Mariana Islands

The Mariana Islands (/ˌmæriˈɑːnə/; also the Marianas; in Chamorro: Manislan Mariånas) are a crescent-shaped archipelago comprising the summits of fifteen longitudinally oriented, mostly dormant volcanic mountains in the northwestern Pacific Ocean, between the 12th and 21st parallels north and along the 145th meridian east. They lie south-southeast of Japan, west-southwest of Hawaii, north of New Guinea and east of the Philippines, demarcating the Philippine Sea's eastern limit. They are found in the northern part of the western Oceanic sub-region of Micronesia, and are politically divided into two jurisdictions of the United States: the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and, at the southern end of the chain, the territory of Guam. The islands were named after the influential Spanish queen Mariana of Austria following their colonization in the 17th century.

Mariana Islands
The Mariana Islands are shown, with the territory of Guam to the extreme south, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (14 islands) to the north. Active volcanoes are shown with triangles.
LocationPacific Ocean
Coordinates16°37′N 145°37′E
 United States
 Northern Mariana Islands (U.S.)
 Guam (U.S.)

The indigenous inhabitants are the Chamorro people. Archaeologists in 2013 reported findings which indicated that the people who first settled the Marianas arrived there after making what may have been at the time the longest uninterrupted ocean voyage in human history. They further reported findings which suggested that Tinian is likely to have been the first island in Oceania to have been settled by humans.[1]

Spanish expeditions, beginning with one by Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan in the early 16th century, were the first Europeans to arrive; eventually, Spain annexed and colonized the archipelago, establishing their capital on the largest island, Guam. The Marianas were the first islands Magellan encountered after traversing the Pacific from the southern tip of South America. The fruits found there saved the survivors from scurvy, which had already killed dozens of crewmembers.


Geology of the west Pacific in the area of the Mariana Islands. The Mariana Islands are at map-right, east of the Philippine Sea and just west of the Mariana Trench in the ocean floor.

The Mariana Islands are the southern part of a submerged mountain range that extends 1,565 miles (2,519 km) from Guam to near Japan. Geographically, the Marianas are part of a larger region called Micronesia, situated between 13° and 21°N latitude and 144° and 146°E longitude.

The Mariana Islands have a total land area of 1,008 km2 (389 sq mi).[2] They are composed of two administrative units:

The island chain geographically consists of two subgroups, a northern group of ten volcanic main islands, all are currently uninhabited; and a southern group of five coralline limestone islands (Rota, Guam, Aguijan, Tinian and Saipan), all inhabited except Aguijan. In the northern volcanic group a maximum elevation of about 2,700 feet (820 m) is reached; there are craters showing signs of activity, and earthquakes are not uncommon. Coral reefs fringe the coasts of the southern isles, which are of slight elevation.

The lowest point on the Earth's crust, the Mariana Trench, is near the islands and is named after them.


The islands are part of a geologic structure known as the Izu–Bonin–Mariana Arc system, and range in age from 5 million years old in the north to 30 million years old in the south (Guam). The island chain arose as a result of the western edge of the Pacific Plate moving westward and plunging downward below the Mariana plate, a region which is the most volcanically active convergent plate boundary on Earth. This subduction region, just east of the island chain, forms the noted Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the Earth's oceans and lowest part of the surface of the Earth's crust. In this region, according to geologic theory, water trapped in the extensive faulting of the Pacific Plate as serpentinite, is heated by the higher temperatures of depth during its subduction, the pressure from the expanding steam results in the hydrothermal activity in the area and the volcanic activity which formed the Mariana Islands.[3]


Marianas tropical dry forests
Tropical dry forest on Saipan
BiomeTropical and subtropical dry broadleaf forests
Bird species59[4]
Mammal species2[4]
Area1,036 km2 (400 sq mi)
CountryUnited States
TerritoriesGuam and the Northern Mariana Islands
Conservation statusCritical/Endangered[5]
Habitat loss76.8%[4]

All the islands, except Farallon de Medinilla and Uracas or Farallon de Pajaros (in the northern group), are more or less densely wooded, and the vegetation is dense, much resembling that of the Carolines and also of the Philippines, from where species of plants have been introduced. Owing to the moistness of the soil cryptogams are numerous, as are also most kinds of grasses. On most of the islands there is a plentiful supply of water.

