Printer Friendly

The Tainos: Rise and Decline of the People Who Greeted Columbus.

With the publication of The Tainos by Irving Rouse, the doyen of Caribbean prehistory has brought together his life's work. The book, he says in the preface, 'is a product of fifty-five years of research on the prehistory and ethnohistory of the West Indies and the adjacent parts of North and South America'. To work in Caribbean prehistory without reference to the substantial work of Irving Rouse, published over five decades, is impossible. Professor Rouse has established a framework in which practically all prehistorians of the Caribbean work. Like all great works of synthesis, the detail may be argued about, but it forms a firm basis for development of all future work. Without such a framework we could easily be lost in the mass of data.

Professor Rouse's basic hypothesis is that the West Indies was first settled by preceramic peoples of the 'Lithic Age' around 5000-4000 BC, This involved the movement of peoples from Middle America into Cuba and Hispaniola. A second group migrated from South America into the Lesser Antilles and Puerto Rico around 2000 BC. These were still preceramic, but of the 'Archaic Age'. These preceramic peoples were destroyed by 'invaders' who used white-on-red painted ware and zone-incised cross-hatched ware. Around 500-250 BC these peoples, the Saladoids, moved through the Lesser Antilles introducing agriculture and reaching Puerto Rico and Cuba perhaps as early as 430 BC. From these peoples there developed locally the peoples met by Columbus, the Tainos. At the time of Columbus there were non-Taino peoples to the west, the Guanahalabey, and to the south, the Island Caribs. The Guanahalabey were the last survivals of the preceramic population, while the Caribs were savage cannibals sweeping up from South America. As a model it can be made to fit the strands of evidence, archaeology, ethnohistory and physical anthropology so expertly woven together by Professor Rouse.

There can be no doubt that the West Indies were first settled by foragers and fishers around 5000-4000 BC on the larger islands in the Greater Antilles, and perhaps closer to 2000 BC on smaller islands in the Lesser Antilles. Modifications in their material culture appear around 2000 BC. The size and distribution of this population is unknown. Given the large size of the later prehistoric population and extensive landscape change on islands during the historic period, it is not surprising that the location of sites of preceramic date has proved difficult on many islands. I excavated for seven seasons on Barbados before finding the first trace of preceramic peoples, found purely by accident below a ceramic period site.

What evidence do we really have that the movement of Saladoid pottery from the Orinoco Basin, through the Lesser Antilles, to the islands of the Greater Antilles represents the migration of a people or indeed an 'invasion'? Biological evidence is almost non-existent, and linguistic evidence is dubious in the extreme. We are left with pottery and the associated changes in food procurement. Elsewhere in the world this marks the arrival of the 'Neolithic', but where else are these introductions thought to represent an invasion? The rapid introduction of Saladoid white-on-red painted ware and zone-incised cross-hatched ware is reminiscent of the rapid introduction of round-based pottery in Western Europe or the adoption of Beakers. The Saladoid pottery may be considered as texts relating to the introduction of new cultivated foods, their preparation and consumption. There is no real evidence that they represent the movement of peoples.

Between the arrival of ceramics in the West Indies and the arrival of Europeans, styles change with the development of a network of interrelated styles, no doubt representing a wide range of processes of interaction. Columbus, after 1492, divided the Caribbean population into two, those friendly and those, initially by reputation, unfriendly. The friendly were those met by Columbus in the Greater Antilles and the unfriendly were known only through stories and lived in the Lesser Antilles. This split between good and bad, Arawak and Carib, Taino and Island Carib, has dominated all thinking and research in the Caribbean. Yet what are these labels? Certainly none are self-ascriptions referring to a group of people. Professor Rouse states, 'Columbus encountered Tainos throughout most of the West Indies'. One can imagine the encounter. Columbus wades ashore; 'I am Admiral Don Cristobal Colon.' Reply: 'I am Taino.' In the language spoken in Hispaniola 'Taino' appears to mean 'noble' or 'person of importance'. Of course, everyone introduced to Columbus would have been a 'Taino'. As Peter Hulme points out in Colonial Encounters (1986), the term 'Taino' was given to the language of the Greater Antilles by Cornelius Rafinesque in 1836. The term then 'slipped imperceptibly, without anyone taking a conscious decision, or showing any awareness of the possible consequences, from the level of linguistics, to that of culture, to that of ethnicity' (Hulme 1986: 60).

'The members of the second peripheral group called themselves Carib'. This is certainly true, but probably not until the 16th century. Archaeologically the 'Island Caribs' have proved remarkably elusive until well into the historic period. The term 'Carib' was used in a variety of confused ways by Columbus. Did he hear a word like it and then apply it back to these groups of Indians not visited by him, but rumoured to be cannibals, in the Lesser Antilles? In fact there appears to be no archaeological or first-hand historical evidence for cannibalism in the Caribbean.

My basic problem with this book is probably as fundamental as the definition of archaeology itself. The glossary defines archaeology as (1) curation of human remains; (2) use of human remains to solve problems of another discipline, such as anthropology or art history. As I see it, Caribbean archaeology will not progress unless it is allowed to stand on its own feet. Archaeology is the study of the human past through its material remains. Exciting things are happening in Caribbean archaeology; whole village plans have been obtained by the Dutch on St Eustatius, detailed human ecologies have been prized out of bleak islands like Curacao, brilliant work has been undertaken by Elizabeth Wing on animal remains. Archaeology must free itself from frameworks imposed from other disciplines. Look at the data first, all of it, including house plans, settlements, economy, lithics, environment.

The Tainos by Irving Rouse is the perfect starting-place for any archaeologist working in the Caribbean. It presents all the problems in a clear, coherent form. Many of the answers lie in the soil of the Caribbean to be revealed by archaeologists, working as archaeologists, not attempting to prove points suggested from other disciplines.

PETER DREWETT Institute of Archaeology, University College London


HULME, P. 1986. Colonial encounters. London: Methuen.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Antiquity Publications, Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Drewett, Peter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
Previous Article:The Art of Vase-Painting in Classical Athens.
Next Article:Masking the Blow: The Scene of Representation in Late Prehistoric Egyptian Art.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters