Thousands of artifacts have been uncovered by archeologists in Cuba, including ceremonial idol figurines manufactured from exotic imported stone for elite Arawakan Indians (above, right). The relics were recovered from the site of a 16th-century Cuban village over the last two years by U.S. and Cuban researchers who announced their finds this week. Combined with new translations of Spanish colony "newspapers," the artifacts help paint a picture of the Indian populations that Christopher Columbus encountered during his first voyage to the New World in 1492.
for National Geographic News
December 9, 2008
Stone idols collected over the last two years at an archaeological site in Cuba were manufactured from exotic imported material for elite Indians, according to U.S. and Cuban researchers who announced their finds this week. The relics, combined with new translations of Spanish colony "newspapers" from the 1500s, help paint a picture of the Indian populations that Christopher Columbus encountered during his first voyage to the New World in 1492.
(Watch related video: "Columbus' 1492 Journey Continues to Spark Controversy" [October 5, 2006].)
In recent years, archeologists have worked to map the size and location of residential areas at the El Chorro de Maita site in hopes of learning how Cuba's Arawakan Indians were affected by Spanish conquest, said Jim Knight, a University of Alabama archaeologist who supervises work at the site.
Stone Idols a Status Symbol
In the process of mapping, Knight and his colleagues happened upon several thousand pottery and stone artifacts, including the small stone idols. "They took exotic, fine-grain metamorphic rocks and gradually reduced them into forms that look very crude, but you can tell that the intended product was an [idol]," said Knight, whose work is funded in part by the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)
"We know now that the society had an elite class and that the crude idols were meant for the elite," he said, adding that the idols were human-shaped figures representing gods and were likely worn on necklaces. The origins of the unusual stone are unknown, but it was probably imported, Knight said. Columbus's voyage landed him in northeastern Cuba, where researchers say he would have encountered Arawakan Indians. While Knight said there is no evidence that Columbus visited El Chorro de Maita, the researcher is certain that the settlement was occupied by Arawakans, who were organized by chiefdoms. They were an agriculturist people, reliant on root crops instead of corn, but there is a lack of specific information about names of tribes and their specific locations, according to Knight.
Translating the "News"
To complement the findings at El Chorro, researchers are using historical documents—including handwritten materials made by Spanish colonizers of Cuba. The documents are written in a barely recognizable form of Spanish that today few people understand, Knight said. But they are rich in information, he adds. One 16th-century document, for example, offers a detailed inventory of an early Spanish colonizer's possessions. John Worth, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of West Florida, is analyzing the documents, which are housed in Spain. "I'm trying to sort through the details of how this all took place," Worth said. "The sources are excellent with respect to the broad generalities of what happened during the 1500s and 1600s and later, but they are generally not specific enough to be able to zero in on the Chorro site in particular."
Worth said he hopes the old documents will provide clues to how long Cuba's Arawakan culture may have survived post-conquest. "Right now there is a lot we don't know, such as the exact names of the people who lived near the Chorro site," Worth said. "We want to know if there were pure indigenous populations versus pure Spanish or if there was a mixing ground during this early period." Researchers also want to know if the Cuban Indians went extinct without descendants or if there was a gradual process as native groups were given a type of autonomy that led to mixing, Worth said. "While living there, for instance, did they work on Spanish plantations? Did they die or become more assimilated?" The documents mention encomiendas—or colonial labor systems imposed by the Spanish crown during the time of the conquests. And Worth has found references to specific chiefs.
"If possible, I would like to be able to identify the original group name of those who lived in the vicinity of El Chorro de Maita and to then find out precisely where each chiefdom might have been located," he said. "This project is an example of how the integration of archaeological and historical research allows more balanced perspectives on the contact between Europeans and indigenous communities of the Caribbean," said Marcos Martinón-Torres, a researcher with the Institute of Archeology at the University College London who is not part of the study. "Rather than using potentially biased European texts alone, the combination of sources allows more nuanced perspectives where both Europeans and indigenous peoples are represented."
Dennis Blanton, curator of Native American archeology at Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta, Georgia, was not part of the Cuba dig. Blanton said the work provides an opportunity to do cross-cultural comparative studies of native chiefdom societies in Cuba and elsewhere in the world, including the eastern United States. The work also provides added insight into 16th- and 17th-century Spanish activity in the New World, Blanton said. "We're curious to see how Spanish policies changed over time," he said. "This work provides a wonderful opportunity to see how they were conducting themselves in the midst of native people at the very beginning. This is probably an unprecedented glimpse at 'chapter one' of the Spanish encounters."
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