Northern Mariana Islands & the Latte Stone

United States - Scott #2804 (1993)
United States – Scott #2804 (1993)

January 8 is the day for the annual celebration of Commonwealth Day in the Northern Mariana Islands. For years, the Northern Mariana Islands held referenda that offered integration with Guam but the latter finally rejected it. In 1970s it was decided not to seek for independence but to set closer relations with the United States. The negotiations for territorial status began and were finally approved in referendum that took place in 1975. There was one more referendum in 1977 that had to approve a new government and constitution. A new government and constitution came into effect in January 1978 which became the date of Commonwealth Day. On November 3, 1986, the Northern Mariana Islands became a territory that is administered by the United States. Every legal resident of the territory is granted U.S. citizenship. Officially, the Northern Mariana Islands are governed by the President of the United States, but in fact they are under control of the local Governor.

The Northern Mariana Islands, officially the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI and known as Sankattan Siha Na Islas Mariånas in Chamorro and Commonwealth Téél Falúw kka Efáng llól Marianas in Refaluwasch or Carolinian), is an insular area and commonwealth of the United States consisting of 14 islands in the northwestern Pacific Ocean. In the terminology of the U.S. insular areas, a commonwealth is a type of organized but unincorporated dependent territory. The status is above a regular territory but below a state. There are currently two United States insular areas with the status of commonwealth, the Northern Mariana Islands and Puerto Rico.. American Samoa, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands are territories.

Map of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands
Map of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands

The Northern Mariana Islands, together with Guam to the south, compose the Mariana Islands archipelago. The CNMI includes the 14 northernmost islands in the Mariana Archipelago except the southernmost island of the chain, Guam, which is a separate U.S. territory. The CNMI and Guam are the westernmost point (in terms of jurisdiction) and territory of the United States. The southern islands are limestone, with level terraces and fringing coral reefs. The northern islands are volcanic, with active volcanoes on several islands, including Anatahan, Pagan, and Agrihan. The volcano on Agrihan has the highest elevation at 3,166 feet (965 m). Anatahan Volcano is a small volcanic island 80 miles (130 km) north of Saipan. It is about 6 miles (10 km) long and 2 miles (3 km) wide. Anatahan began erupting from its east crater on May 10, 2003. It has since alternated between eruptive and calm periods. On April 6, 2005, an estimated 50,000,000 cubic feet (1,416,000 m³) of ash and rock were ejected, causing a large, black cloud to drift south over Saipan and Tinian.

The United States Department of the Interior cites a landmass of 183.5 square miles (475.26 km²). According to the 2010 United States Census, 53,883 people were living in the CNMI at that time. The vast majority of the population resides on Saipan, Tinian, and Rota. The other islands of the Northern Marianas are sparsely inhabited; the most notable among these is Pågan, which for various reasons over the centuries has experienced major population flux, but formerly had residents numbering in the thousands. Except for the U.S. Minor Outlying Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands are the least populous sub-federal jurisdiction in the United States, with fewer people than any of the 50 states, the other commonwealth and three self-governing territories, and the District of Columbia.

The administrative center is Capitol Hill, a village in northwestern Saipan. However, most publications consider Saipan to be the capital because the island is governed as a single municipality.

The first people of the Mariana Islands immigrated at some point between 4000 BC and 2000 BC from Southeast Asia. After first contact with Spaniards, they eventually became known as the Chamorros, a Spanish word similar to Chamori, the name of the indigenous caste system’s higher division.

Ruins of Guma Taga on Tinian. The pillars/columns are called latte (pronounced læ'di) stones, a common architectural element of prehistoric structures in the Mariana Islands, upon which elevated buildings were built. Earthquakes had toppled the other latte at this site by the time this photo was taken; an earthquake in 1902 toppled the one seen on the left, and today only the one on the right remains standing. The exact date that this picture was shot is unknown; it is found in the collection of the Guam Museum of Culture, Art and History.
Ruins of Guma Taga on Tinian. The pillars/columns are called latte (pronounced læ’di) stones, a common architectural element of prehistoric structures in the Mariana Islands, upon which elevated buildings were built. Earthquakes had toppled the other latte at this site by the time this photo was taken; an earthquake in 1902 toppled the one seen on the left, and today only the one on the right remains standing. The exact date that this picture was shot is unknown; it is found in the collection of the Guam Museum of Culture, Art and History.