The fauna of the Marianas, though inferior in number and variety, is similar in character to that of the Carolines and certain species are indigenous to both island groups. The climate though damp is healthy, while the heat, being tempered by the trade winds, is milder than that of the Philippines; the variations of temperature are not great.

The majority of islands in the Marianas still retain their indigenous names end in the letters -an; e.g. Guahan (the indigenous name of Guam), Agrigan, Agrihan, Aguihan/Aguigan, Pagan, Sarigan, etc.



The islands are part of a geologic structure known as the Izu–Bonin–Mariana Arc system and range in age from 5 million years old in the north to 30 million years old in the south (Guam). The islands are formed as the highly dense and very old western edge of the Pacific plate plunges downward to form the floor of the Mariana Trench and carries trapped water under the Mariana plate as it does so. This water is super-heated as the plate is carried farther downward and results in the volcanic activity which has formed the arc of Mariana Islands above this subduction region.

Map showing the Neolithic Austronesian migrations into the islands of the Indo-Pacific

The Mariana Islands were the first islands settled by humans in Remote Oceania. Incidentally it is also the first and the longest of the ocean-crossing voyages of the Austronesian peoples into Remote Oceania, and is separate from the later Polynesian settlement of the rest of Remote Oceania. They were first settled around 1500 to 1400 BCE by migrants departing from the Philippines.[6][7]

Archeological studies of human activity on the islands has revealed potteries with red-slipped, circle-stamped and punctate-stamped designs found in the Mariana Islands dating between 1500 and 1400 BC. These artifacts show similar aesthetics to pottery found in Northern and Central Philippines, the Nagsabaran (Cagayan Valley) pottery, which flourished during the period between 2000 and 1300 BC.[6]

Comparative and historical linguistics also indicate that the Chamorro language is most closely related to the Philippine subfamily of the Austronesian languages, instead of the Oceanic subfamily of the languages of the rest of Remote Oceania.[6][8]

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.

Mitochondrial DNA and whole genome sequencing of the Chamorro people strongly support an ancestry from the Philippines. Genetic analysis of pre-Latte period skeletons in Guam also show that they do not have Australo-Melanesian ("Papuan") ancestry which rules out origins from the Bismarck Archipelago, New Guinea, or eastern Indonesia. The Lapita culture itself (the ancestral branch of the Polynesian migrations) is younger than the first settlement of the Marianas (the earliest Lapita artifacts are dated to around 1350 to 1300 BCE), indicating that they originated from separate migration voyages.[9][10]

Nevertheless, DNA analysis also show close genetic relationship between ancient settlers of the Marianas and early Lapita settlers in the Bismarck Archipelago. This may indicate that both the Lapita culture and the Marianas were settled from direct migrations from the Philippines, or that early settlers from the Marianas voyaged further southwards into the Bismarcks and reconnected with the Lapita people.[9]

The Marianas also later established contact and received migrations from the Caroline Islands at around the first millennium CE. This brought new pottery styles, language, genes, and the hybrid Polynesian breadfruit.[11]

The period 900 to 1700 CE of the Marianas, immediately before and during the Spanish colonization, is known as the Latte period. It is characterized by rapid cultural change, most notably by the massive megalithic latte stones (also spelled latde or latti). These were composed of the haligi pillars capped with another stone called tasa (which prevented rodents from climbing the posts). These served as supports for the rest of the structure which was made of wood. Remains of structures made with similar wooden posts have also been found. Human graves have also been found in front of latte structures, The Latte period was also characterized by the introduction of rice agriculture, which is unique in the pre-contact Pacific Islands.[12]

The reasons for these changes is still unclear, but it is believed that it may have resulted from a third wave of migrants from Island Southeast Asia. Comparisons with other architectural traditions makes it likely that this third migration wave were again from the Philippines, or from eastern Indonesia (either Sulawesi or Sumba), all of which have a tradition of raised buildings with capstones. Interestingly, the word haligi ("pillar") is also used in various languages throughout the Philippines; while the Chamorro word guma ("house") closely resembles the Sumba word uma.[12]

