places selected for study were known to contain latte structures. Other sites did not have latte but did have evidence of human habitation – skeletal remains, pottery shards, mortar stones and tools, perhaps. These ancient sites were not always treated with curiosity or even respect.

In fact, for many Chamorros, latte sites were feared and avoided because of strong beliefs in the spirits that inhabited the thick jungles and caves around Guam. But as more archeological research has been done in the Marianas a picture emerges about the lifeways of the ancient Chamorros.

People are able to see these places as valuable sources of cultural knowledge, historic information, and meaningful inspiration. Guam’s ancient sites are particularly compelling.

Archeological studies confirm that the people of the Marianas shared a cultural system unique from other peoples of Micronesia. Indeed the Marianas are one of the longest inhabited islands in the Pacific region, with settlements dating as far back as 3,800 years ago. Artifacts recovered from Guam’s ancient sites reveal a population that survived various environmental challenges and that showed ingenuity in finding and procuring resources from their surroundings.

These sites tell us how the Chamorros and their ancestors lived, worked, interacted with each other and buried their dead. They also provide insight into the larger story of ancient societies and human experience.

Ancient sites are part of our heritage. They are the legacy we have inherited from our ancestors and what we pass on to future generations. They have value and meaning and are considered worthy of preservation and conservation. The value and meaning of heritage sites, however, are socially constructed and influenced by historical and socio-political forces.

For example, as mentioned earlier, latte sites may not have been sacred in the sense of places for religious worship – they may have been purely functional as building foundations. But over time, no longer in use, they were imbued with different meanings – mysterious, dangerous.

Today, many Chamorros consider latte sites sacred spaces and treat them and the structures contained within them with a kind of reverence and awe. Latte stones have become symbols of strength and cultural identity. Even if one cannot see the sacredness in the symbol of the latte stone, it is undeniable that it has become THE symbol of the Marianas, and represents the unique identity of the Chamorro people today.


In any kind of effort to reach back to the past, there is the specific act of remembering. In Chamorro, the word meaning “to remember” is hasso’. Hasso’ also means to think, to imagine or to realize. Clearly when discussing ancient sites, there is no one around who has actual firsthand knowledge of what meanings a site may have had for the original builders or inhabitants.

However, as descendants and inheritors, there can be memories of visiting certain places, or of being told stories about particular locations or structures. There may be multiple meanings and interpretations and feelings regarding different sites. The sites may become significant to people because they represent something that goes beyond memory alone – they spark imagination and speak to a desire to know the past.

In May 2011, the Guampedia staff had a chance to visit some of the caves at the US Fish and Wildlife Refuge at Ritidian. The caves have some of the most interesting examples of ancient Chamorro pictographs found on island. Depictions of animals, human figures, handprints, and even what’s believed to be a Chamorro calendar, are painted on the walls.

Chad Filipiak, a teacher at Harvest Christian Academy, was producing a 360-degree spherical panorama and was interested in doing one of Ritidian. A good 360 shoot can give a viewer the feeling he or she is right there in the photograph, able to look all around and see objects or other features behind them, or even up in the sky above. With local professional videographer/photographer Burt Sardoma, the Guampedia team was able to document their visit to the site and produce some stunning images of the caves and the pictographs.

Chamorro Heritage Sites Project

While at the caves, however, it was brought to our attention that the Fish and Wildlife Service had to impose stricter limits restricting access to the caves due to destruction caused by vandals. In addition, some of the cave openings were draped with special nets to try and control insects that were also causing damage to the cave walls.

The initial excitement of being able to see the pictographs and visit a site that was historically and culturally important for the Chamorro people was tempered by the realization that Ritidian would be yet another site few people would ever be able to see. More disheartening was the fact that the forces of nature were not only causing deterioration of the site, but the actions of a careless few were equally, if not even more destructive.

The Hasso’: Chamorro Heritage Sites Project emerged from the idea of creating a feature on Guampedia that would showcase different ancient sites on Guam. The purpose of the project was to promote awareness about the sites and make them accessible–digitally and visually – for audiences on Guam and around the world.

In addition, the project would be used to emphasize the importance of cultural and historic preservation on Guam. A video would be produced with footage of the sites and interviews with people in the Guam community speaking about issues of historic preservation and the protection of heritage sites for future generations.

Five ancient sites were selected for the project, including Pagat (along the northeastern coast,) Cetti (on the southwestern coast), Pulantat, Yona and Babulao, Talofofo (in the interior), and Haputo (on the northwestern coast).  Each of these places are regarded as having significant cultural resources. They are all sites of ancient Chamorro villages, and contain a variety of material artifacts including latte sets and other remains of ancient society.

By working together, the Hassoʼ: Chamorro Heritage Sites Project will provide digital access to different historic sites on Guam through the power of internet and video technology. It represents a collaborative effort of Guampedia and the local community to think creatively about the issues surrounding heritage sites and cultural preservation. Additionally, the project promotes awareness and community responsibility for ensuring continuous and appropriate care for these important cultural resources.

– Read Dominica Tolentino’s complete article at: www.guampedia.com/guams-villages/hasso-remembering-guams-ancient-heritage-sites

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