WRITINGS REVEAL SOCIETY WITHOUT FIRE AMONG ANCIENT CHAMORROS

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By Tony Sanchez

HAGÅTÑA, Guam (March 29, 2002 – Pacific Daily News)---Of the many amazing passages found in Spanish writings of the 1600s and early 1700s, none are more stunning as the two reports that the ancient Chamorros did not know about or use fire in their pre-contact society.

While it is certainly hard to imagine a society without fire, if it is in fact true, the ancient Chamorros and their accomplishments were even more astounding under fireless circumstances. Moreover, they would be the only society I ever read of who lived, much less thrived, in a fireless environment.

But before anyone attributes this theory to me, I will simply quote the two passages concerning this and leave it to your discretion to choose whether you believe it or not.

The first was written by Father Le Gobien of the Society of Jesus, as published in Paris in 1700. The second is from Father Garcia who, like Le Gobien, documented the life and times of Padre San Vitores' martyrdom.

Now realize that both Le Gobien and Garcia never stepped foot in the Marianas, taking their accounts from letters and interviews from those who had. In fact, Le Gobien paraphrased much of Garcia's writings.

Le Gobien's account reads: "(Chamorros) lack most of the things we believe necessary for life... What is more astounding and hard to believe is that they had never seen fire. This necessary element was entirely unknown to them. They knew neither its use nor properties and they were never more surprised than when they saw fire for the first time when Magellan landed and set fire to some 50 houses in reprisal against the islanders for trouble they had caused him.

"In the beginning they regarded fire as some species of animal which attached itself to wood in order to nourish itself. The first ones to approach it too closely were burned and this caused fear in others and they dared not look at it except from (far) off, for fear, they said, of being bitten and lest this terrible animal hurt them with its violent breath."

Now that you've seen that, here is Garcia's passage relating to fire: "It is unnecessary to ask if they know any letters, sciences or arts, those who are ignorant even of the elements, and did not know of the existence of fire in the world until they saw it lighted by Spaniards who survived the shipwreck in 1638."

The 1638 shipwreck was the Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion, which was sailing from Manila to Acapulco when she wrecked off the southwest coast of Saipan Sept. 20, 1638. She was the largest Spanish vessel built up to that time, displacing some 2,000 tons. According to footnotes on the Boxer codex, in 1568, the San Pablo shipwrecked on Guam. All 132 survived and after three months, a small craft was constructed from the wreckage, whereupon all returned safely to Manila.

Either they didn't learn fire then or Garcia got his shipwrecks mixed up or the whole fireless theory was wrong.

Fray Juan Pobre, who lived among the Chamorros in 1602, indicates they "cooked" cakes. However, he notes all fish were eaten raw and never references cooking in relationship to lemai or other starches. Moreover, he too notes that they worked iron with pure force and not fire.

Yet, Fray Antonio de los Angeles, who stayed in the Marianas in 1596, uses the term "fire-hardened spears" and "cooked rice." The passage was written in a 1597 letter by another priest to the king about Fray Angeles accounts.

The pre-contact legend of Chaifi includes "guafi," which means fire in Chamorro. So Chamorros knew volcanic fire, but maybe not cooking fire. They'd naturally use "Chaifi" to refer to flames when they saw it.

Perhaps the generation of Chamorros the Spanish encountered could've been without fire, while their predecessors were not.

A fireless society is such a far-fetched theory; even Spanish arrogance would be hard-pressed to write it without some semblance of belief or basis. However, ignorance is bliss.

If Chamorros didn't know about fire, it only speaks to an even greater achievement by isla Marianas' ancient society. Whatever the case, these are one of those things that make you go, "Hmm!"

You need never worry about fire, eternal or what have you, if you follow the Light of the world. Happy Easter.

Tony Sanchez is editor for Guahan/Guam: A History of Guam and director of the Superior Court.

For additional reports from the Pacific Daily News, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Pacific Daily News (Guam).

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