The ancient people of the Marianas raised colonnades of megalithic capped pillars called latte stones upon which they built their homes. The Spanish reported that by the time of their arrival, the largest of these were already in ruins, and that the Chamorros believed the ancestors who had erected the pillars lived in an era when people possessed supernatural abilities.

Archeologists in 2013 posited that the first people to settle in the Marianas may have made what was at that point the longest uninterrupted ocean-crossing voyage in human history, and that archeological evidence indicates that Tinian might have been the first Pacific island outside of Asia to be settled.

The first European explorer of the area, the Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan, arrived in 1521. He landed on Guam, the southernmost island of the Marianas, and claimed the archipelago for Spain. The Spanish ships were met offshore by the native Chamorros, who delivered refreshments and then helped themselves to a small boat belonging to Magellan’s fleet. This led to a cultural clash: in Chamorro tradition, little property was private and taking something one needed, such as a boat for fishing, did not count as stealing. The Spanish did not understand this custom, and fought the Chamorros until the boat was recovered. Three days after he had been welcomed on his arrival, Magellan fled the archipelago. Spain regarded the islands as annexed and in 1565 made them part of the Spanish East Indies. In 1734, the Spanish built a royal palace in Guam for the governor of the islands. Its remains are still visible to this day at the Plaza de España in Guam’s capital of Hagåtña.

Guam operated as an important stopover between Manila and Mexico for galleons carrying gold between the Philippines and Spain. Some galleons sunk in Guam remain. In 1668, Father Diego Luis de San Vitores renamed the islands Las Marianas in honor of his patroness the Spanish regent Mariana of Austria, widow of Felipe IV.

Most of the islands’ native population (90–95%) died from Spanish diseases or married non-Chamorro settlers under Spanish rule. New settlers, primarily from the Philippines and the Caroline Islands, were brought to repopulate the islands. The Chamorro population gradually recovered, and Chamorro, Filipino, and Refaluwasch languages and other ethnic differences remain in the Marianas.

During the 17th century, Spanish colonists forcibly moved the Chamorros to Guam, to encourage assimilation and conversion to Roman Catholicism. By the time they were allowed to return to the Northern Marianas, many Carolinians from present-day eastern Yap State and western Chuuk State had settled in the Marianas. Both languages, as well as English, are now official in the commonwealth.

Colonial church tower, a vestige of the former Spanish colony in the Northern Mariana Islands. Photo taken on September 4, 2010.
Colonial church tower, a vestige of the former Spanish colony in the Northern Mariana Islands. Photo taken on September 4, 2010.

The Northern Marianas experienced an influx of immigration from the Carolines during the 19th century. Both this Carolinian subethnicity and Carolinians in the Carolines archipelago refer to themselves as the Refaluwasch. The indigenous Chamoru word for the same group of people is gu’palao. They are usually referred to simply as “Carolinians”, though unlike the other two monikers, this can also mean those who actually live in the Carolines and who may have no affiliation with the Marianas.

The conquering Spanish did not focus attempts at cultural suppression against Carolinian immigrants, whose immigration they allowed during a period when the indigenous Chamoru majority was being subjugated with land alienation, forced relocations and internment. Carolinians in the Marianas continue to be fluent in the language, and have maintained many of the cultural distinctions and traditions of their ethnicity’s land of ancestral origin.

A single issue of six overprinted stamps comprise the entire philatelic output of the Spanish Mariana Islands. Under Spanish control and administration, the stamps of the Philippine Islands were utilized prior to 1899 when the islands, with the exception of Guam, were sold to Germany. Guam, one of the islands in the group of fourteen islands, had already been captured by the United States on June 20, 1898.

Spanish Mariana Islands - Scott #1 (1899); 500 printed [NIMC2019) - image sourced from active eBay auction.
Spanish Mariana Islands – Scott #1 (1899); 500 printed [NIMC2019) – image sourced from active eBay auction.

In September, 1899, six different denominations of the then current Philippine Islands issue of 1898 were overprinted locally. The overprint consisted of a boxed handstamp that included the inscription MARIANAS ESPANOLAS in the center. Each stamp was individually struck with the overprint in a vertical position. The normal overprint placement has the words reading down. The inverted placement resulted in the words reading up.

