Hairstyles and teeth staining
Records of ancient Chamorro lifestyles go back to the early contact period, beginning with Ferdinand Magellan’s visit of 1521. Archeology reports from excavations substantiate some of these observations and provide additional information.
The explorer Ferdinand Magellan was the first recorded European to make landfall in the Marianas in 1521 during his circumnavigation of the globe. Antonio Pigafetta, who chronicled the visit, first described the natives they encountered as naked, and that some of the men were bearded. According to Pigafetta, both men and women had black hair that reached to the waist or longer. They also wore small hats woven from palm leaves. Their teeth were red and black, which they considered most beautiful. Although the women were mostly naked, they did cover their pubic area with a narrow strip of paper thin bark, which grows between the tree and the bark of the palm. In addition, they anointed their bodies and hair with coconut and “bene” seed oil.
The description of the Chamorro practice of coloring their teeth red or black was a reference to their chewing of betel leaf (Piper betel), areca (betel) nut (Areca catechu), and quicklime, which produces a bright earthy red juice and stains the mouth red. Over time the juice stains the teeth black. Archeological research has found a few examples of blackened teeth with decoration etched in the tooth surface. An account from the Loaysa expedition in 1526 stated that Chamorros blackened their teeth with the sap of a certain plant, unknown to the writer. Another account from 1590 described the teeth as being:
…sharpened like those of a dog and more so, and they stain them with a red varnish that cannot be removed and which is to preserve their set of teeth; they never lose one tooth no matter how old they are. Others stain them black, which has the same property as the red [varnish].”
Jesuit priest Father Peter Coomans described the process of staining a woman’s front teeth which was practiced in the 1670s:
In order to do this, they spend some sweat; they mix black coloring with some gum to make it long lasting. They often reserve an entire day to anoint that one tooth; nevertheless, this care and above all this time, taken for this unction will take up as many as fourteen days, during which time the teeth must not touch anything. That is why they suffer a continuous torment, with only a funnel, to give sustenance to their body, so as not to die. When the effect has been obtained, the neighbors and friends organize a formal feast…
Although the Chamorro people were described as naked, the Loaysa account of 1526 further elaborates on the description of women’s body covering. While the men walked around “naked in the flesh, exhibiting their natures,” the women covered their pubic area with some tree leaves held in place by a string around their waist. The leaf:
… swings from side to side in front of their nature. Because sometimes the wind carries away that leaf, they always carry other leaves as spares.
Fray Juan Pobre de Zamora, a missionary who lived among the Chamorros in Rota in 1602, wrote that:
Only the females who are more than eight or ten years old wear an appropriate piece of turtle shell or a plant leaf the size of one’s hand to cover their nakedness.
Yet, a report by Fray Antonio de los Angeles, another missionary who had lived among the Chamorros in 1596, stated that the women wore a type of matting below the waist. This suggests that their clothing, in some situations, might have been more substantial than a piece of bark fiber, as initially described by Pigafetta.
Changes in hairstyles
It seems likely that the Chamorro people, in the few years after European exploration in the Marianas began, exhibited changing hairstyles. A report in 1535 by Augustinian priest Andres de Urdaneta, who traveled with the Loayasa expedition, states that:
Both women and men wear their hair very long and loose.
However, a change in hairstyles apparently occurred between this report of 1535 and an account from the English privateer Thomas Cavendish’s visit in 1588, which described the Chamorros as:
…wearing their haire marveilous long; yet some of them have it made up and tyed with a knot on the crowne, & some with 2 knots….
A few years later, it seems apparent that Chamorro women were also practicing techniques to change their hair color, primarily by bleaching. Fray Juan Pobre’s account notes that:
…the men like their hair to be very black; the women, however, have very flaxen hair.
Since Pigafetta’s account states that both the men and women wore their hair long and black, it may be assumed here that the “flaxen-haired” women of Fray Juan Pobre’s time were practicing a fashion of this particular period, eighty years later. Father Peter Coomans’ writing of the 1670s describes the way women bleached their hair:
They anoint the whole head and their hair with a mixture of lime and oil, then expose themselves to the burning rays of the sun at noon, for hours, rather, for days on end. Whenever the head is burning hot, they sprinkle it with sea water, if you look at it, you show your appreciation.
