Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Caribbean Before Columbus?

I've always had a warm spot in my heart for the Caribbean, especially after having lived in the Dominican Republic twice while I did various social justice and environmental projects. The islands are a fascinating place, being the first place impacted by Western imperial and colonial processes during the 15th century. A new study that has recently come out from the journal Latin American Antiquity highlights what the islands were like just before that dreaded day in 1492 when Columbus and his crew landed on the island of Hispanola.

Here is the abstract and title:

Hofman, Corinne L.; Bright, Alistair J.; Boomert, Arie; and Knippenberg, Sebastiaan. (2007). Island Rhythms: The Web of Social Relationships and Interaction Networks in the Lesser Antillean Archipelago Between 400 BC and AD 1492 (Latin American Antiquity, 18(3):243-268).

The precolonial communities of the Caribbean archipelago were not insular. The discontinuous natural resource distribution, the maritime orientation of the Caribbean Amerindians, and the complexities of regional social interaction ensured that the precolonial Caribbean inslandscape was dynamic and highly interconnected. This report explores the sociocultural behavior and intercommunity exchange relationships of the inhabitants of the Lesser Antilles. It combines related archaeological case studies encompassing the procurement and exchange of: 1) raw materials and utilitarian goods with a wide spatial and social distribution, 2) goods with high stylistic visibility and presumed social function as markers of identity or status, and 3) prestige goods with profound ceremonial value. The study of these objects reveals overarching social and ideological dimensions to Caribbean life. Data suggest that social relationships manifest themselves at different levels and through distinct rhythms while taking on various material guises during the Ceramic age Amerindian occupation of the Caribbean islands (400 BC to AD 1492). While there is great potential in unraveling interaction networks through the careful study of distribution patterns, the incorporation of ethnohistoric and ethnographic information is imperative to elucidate the web of social relationships underlying these material manifestations.

If one can get around some of the academic jargon used in the abstract, what the study actually demonstrates is that the people of the Lesser Antilies, such as today's Arawakan and Cariban speaking people, as well as the ancestors of the Greater Antilles Taino speaking people, are cultural affiliated with these past cultural manifestations. That is, the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean prior to colonial occupation were a highly sophisticated group of people composed of numerous "cultures" that each had ingenious and local forms of cultural manifestations. Those local forms, spread across the archipelago, are still found in the campo and villages today.

As noted at the end of the article: "During precolonial times in the Lesser Antilles, interaction occurred at different levels in varying intensity, depending on the exchanged good, timing, and motive. Exchange was instrumental in shaping and maintaining healthy social relationships between islanders, thereby safeguarding one's own fitness. The multiple exchange modes reflect fluid social ties based on kinship, marriage, and lineage." (p. 261).

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