These stamps were available for usage on only a single mail that was transported off the islands before the sale of the islands to Germany. That single mail left the island of Saipan at the beginning of December, 1899 and arrived in Manila, Philippines on December 11, 1899. Mail Processed from that sailing received the datestamp of the United States Military Station Number 1, Manila, Philippine Islands, Received, dated December 11, 1899 upon arrival. An exhibit of the stamps and postal history from the Spanish administration of the Northern Mariana Islands can be found on Richard Frajola’s excellent website.

Following its loss during the Spanish–American War of 1898, Spain ceded Guam to the United States and on February 8, 1899, sold the remainder of the Marianas (i.e., the Northern Marianas), along with the Caroline Islands, to Germany for 25 million pesetas under the German–Spanish Treaty of 1899.  Germany administered the islands as part of its colony of German New Guinea and did little in terms of development. The German presence in the Marianas (Marianen) would remain small throughout the period, with only three German inhabitants for several years of the colony’s history.

"German
German Mariana Islands – Scott #11-16 (1899-1900) [NIMC2019]; image sourced from active eBay auction.
German Dominion of the Mariana Islands - Scott #27 (1901)
German Dominion of the Mariana Islands – Scott #27 (1901)
Stamp indicia digitally cropped from German Mariana Islands postal card (HP #12) with Saipan postmark dated December 31, 1903.
Stamp indicia digitally cropped from German Mariana Islands postal card (HP #12) with Saipan postmark dated December 31, 1903.

The Mariana Islands became a German protectorate on June 18, 1899. Shortly thereafter, German stamps of the 1899 series were overprinted MARIANEN at both 48-degree and 56-degree angles, with the former being scarce to rare (Scott #11-16). A single post office opened in Saipan on November 18, 1899. In 1901, stamps picturing the Kaiser’s yacht Hohenzollern were issued for Germany’s colonies with values in pfennig and Reichmarks (Scott #17-29). The Mariana Islands stamps are similar to the stamps of the other colonies.

The Jaluit Shipping Company established mail lines throughout the northern Pacific in the early years of the 20th century and one of these, opened in 1904, was routed via Saipan in the Marianas. Service operated until July 1914. Adhesives of the Marianas are known cancelled with postmarks of the Sydney-Hong Kong Line and the Jaluit Line.

Early in World War I, Japan declared war on Germany and invaded the Northern Marianas. Saipan fell to Japanese forces on October 14, 1914. Two of the later German stamp issues (3 pfennig and 5 mark) on watermarked paper were never used in the islands but were sold in Berlin after the Japanese had invaded. In 1919, the League of Nations awarded all of Germany’s islands in the Pacific Ocean located north of the Equator, including the Northern Marianas, under mandate to Japan. Under this arrangement, the Japanese thus administered the Northern Marianas as part of the South Pacific Mandate. Japanese stamps were used until 1944.

During the Japanese period, sugarcane became the main industry of the islands. Garapan on Saipan was developed as a regional capital, and numerous Japanese (including ethnic Koreans, Okinawan, and Taiwanese) migrated to the islands. In the December 1939 census, the total population of the South Pacific Mandate was 129,104, of whom 77,257 were Japanese (including ethnic Taiwanese and Koreans). On Saipan, the pre-war population comprised 29,348 Japanese settlers and 3,926 Chamorro and Caroline Islanders; Tinian had 15,700 Japanese settlers (including 2,700 ethnic Koreans and 22 ethnic Chamorro).

On December 8, 1941, hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces from the Marianas launched an invasion of Guam. Chamorros from the Northern Marianas, which had been under Japanese rule for more than 20 years, were brought to Guam to assist the Japanese administration. This, combined with the harsh treatment of Guamanian Chamorros during the 31-month occupation, created a rift that would become the main reason Guamanians rejected the reunification referendum approved by the Northern Marianas in the 1960s.