Spanish exploration and control

Reception of the Manila Galleon by the Chamorro in the Ladrones Islands, ca. 1590 Boxer Codex

The first Europeans to see the island group were a Spanish expedition, who on March 6, 1521, observed a string of islands and sailed between two of them during a Spanish expedition of world circumnavigation under the command of Ferdinand Magellan. Historically, the southern village of Umatac, Guam has been credited as the site of the Spanish landing. As confirmation, a scholarly study of the navigator's diary, now kept in preservation in the Philippines, revealed a drawing of the islands with a tiny island to the south of a much larger island above it. The described placement of the islands confirms that Magellan had actually sailed between Guam and Cocos Island, and not Guam and Rota, as some originally thought. Especially since the Northern areas of Guam do not have safe coves or harbors to anchor. Moreover, the waters of Northern Guam are oftentimes more rough and the currents are even more treacherous in comparison to the safer coves and currents seen throughout South-Western side of Guam.

Regardless of where they landed, Spanish ships arrived in Guam and were unable to get fresh food as the inhabitants, Chamorros, "entered the ships and stole whatever they could lay their hands on", including "the small boat that was fastened to the poop of the flagship."[13]:129 The Spanish crew, in retaliation, attacked the Chamorros and dubbed the islands Islas de los Ladrones (Islands of the Thieves). "Those people are poor, but ingenious and very thievish, on account of which we called those three islands the islands of Ladrones."[13]:131 Pigafetta writes,

And the captain-general wished to approach the largest of these three islands to replenish his provisions. But it was not possible, for the people of those islands entered the ships and robbed us so that we could not protect ourselves from them. And when we wished to strike and take in the sails so as to land, they stole very quickly the small boat called a skiff which was fastened to the poop of the captain's ship. At which he, being very angry, went ashore with forty armed men. And burning some forty or fifty houses with several boats and killing seven men of the said island, they recovered their skiff.

Pigafetta also described the boats the inhabitants used, the sail shaped like a "lateen sail" (actually the crab claw sail), hence the name Islas de las Velas Latinas (Islands of the Lateen Sails),[13]:131 the name used first as Magellan claimed them for the Spanish crown. San Lazarus archipelago, Jardines ('gardens') and Prazeres are among the names applied to them by later navigators.

A stamp from the Marianas' late Spanish colonial period, 1898–1899

In 1667, Spain formally claimed them, established a regular colony there and in 1668 gave the islands the official title of Las Marianas, in honor of Spanish Queen Mariana of Austria, widow of King Philip IV of Spain and Queen Regent of the Spanish Empire ruling during the minority of her son King Charles II.[14] They then had a population of more than 50,000 inhabitants. With the arrival of passengers and settlers aboard the Manila Galleons from the Americas, new diseases were introduced in the islands, which caused many deaths in the native Chamorro population.[15] The native population, who referred to themselves as Taotao Tano (people of the land)[16] but were known to the early Spanish colonists as Chamurres or HachaMori,[17] eventually died out as a distinct people, though their descendants intermarried. At the Spanish occupation in 1668, the Chamorros were estimated at 50,000, but a century later only 1,800 natives remained, as the majority of the population was of mixed Spanish-Chamorro blood or mestizo. They were characteristic Micronesians, with a considerable civilization. In the island of Tinian are some remarkable remains attributed to them, consisting of two rows of massive square stone columns, about 5 feet 4 inches (1.63 m) broad and 14 feet (4.3 m) high, with heavy-round capitals called latte stones. According to early Spanish accounts cinerary urns were found embedded in the capitals.

When Spanish settlement started on 14 June 1668, they were subordinate to the Mexican colony (soon viceroyalty) of New Spain, until 1817, when they became subordinated to the Philippines, like the bulk of the Spanish East Indies.

Research in the archipelago was carried out by Commodore Anson, who in August 1742 landed upon the island of Tinian.[18] The Ladrones were visited by Byron in 1765, Wallis in 1767 and Crozet in 1772.

The Marianas and specifically the island of Guam were a stopover for Spanish galleons en route from Acapulco, Mexico to Manila, Philippines in a convoy known as the Galeon de Manila. Following the 1872 Cavite mutiny, several Filipinos were exiled to Guam, including the father of Pedro Paterno, Maximo Paterno, Dr. Antonio M. Regidor y Jurado and Jose Maria Basa.[19]:107–108

The islands were a popular port of call for British and American whaling ships in the 19th century. The first such visit on record was that of the Resource to Guam in October 1799.[20] The last known visit was made by the American whaler Charles W. Morgan in February 1904.[21]

Loss from Spain and split in governance

A 1901 stamp from the German-era Marianas

The Marianas remained a Spanish colony under the general government of the Philippines until 1898, when, as a result of its loss in the Spanish–American War, Spain ceded Guam to the United States. Guam has been separate from the Northern Marianas since this time. Following the Philippine–American War, Apolinario Mabini and other Filipino leaders were exiled to Guam in 1901.[22]:vi

Weakened from its defeat in the Spanish–American War, Spain could no longer effectively control and protect the nearly 6,000 islands it retained throughout Micronesia, including the Northern Marianas, Carolines and Pelew Islands. Therefore, Spain entered into the German-Spanish Treaty of February 12, 1899 to sell the Northern Marianas and its other remaining islands to Germany for 837,500 German gold marks (about $4,100,000 at the time). The Northern Marianas and other island groups were incorporated by Germany as a small part of the larger German Protectorate of New Guinea. The total population in the Northern Marianas portion of these islands was only 2,646 inhabitants around this time, with the ten most northerly islands being actively volcanic and thus mostly uninhabited.

Japan, allied with the Entente Powers during World War I, seized all of Germany's colonial possessions in East Asia and Micronesia, including the Northern Mariana Islands, and held them through the end of the war. Under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, Germany was stripped of all her colonies worldwide, including the Palau, Caroline, Northern Mariana and Marshall Islands. By international agreement, these were all placed into trusteeship under the management of League of Nations which assigned them to Japan as the Class C South Seas Mandate. During this time, Japan used some of the islands for sugarcane production, modestly increasing the population of a few of the islands.

World War II

A U.S. Marine talks a terrified Chamorro woman and her children into abandoning their refuge. Battle of Saipan, 1944.

The island chain saw significant fighting during World War II. Guam, a possession of the United States since 1898, was captured by Japan in an attack from the Northern Mariana Islands that began on the day of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (December 8, 1941, the same time as the Pearl Harbor attack across the International Date Line). In 1944, the United States captured the Mariana Islands chain from Japan: the Northern Mariana Islands were desired by the U.S. as bombing bases to reach the Japanese mainland, with the invasion of Saipan being launched for that reason in June before the U.S. even moved to recapture Guam; a month later the U.S. recaptured Guam and captured Tinian. Once captured, Saipan and Tinian's islands were used extensively by the United States military as they finally put mainland Japan within a round-trip range of American B-29 bombers. In response, Japanese forces attacked the bases on Saipan and Tinian from November 1944 to January 1945. At the same time and afterwards, the United States Army Air Forces based on these islands conducted an intense strategic bombing campaign against the Japanese cities of military and industrial importance, including Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Kobe, and others. Both the Enola Gay and the Bockscar (which dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively) flew their missions from Tinian's North Field.

According to Werner Gruhl: "Mariana Island historians estimate that 10 percent of Guam's some 20,000 population were killed by violence, most by the Japanese Imperial Army and Navy."[23]

Post World War II

The direct result of World War II on the Mariana Islands was that, after the war, the Northern Mariana Islands came under the control of the United States in the same way they had earlier come under the control of Japan after World War I. However, this time they became part of the U.S.-administered Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI) established pursuant to Security Council Resolution 21. The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands later became a U.S. territory following its exit from the TTPI pursuant to Security Council Resolution 683. Although now both under U.S. control, the Northern Mariana Islands are separate from Guam. Efforts at reunification have failed in part due to residual post-war tensions resulting from the very different histories of Guam (occupied by Japan for only 31 months, in wartime) and the Northern Mariana Islands (more peacefully occupied by Japan, for about 30 years).