Historian Father Francisco García’s description of the people in 1668 (based on Father Diego Luis de San Vitores’ and other missionary reports) also says that the women bleached their long hair white. He also noted that the only clothing women wore was an apron of thin bark called tifi’ [which means “pick” v.]. It is also from García’s account that we get the first description of the topknot worn by men, which is often depicted in modern artistic renderings of Chamorro warriors, including the statue of Chief Quipuha in Hagåtña. García stated that:
The men do not wear long hair, but shave their head leaving only a small topknot on the crown, about the length of a finger.
De Los Angeles (1596) remarked upon the native practice of anointing their bodies with coconut oil as protection from the rain. He further noted that upon entering one’s home, the visitor was given hot water with which to wash their feet. Fragrant flower garlands for women and the use of coconut oil for both sexes indicate that smell as well as visual enhancement of the body was valued.
Continuity and change
These descriptions of the Chamorro people span a period of over 150 years, beginning with Pigafetta’s account of 1521 and encompassing García’s writing, which described the early missionization period of 1668 to 1681. An analysis of the various descriptions can give us a general picture of continuity and change within the culture over several generations, during the time when colonization had not yet changed practices to a great extent.
To summarize, the general consensus throughout these accounts was that Chamorros were generally light-skinned, the men being darker than the women because of their greater exposure to the sun. They were generally robust and healthy people, who were somewhat larger than the average European.
Although hair fashions changed, accounts throughout this period emphasize that blackened teeth were considered beautiful. It is not clear whether men also consistently blackened their teeth throughout this time span, although constant betel nut chewing would create this effect in both sexes. By 1670, it seemed to be a prevalent practice among women, although that does not rule out men from also participating.
Observations in 1521 described both men and women as wearing their hair very long and black. Some men had beards, which are not mentioned in later descriptions. In 1588 men were observed tying their long hair into one or two buns at the top of their heads. By 1668, men’s fashion had changed to that of shaving their heads except for a short topknot about the length of a finger at the crown of the head. Beginning in 1602, women were observed with bleached hair, a practice which persisted until at least the 1670s.
Throughout this time span, men were described as being completely naked. Women were sometimes described as naked, but usually were observed wearing at minimum a leaf (tifi’) attached to a cord around their waist, or a piece of paper thin bark (gunot) which covered their private parts. In 1596 they were observed wearing a piece of matting which covered them from the naval down. The use of turtle shell plates as an apron suggests that status determined some forms of body covering.
For further reading
Cunningham, L. Ancient Chamorro Society. Honolulu: The Bess Press, 1992.
Driver, Marjorie G. The Account of Fray Juan Pobre’s Residence in the Marianas 1602. MARC Miscellaneous Series No. 8. Mangilao, Guam: Micronesian Area Research Center, University of Guam, 1993.
Driver, M. “The Account of a Discalced Friar’s Stay in the Islands of the Ladrones.” Guam Recorder 7 (1977): 19-21.
de Freycinet, Louis Claude. An Account of the Corvette L’Uranie’s Sojourn at the MAriana Islands, 1819. Occasional Historic Papers no. 13. Trans. Glynn Barratt. Saipan, CNMI: CNMI Division of Historic Preservation and Micronesia Area Research Center, University of Guam, 2003.
García, Francisco. The Life and Martyrdom of the Venerable Father Diego Luis de San Vitores of the Society of Jesus First Apostle of the Mariana Islands and Events of These Islands From the Year Sixteen Hundred and Sixty-Eight Through the Year Sixteen Hundred and Eighty-One. Translated by M. Higgins, F. Plaza and J. Ledesma and edited by James McDonough. MARC Monographs Series no. 3. Mangilao, Guam: University of Guam, 2004.
Lévesque, Rodrigue, comp. and ed. History of Micronesia: A Collection of Source Documents. Vols. 1 – 6. Gatineau, Quebec: Lévesque Publications, 1992-.
Nowell, C. E., ed. Magellan’s Voyage Around the World: Three Contemporary Accounts – Antonio Pigafetta, Maximilian of Transylvania, & Gaspar Correa. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1962.