A United States Marine talks a terrified Chamorro woman and her children into leaving her refuge, photographed by Cpl. Angus Robertson USMC, circa June 21, 1944. The Marine pictured in this image is Lt. Robert B. Sheeks, who served as an Intelligence and Japanese Language Officer throughout the Pacific campaigns. More about him and his wartime experience can be read about in the book,
A United States Marine talks a terrified Chamorro woman and her children into leaving her refuge, photographed by Cpl. Angus Robertson USMC, circa June 21, 1944. The Marine pictured in this image is Lt. Robert B. Sheeks, who served as an Intelligence and Japanese Language Officer throughout the Pacific campaigns. More about him and his wartime experience can be read about in the book, “Pacific Legacy” by Rex Alan Smith and Gerald A. Meehl and in “One Marine’s War” by Gerald A. Meehl. This image was first published in the October 1944 issue of National Geographic magazine. It was later used in the book FOLLOW ME! The Story of the Second Marine Division by Richard Johnston (Random House 1948).

On June 15, 1944, near the end of World War II, the United States military invaded the Mariana Islands, starting the Battle of Saipan, which ended on July 9. Of the 30,000 Japanese troops defending Saipan, fewer than 1,000 remained alive at the battle’s end. Many Japanese civilians were also killed, by disease, starvation, enemy fire, and suicide. Approximately 1,000 civilians committed suicide by jumping off the cliffs at Mt. Marpi or Marpi Point. U.S. forces then recaptured Guam on July 21, and invaded Tinian on July 24; a year later Tinian was the takeoff point for the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Rota was left untouched (and isolated) until the Japanese surrender in August 1945, owing to its military insignificance.

The war did not end for everyone with the signing of the armistice. The last group of Japanese holdouts surrendered on Saipan on December 1, 1945. On Guam, Japanese soldier Shoichi Yokoi, unaware that the war had ended, hid in a jungle cave in the Talofofo area until 1972. Japanese nationals were eventually repatriated to the Japanese home islands.

After Japan’s defeat in World War II, the Northern Marianas were administered by the United States pursuant to Security Council Resolution 21 as part of the United Nations Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, which gave responsibility for defense and foreign affairs to the United States. Four referenda offering integration with Guam or changes to the islands’ status were held in 1958, 1961, 1963 and 1969. On each occasion, a majority voted in favor of integration with Guam, but this did not happen: Guam rejected integration in a 1969 referendum.

The people of the Northern Mariana Islands decided in the 1970s not to seek independence, but instead to forge closer links with the United States. Negotiations for commonwealth status began in 1972 and a covenant to establish a commonwealth in political union with the United States was approved in a 1975 referendum. A new government and constitution came into effect in 1978 after being approved in a 1977 referendum. The United Nations approved this arrangement pursuant to Security Council Resolution 683. The Commonwealth does not have voting representation in the United States Congress, but, since 2009, has been represented in the U.S. House of Representatives by a delegate who may participate in debate but may not vote on the floor. The Commonwealth has no representation in the U.S. Senate.

Motorcycle license plate from the Northern Mariana Islands, 1982.
Motorcycle license plate from the Northern Mariana Islands, 1982.

The Northern Mariana Islands have a tropical rainforest climate moderated by seasonal northeast trade winds, with little seasonal temperature variation. The dry season runs from December to June; the rainy season runs from July to November and can include typhoons. The Guinness Book of World Records has said Saipan has the most equable climate in the world.

Administratively, the CNMI is divided into four municipalities. The Northern Islands (north of Saipan) form the Northern Islands Municipality. The three main islands of the Southern Islands form the municipalities of Saipan, Tinian, and Rota, with uninhabited Aguijan forming part of Tinian municipality. For statistical purposes, the United States Census Bureau reckons the four municipalities as county equivalents.

A steam plume blows south from the peak of Pagan Island’s northernmost volcano in this photograph by an astronaut on the International Space Station (ISS). The ISS was located over the Pacific Ocean approximately 300 miles (480 kilometers) to the southeast of Pagan Island when the image was taken. Astronaut photograph ISS030-E-122047 was acquired on March 6, 2012, with a Nikon D3X digital camera using an effective 1200 mm lens, and is provided by the ISS Crew Earth Observations experiment and Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, Johnson Space Center. The image was taken by the Expedition 30 crew.
A steam plume blows south from the peak of Pagan Island’s northernmost volcano in this photograph by an astronaut on the International Space Station (ISS). The ISS was located over the Pacific Ocean approximately 300 miles (480 kilometers) to the southeast of Pagan Island when the image was taken. Astronaut photograph ISS030-E-122047 was acquired on March 6, 2012, with a Nikon D3X digital camera using an effective 1200 mm lens, and is provided by the ISS Crew Earth Observations experiment and Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, Johnson Space Center. The image was taken by the Expedition 30 crew.