List of islands

Island name Population Municipality or territory
Guam 159,358 Guam
Saipan 48,220 Saipan
Tinian 3,136 Tinian
Rota 2,477 Rota
Aguigan 0 Tinian
Farallon de Pajaros 0 Northern Islands
Maug Islands 0 Northern Islands
Asuncion 0 Northern Islands
Agrihan 0 Northern Islands
Pagan 0 Northern Islands
Alamagan 0 Northern Islands
Guguan 0 Northern Islands
Papaungan 0 Northern Islands
Sarigan 0 Northern Islands
Anatahan 0 Northern Islands
Farallon de Medinilla 0 Northern Islands


Tourism in the Northern Marianas is split mainly between Filipino, Japanese, American, Korean, Taiwanese and Chinese tourists. There are several large tour operators in Saipan that cater to Asian tourists coming into the island. By far, the majority of tourism in the Northern Marianas is in Guam. Several flights a day land in Guam, mostly in the early hours between 1:00 AM and 3:30 AM. With the close of the garment industries in the Northern Marianas, tourism has grown slowly and is now a major part of the economy of the CNMI.

Amateur radio operators conduct DXpeditions to the Islands at intervals.


Chamorro red rice

Common dishes in the Mariana Islands include red rice, meat or poultry on the grill or in coconut milk, chicken kelaguen, apigigi (young coconut with cassava paste wrapped in banana leaf),[24] and tropical fruits.

See also

  • Rail transport on the Mariana Islands
  • Apostolic Prefecture of Mariana Islands
  • Lists of islands



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  2. The CIA World Factbook (2006).
  3. "Pacific Ocean – Geology of Mariana Islands". 23 December 2010. Archived from the original on 23 December 2010.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
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  9. Pugach, Irina; Hübner, Alexander; Hung, Hsiao-chun; Meyer, Matthias; Carson, Mike T.; Stoneking, Mark (2020-12-21). "Ancient DNA from Guam and the peopling of the Pacific". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 118 (1): e2022112118. bioRxiv 10.1101/2020.10.14.339135. doi:10.1073/pnas.2022112118. hdl:21.11116/0000-0007-9BA4-1. ISSN 0027-8424. PMC 7817125. PMID 33443177. S2CID 224817625.
  10. Vilar, Miguel G.; Chan, Chim W; Santos, Dana R; Lynch, Daniel; Spathis, Rita; Garruto, Ralph M; Lum, J Koji (January 2013). "The origins and genetic distinctiveness of the chamorros of the Marianas Islands: An mtDNA perspective". American Journal of Human Biology. 25 (1): 116–122. doi:10.1002/ajhb.22349. PMC 4335639. PMID 23180676.
  11. Peterson, John A. (2012). "Latte villages in Guam and the Marianas: Monumentality or monumenterity?" (PDF). Micronesica. 42 (1/2): 183–208.
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  14. "About the CNMI". Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Office of the Governor. Archived from the original on 17 August 2020. Retrieved 5 November 2020. In 1668, 147 years after Magellan's encounter, Fr. Diego Luis de San Vitores, a Jesuit priest, arrived in The Marianas with the mission to convert and implement Christianity among the Chamorros, thus beginning the colonization of The Marianas by Spain. The islands were named after Queen Maria Ana of Spain.
  15. Tucker, Spencer (2009). The encyclopedia of the Spanish-American and Philippine-American wars: a political, social, and military history. ABC-CLIO. p. 379. ISBN 978-1-85109-951-1.
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  17. de la Rosa, Alexandre Coello (2015). Jesuits at the Margins: Missions and Missionaries in the Marianas (1668-1769). Routledge. p. 56. ISBN 9781317354536.
  18. George, Lord Anion (1748). Voyage round the World, book iii.
  19. Foreman, J. (1906). The Philippine Islands, A Political, Geographical, Ethnographical, Social, and Commercial History of the Philippine Archipelago. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. OCLC 3913054.
  20. Langdon, Robert (1984). Where the whalers went: an index to the Pacific ports and islands by American whalers (and some other ships) in the 19th century. Canberra: Pacific Manuscripts Bureau. p. 160. ISBN 0-86784-471-X.
  21. Langdon, p.163
  22. Mabini, A. (1969). The Philippine Revolution. Republic of the Philippines, Dept. of Education, National Historical Commission. OCLC 120546.
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  24. "Apigigi' or Sweet Tamales" (Aug. 10, 2013) Annie's Chamorro Kitchen


Encyclopedic sources
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