Former Chamorro village is now a wildlife refuge
Located on the northernmost tip of Guam, Ritidian is one of the most spectacular and culturally rich places on island. Formerly a restricted military area, Ritidian is now accessible to the public who wish to take in the unspoiled, natural beauty of the ocean and beaches. Because of its relative isolation, it is a fairly popular site for fishing, swimming and picnicking.
Ritidian is also a wildlife preserve unit of the Guam National Wildlife Refuge (GNWR), covering 371 acres of coral reefs and 832 acres of terrestrial habitats including limestone forests. The refuge is home to native tree snails and small lizards, the endangered Marianas fruit bat, the Mariana crow, as well as to hawksbill and green sea turtles. In addition, the Fish and Wildlife’s Nature Center, located in the GNWR office building at Ritidian, provides a wealth of information about local wildlife and the geological significance of the area.
Ritidian is also archeologically important and contains an abundance of cultural resources, including latte sets, water wells, limestone mortars, cave drawings, pottery and shell artifacts. The land and seascapes provide evidence of changing climates and sea levels which impacted the settlement and use of this area by the earliest inhabitants of the island. Archeological research has revealed that the area was the site of a thriving Chamorro village that predates the arrival of the Spanish in 1521 by over 600 years. Recent work has also uncovered a 3,300 year old fishing camp.
The name Ritidian is possibly derived from the Chamorro word “Litekyan” which means, to stir, or a stirring place, and is probably a reference to the rapidly stirring or churning waters off of Ritidian. On a clear day, one can see in the distance the island of Luta (Rota), some forty-seven miles north-northeast of Guam, the closest of the Northern Mariana Islands to Guam.
Archeological field work at Ritidian
Archeological research at the Ritidian Unit of Guam National Wildlife Refuge (GNWR) has been making significant discoveries and advances in knowledge over the last few years, made possible by US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) partnering with Guam Preservation Trust (GPT), the Richard F. Taitano Micronesian Area Research Center (MARC) at University of Guam, and the Anthropology Department at the University of Hawai’i. New archeological studies have included surveys to identify and record details of latte stone sites, pottery and other artifacts visible on the surface, rock art in caves, remains of an old Spanish-era building, and locations where ancient Chamorro sites are buried deeply beneath the ground today.
Students from Guam, Hawai’i, continental US, Canada, and elsewhere have been enrolling in archeology field training courses to acquire hands-on skills of real-life archeology, learn about Chamorro latte sites, and contribute to cutting-edge and growing scientific knowledge about the many archeological sites at Ritidian.
At two latte sets preserved in the dense forest of the Refuge, archeologists have been studying the hard evidence of artifacts and food remains and how they were distributed in patterns around the latte stones. Patterns are evident in relation to different types of activities, such as tool-manufacturing, food-preparation, water-storage and food-storage in large pots, and discard of food remains.
Archeologists found pieces of metal, imported Chinese porcelains, and imported European glass beads, all indicating that Chamorro people using this latte site had access to outside materials during the early Spanish occupation period, probably in the 1670s to 1680s when a Jesuit mission was active at Ritidian.
Also relating to the early Spanish period, some archeological “detective work” has found the remains of an old Spanish building, said to have been built and used at Ritidian in the 1670s through 1680s. The ruins of the structure, called a casa real, had been documented in the 1950s, but later the area had been bulldozed, leaving no trace of what once had been there. Old maps and notes pointed to the general vicinity of the old building, and archeological test pits verified traces of the old building foundation and other remnants.
Ritidian Caves yield cave art
In some of the many cave sites at Ritidian, abundant red, white, and black drawings are visible as reminders of the ancient Chamorro past. Unfortunately, these resources are fragile and threatened by mold growth, creation of mud-dauber nests, natural levels of high humidity, and even unintentionally by visitors. New efforts have begun for precise digital mapping of the caves, matched with high-resolution photography that can be fitted over the three-dimensional mapping surface. The goal is a product that can be accessible through the internet, on display outside the caves, or at the Nature Center in the Refuge, so that people can appreciate the sites, the natural cave formations, and their amazing artwork without causing any unfortunate effects.
Ancient fishing camps
In the broad sandy plain seen today between the limestone cliff and the ocean at Ritidian, archeologists have found the remains of a 3,000-year-old fishing camp buried about three to four feet beneath the sand. Deeper beneath that, about nine feet, they found the remains of an even older fishing camp, about 3,300 years old according to radiocarbon dating.
The oldest known fishing camp at Ritidian, around 3,300 years ago, occurred directly over the ancient coral reef that is now deeply buried beneath the broad sandy beach that we see today. These results fit perfectly with the geological history of the area, relating to a time when the sea level was higher than today. At that time, the ancient fishing camp was along a shallow reef that had formed along the base of the limestone cliff of northern Guam, and an unknown number of small spots and berms (mounds) of sand that were scattered throughout the Ritidian area.
Comparable to these latest discoveries at Ritidian, the oldest confirmed archeological sites in the Marianas have been dated by radiocarbon as being about 3,500 years old, including several sites in Guam, Saipan, and Tinian. The ancient fishing camp at Ritidian now is counted among one of the earliest known sites in the region.
3,000 to 3,500 years of history
The broad sandy beach that we see today developed over a few thousand years, and Chamorro people were quick to utilize the newly available land as these opportunities presented themselves over time. The archeological record reveals how people responded to these changing circumstances, in terms of the kinds of foods they harvested, the kinds of tools they made to cope with the challenges they faced, and generally how their lives were part of a rich natural and cultural habitat that changed in some ways but remained stable in other ways over several centuries.
Archeological research will continue at Ritidian, but already a fascinating picture is taking shape about the last 3,000 to 3,500 years of the natural and cultural history of the Refuge area. As more definitive and robust scientific data become available, we can build our knowledge base at the Refuge and enhance the experience of visitors appreciating some of the uniqueness of this remarkable place.