Because of volcanic threat, the northern islands have been evacuated. Human habitation was limited to Agrihan, Pagan, and Alamagan, but population varied due to various economic factors, including children’s education. The 2010 census showed no residents in Northern Islands municipality and the Northern Islands’ mayor office is located in “exile” on Saipan. Saipan, Tinian, and Rota have the only ports and harbors, and are the only permanently populated islands.

The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands benefits from its trading relationship with the federal government of the United States and cheap trained labor from Asia. Historically, the CNMI’s economy has relied on tourism, mostly from Japan, and on the garment manufacturing sector. The economy has declined since quotas were lifted in 2005, eventually leading all the garment factories on Saipan to close by February 2009. Tourism also declined after 2005 when Japan Airlines stopped serving the Marianas.

Topographical map of Saipan island in the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands.
Topographical map of Saipan island in the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands.
Aerial view of Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands, Photo taken on October 20, 2005.
Aerial view of Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands, Photo taken on October 20, 2005.

The Northern Mariana Islands had successfully used its position as a free trade area with the U.S., while at the same time not being subject to the same labor laws. For example, the $3.05 per hour minimum wage in the commonwealth, which lasted from 1997 to 2007, was lower than in the U.S. and some other worker protections are weaker, leading to lower production costs. That allowed garments to be labeled “Made in USA” without having to comply with all U.S. labor laws. However, the U.S. minimum wage law signed by President Bush on May 25, 2007, resulted in stepped increases in the Northern Marianas’ minimum wage, which would have allowed it to reach the U.S. level by 2015. However, a law signed by President Obama in December 2009 delayed the yearly increase from May to September. As of September 30, 2014, the minimum wage was $6.05 per hour.

The island’s exemption from U.S. labor laws had led to many alleged exploitations including recent claims of sweatshops, child labor, child prostitution, and even forced abortions.

An immigration system mostly outside of federal U.S. control (which ended on November 28, 2009) resulted in a large number of Chinese migrant workers (about 15,000 during the peak years) employed in the islands’ garment trade. However, the lifting of World Trade Organization restrictions on Chinese imports to the U.S. in 2005 had put the commonwealth-based trade under severe pressure, leading to a number of recent factory closures. Adding to the U.S.-imposed scheduled wage increases, the garment industry became extinct by 2009. Agricultural production, primarily of tapioca, cattle, coconuts, breadfruit, tomatoes, and melons exists but is relatively unimportant in the economy.

The islands have over 220 miles (350 km) of highways, three airports with paved runways (one about 9,800 feet [3,000 m] long; two around 6,600 feet [2,000 m]), three airports with unpaved runways, and one heliport. The main commercial airport is Saipan International Airport.

Mail service for the islands is provided by the United States Postal Service (USPS). Each major island has its own zip code in the 96950–96952 range, and the USPS two-letter abbreviation for the Northern Mariana Islands is MP. For phone service, the islands are included in the North American Numbering Plan, using area code 670.

Cover postmarked July 31, 1974, at Rota, Northern Mariana Islands.
Cover postmarked July 31, 1974, at Rota, Northern Mariana Islands.
Kutturan Chamoru Performers (KCP) at the 2010 Pacific Islander Festival Association in San Diego, California. Photo taken by Marilyn Sourgouse on September 25, 2010. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Much of the Chamorro culture in the Mariana Islands was heavily influenced by the Spanish during the Spanish era, as well as by the Germans and Japanese. In Chamorro culture, respect is the biggest thing taught, and one common display is the tradition of manngingi. This tradition has been around for centuries and involves an elder and a young Chamorro child. The child takes the hand of the elder, places it on their nose and says ñot to the men and ñora to the women with the elders responding diosti ayudi, meaning “God help you”.

The Carolinian culture is very similar to the Chamorro culture with respect being very important. The Carolinian culture can be traced back to Yap and Chuuk, where the Carolinians originated.

Archeological evidence reveals that rice has been cultivated in the Marianas since prehistoric times. Red rice made with achoti is a distinct staple food that strongly distinguishes Chamorro cuisine from that of other Pacific islands. It is commonly served for special events, such as parties (gupot or “fiestas”), novenas, and high school or college graduations. Fruits such as lemmai, mangga, niyok, and bilimbines are included in various local recipes. Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and American cuisine are also commonly available.

