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Indigenous communities used the Caribbean Sea as an aquatic highway

Indigenous communities used the Caribbean Sea as a waterway

Ancient pottery contains clues to past lives, traditions and movements of indigenous peoples of the Caribbean islands. Credit: Florida Museum photo by Kristen Grace

With some 7,000 islands and cays and a history of 7,000 years of human habitation, the Caribbean Sea is practically synonymous with sea travel. The word “canoe” is derived from the term “kana:wa”, used by the indigenous Arawaks of the Caribbean to describe their excavated vessels.

With no clear road signs to indicate where native islanders traveled, the task of reconstructing ancient trade routes rests on subtle clues tucked away in the archaeological record. Researchers at the Florida Museum of Natural History recently turned to pottery to piece apart the navigational history of the Caribbean and analyzed the composition of 96 fired clay fragments on 11 islands.

The study, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reportsis the widest of its kind conducted in the Greater Antilles to date, and marks the first time pottery artifacts from the Lucayan Islands — the Bahamas plus the Turks and Caicos — have been analyzed to determine their elemental composition and origin.

“Our methods mark a big improvement over other studies that usually look at a single site or island, where you may see differences but don’t know what it means because you look at the results individually,” said co-author Lindsay Bloch. a courtesy member of the faculty at the Florida Museum’s Ceramic Technology Lab.

Humans have lived and migrated in the Caribbean islands for more than 7,000 years, migrating in waves from Central and South America. As early as 800 BC, new groups arrived from Venezuela and established a trade network between islands, which they used to exchange food, tools and jewelry. But the most common artifacts that have survived to date are the pottery vessels in which these objects were transported.

“Most materials don’t last well in the Caribbean because of the hot, humid environment, but pottery is durable, so it ends up being one of the most common things we find,” said lead author Emily Kracht, a collection assistant at the Ceramics technology lab.

Indigenous communities used the Caribbean Sea as a waterway

Native Caribbean islanders developed elaborate and ornate pottery styles that varied over time and across cultures. Credit: Lindsay Bloch

Over the following millennia, different Caribbean cultures developed unique styles and techniques for constructing their pottery. Some artifacts are simple and unadorned, while others are highly decorated, with a grid of incised lines, punctuation, raised ribbing and flared edges.

Many studies rely almost entirely on similarities in style to distinguish between different cultures and infer their movements. But, as Bloch explains, this method has often left more questions than answers and excluded material with potentially valuable information.

“The vast majority of pottery we find around the world will be undecorated. It will be things used for cooking or storage, which are usually simple and often ignored because they are considered generic,” said they.

Rather than studying the details of different styles, the researchers instead focused on what the pottery was made of. Using a laser to etch microscopic lines into their samples, the researchers determined the exact amounts and identities of each element in the clay used to make the pottery. Their final analysis included more than seven decades of archaeological collections spanning more than 1,000 years of indigenous Caribbean history.

“One of the benefits of elemental analysis is that we explicitly look for differences, which allows us to see where a pot was made and compare it to where it ended,” Bloch said.

Such detailed comparisons are possible due to the complexity of the underlying geology of the Caribbean. The largest islands in the archipelago probably started as an ancient underwater plateau in the Pacific Ocean. After the breakup of the supercontinent Pangea, the Caribbean Plate drifted east in a flurry of volcanic eruptions that lifted the plateau above sea level before finally reaching its current position in the Atlantic Ocean.

Indigenous communities used the Caribbean Sea as a waterway

Pottery from the Caribbean is relatively durable and is often the most common artifact unearthed at archaeological sites. Credit: Florida Museum photo by Kristen Grace

Millions of years of weathering have reduced these volcanic outcrops to fine-grained clays with varying concentrations of elements such as copper, nickel, chromium and antimony. These differences mean that even the smallest Caribbean pottery shard bears the elemental signature of the region in which it was made.

The results of researchers’ comparative analysis are not what you would expect simply by looking at a map. The Lucayan Islands were initially only used temporarily for resource harvesting, and the people who traveled there are said to have moved from the larger islands to the south that supported permanent population centers.

Cuba may initially seem like the perfect staging area for these operations, as it is by far the largest Caribbean island and the closest to the Bahamas. Although humans made the open water trek from Cuba, the study’s results indicate that the Caribbean’s cultural center was instead centered on the northwest coast of Hispaniola, from which people imported and exported goods for hundreds of years.

“At least some of the pottery would have been used to carry goods to these islands, and people could potentially take a variety of marine resources with them,” Bloch said.

People eventually established permanent settlements in the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos, becoming known collectively as the Lucayans or the People of the Islands. They started making their own pottery from clayey soils deposited by African dust plumes blown in from the Sahara, but the results didn’t quite hold up with the pottery from Hispaniola — literally. Lucayan pottery, called Palmetto Ware, is usually thick and soft and crumbles over time due to the poor quality of the grainy Saharan soil.

Thus, Hispaniola remained the main trading partner and exporter of pottery to the Lucayan Islands until the arrival of the Spaniards.

“We knew that the Lucayans were related to people in Hispaniola, and this study shows their lasting relationship over hundreds of years through pottery,” Kracht said.


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More information:
Emily C. Kracht et al, Great Antillean Pottery Production and Its Exchange to the Lucayan Islands: A Composition Study, Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports (2022). DOI: 10.116/j.jasrep.2022.103469

Provided by Florida Museum of Natural History


Quote: Indigenous communities used the Caribbean Sea as a waterway (June 2022, June 22) Retrieved June 22, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-06-indigenous-caribbean-sea-aquatic-highway.html

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