Chamorro red rice
Chamorro red rice

Local specialties include kelaguen, a dish in which meat is cooked in whole or in part by the action of citric acid rather than heat; tinaktak, a meat dish made with coconut milk; and kå’du fanihi (flying fox/fruit bat soup). Fruit bats have become scarce in modern times on several islands, primarily due to the overharvesting of the species and loss of habitat; hunting them is now illegal even though poaching still occurs.

The Marianas and the Hawaiian islands are the world’s foremost consumers, per capita, of Spam, with Guam at the top of the list, and Hawaii second (details regarding the rest of the Marianas are often absent from statistics). Spam was introduced to the islands by the American military as war rations during the World War II era.

Team sports popular in the United States were introduced to the Northern Mariana Islands by American soldiers during World War II. Baseball is the islands’ most popular sport. CNMI teams have made appearances in the Little League World Series (in the Little, Junior, Senior and Big league divisions) as well as winning gold medals in the Micronesian Games and South Pacific Games.

Basketball and mixed martial arts are also popular in the islands, which hosted the official 2009 Oceania Basketball Tournament. Trench Wars is the CNMI’s Mixed Martial Arts brand. Fighters from the CNMI have competed in the Pacific Xtreme Combat as well as the UFC. Other sports in the CNMI include volleyball, tennis, soccer, outrigger sailing, softball, beach volleyball, rugby, golf, boxing, kickboxing, tae kwon do, track and field, Swimming, Triathlon, and American football.

United States - Scott #4313 (2011) first day cover
United States – Scott #4313 (2011) first day cover

Just like yesterday’s subject of U.S. President Millard Fillmore, the Northern Mariana Islands have been depicted on United States stamps just two times. The most recent release came on August 11, 2011, in Columbus, Ohio, when the USPS released the fifth group in its “Flags of Our Nations” series (Scott #4313-4322). Scott #4313 depicts the CNMI flag over a beach lined with palm trees. A mwáár surrounds the design of the official flag, This is is a traditional Carolinian wreath, representing unity among the islands of the region. The wreath encircles the central image of a single white star shown over a latte stone, which since ancient times has served as a foundation for Northern Mariana homes. The 44-cent self-adhesive stamp was printed by Sennett Security Products using photogravure.

Prior to that, the CNMI flag appeared on Scott #2804 released on November 4, 1993 in Saipan. Here, the flag is accompanied by a unique element of the islands’ Chamorro culture: a stone pillar called a latte, with a capstone. Herb Kane of Captain Cook, Hawaii, designed the 29-cent stamp which was issued to recognize the Northern Mariana Islands and their relationship of forty-five years with the United States. The stamp was printed in the offset/intaglio process by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in a quantity of 37,550,000 and issued in panes of twenty, perforated 11.

A latte stone, or simply latte (also latde or latti), is a pillar (haligi in the Chamorro language) capped by a hemispherical stone capital (tasa) with the flat side facing up. Used as building supports by the ancient Chamorro people, they are found throughout most of the Mariana Islands. In modern times, the latte stone is seen as a sign of Chamorro identity and is used in many different contexts.

United States - Scott #2804 (1993) plate block of 4
United States – Scott #2804 (1993) plate block of 4
United States - Scott #2804 (1993) first day cover; ArtCraft cachet
United States – Scott #2804 (1993) first day cover; ArtCraft cachet

Latte stones have been made of limestone, basalt, or sandstone. The pillar was normally quarried and then transported to the construction site. For small to medium-sized lattes, the capstone was a large hemispherical coral head that was gathered from a reef. The massive capstones found in Rota were instead quarried, like the pillars.

In Oceania the latte stone is unique to the Marianas, though megaliths of differing construction and purpose are common to Oceanic cultures. Similarities between the latte stone and the wood posts made by the Ifugao sub-group of the Igorot in the Philippines, on which they build rice stores, have been pointed out. The rounded capstones help prevent rats from climbing up the pillar. A similar wood post construction appears to be depicted in a relief carving at Borobodur, Java, which has caused one scholar to put forward the disputed theory of a prehistorical cultural exchange between the Marianas and Java.

Latte stones varied greatly in size. The smallest were several feet tall. The largest latte still standing is 16 feet (5m) tall, located in Tinian. In Rota, quarried latte would have stood 25 feet (8m) high if erected. The largest shaft found here weighs 34 tons while the largest cap weighs 22 tons.

The history of the pre-contact Marianas is usually divided into three periods: Pre-Latte, Transitional Pre-Latte, and Latte. Latte stones began to be used in about 800 A.D. and became increasingly more common until the arrival of Ferdinand Magellan in 1521 and Spanish colonization, when they fell rapidly out of use and were entirely abandoned by about 1700. Latte stones have been found on Guam and the southern islands in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, including Rota, Tinian, Aguijan, and Saipan, as well as several small northern islands, such as Pagan.

Latte stones in Latte Stone Park, Hagatna, Guam. Photo taken on June 7, 2006.
Latte stones in Latte Stone Park, Hagatna, Guam. Photo taken on June 7, 2006.

Undisturbed stones are found usually arranged in parallel pairs of between eight and fourteen lattes framing a rectangular space. The more pairs in the structure, the taller the latte stones. One twenty latte arrangement was found in the current location of the military Ordnance Annex on southern Guam. While none of the early European visitors to the islands appear to have drawn pictures of latte stones in use, several Spanish accounts from the 16th and 17th centuries state that houses were erected on the stones, with one eyewitness specifying that the structures on lattes were used to shelter proas and served as community meeting places. However, the lack of definitive, consistent evidence means that all theories are disputed.

Some archaeologists believe that only high status Chamorros lived in structures built on latte stones, while others have put forward the theory that all Chamorros in the Latte Period lived in latte structures, and that the height and number of the stones in the structure indicated social status. Other structures in a latte village, which may have included cooking huts, canoe houses and public houses for unmarried men, were built on the ground, typically in an A-frame of wood poles, often bamboo, with thatched roofs of grass, coconut fronds or Nipa fronds.

The latte quarry on Rota has several partially cut stones. Photo taken on February 4, 2006.
The latte quarry on Rota has several partially cut stones. Photo taken on February 4, 2006.
The largest known erected latte, at the site legend states was the house of Chief Taga, in Tinian, Northern Mariana Islands. Photo taken on August 21, 2002.
The largest known erected latte, at the site legend states was the house of Chief Taga, in Tinian, Northern Mariana Islands. Photo taken on August 21, 2002.

Archaeologists who have worked in the Marianas since the end of World War II have noted a distinct difference between latte stones located along the coast and those located inland. Coastal latte tend to be placed in sand containing extensive relics of habitation, including shards of pottery, fish and animal bones, and stone and shell tools. Human burials were placed within sand containing these archaeological remnants, either within or near sets of lattes. In contrast, the soil in which inland latte stones are placed rarely has an archaeological stratum or associated burial. The implication is that mainland latte sites were temporarily occupied, and perhaps that there was a change in burial practice in the later Latte Period.

By the 18th and 19th centuries, travelers to the Marianas noted lattes only in abandoned areas, where they had apparently been left after foreign-introduced disease had decimated the Chamorro population. In modern times, latte stones are a symbol of Chamorro identity and are found in a wide variety of government, business and personal contexts. Concrete lattes are sometimes incorporated into new buildings, while residents of the Marianas will sometimes incorporate actual latte stones into the landscaping around their homes.

A latte stone features on the U.S. quarter-dollar (25 cents) coin for the Northern Marianas Islands. Highway shields marking Northern Mariana Islands highways superimpose the route number on a white outline of a latte stone.

Northern Mariana Islands route marker for Highway 30.
Northern Mariana Islands route marker for Highway 30.
U.S. quarter for the Northern Mariana Islands designed by Phebe Hemphill entered circulation on November 30, 2009. Near the shore stand a large limestone latte, a canoe of the indigenous Carolinians, two white fairy terns, and a mwar (head lei). A total of 72,800,000 coins of this design were minted at the Philadelphia and Denver mints.
U.S. quarter for the Northern Mariana Islands designed by Phebe Hemphill entered circulation on November 30, 2009. Near the shore stand a large limestone latte, a canoe of the indigenous Carolinians, two white fairy terns, and a mwar (head lei). A total of 72,800,000 coins of this design were minted at the Philadelphia and Denver mints.

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