U.S.-Cuban Archaeological Dig, Deciphered Documents Grant Insights into Indians who Encountered Christopher Columbus
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Interpretations of a now defunct form of Spanish writing, in combination with a joint U.S.-Cuban archaeological effort, are granting researchers insight into the Cuban people who Christopher Columbus encountered on his first voyage to the “New World.”
During the two previous summers, an archaeological effort in eastern Cuba has recovered several thousand pottery and stone artifacts from the site of a former large native village, El Chorro de Maita. The effort is co-led by The University of Alabama and the Central-Eastern Department of Archaeology of the science ministry of Cuba and sponsored by the National Geographic Society. Roberto Valcarcel led the Cuban contingent.
Dr. Jim Knight, a UA professor of anthropology who set up and is advising the project, said the artifacts from the site, in combination with the research of documents archived in Spain, are shedding light on the early history of the Indians of Cuba.
“We should be able to put together a map of who was where – where the different towns and tribes were and which Spaniards were where and what they were up to,” Knight said. Handwritten documents originally produced by the early Spanish colonizers of Cuba recorded, as it were, some of the 16th-century “news of the day,” Knight said. On at least one occasion, a detailed inventory of the possessions of an early Spanish colonizer provides insight into 16th-century life. The researchers’ insight, however, doesn’t come without effort.
“It’s handwritten in a script that is barely recognizable as Spanish, even to a native speaker,” Knight said. Dr. John Worth, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of West Florida who is trained in interpreting the period’s writings, traveled to Spain to review the material and ordered relevant copies for further study. “Our hope is to correlate the documents with what we’re finding at the site,” Knight said.
The people Columbus encountered during his first voyage to northeastern Cuba in 1492 are known as Arawakan Indians. There is no concrete evidence, Knight said, that Columbus visited El Chorro de Maita, but this large village was occupied by Arawakans. There has been speculation since the 1940s, Knight said, that Columbus did visit the site. “That’s never been proven, but it’s in the right area,” he said.
The Arawakans of that day were of a similar level of sophistication, although quite different culturally, as the Mississippian Indians, their contemporaries, who lived at Moundville, some 13 miles south of Tuscaloosa and which Knight has studied for more than 30 years.
“They were chiefdoms, as were the inhabitants of Moundville,” Knight said. “And they were agriculturalists, but they primarily grew root crops instead of corn.”
Chiefdom is the name given to societies of the period that were headed by a chief, who would have unusual ritual, political or entrepreneurial skills. The societies were very hierarchical, with power concentrated within other kin leaders, who would then redistribute the resources to the others.
Artifacts recovered from the site, including evidence of the manufacturing of “idolillos,” or little idols, at portions of the site is among the evidence that the society had both elite and non-elite members, Knight said. The elite members of the group would have produced and worn these small, human-shaped figurines as part of a necklace. “They probably represent a god-figure, but we don’t know which god,” Knight said.
Working alongside the Cuban and U. S. professional archaeologists during the excavations were students from Syracuse and Penn State, and two students from The University of Alabama.
The project is a part of the UA Cuba Initiative, which provides opportunities for UA students to pursue their education under a special academic license granted by the U.S. government. Since 2002, UA has received academic travel licenses from the U.S. Department of the Treasury which permits travel to Cuba for specific academic activities.
UA’s department of anthropology is part of the College of Arts and Sciences, the University’s largest division and the largest liberal arts college in the state. Students from the College have won numerous national awards including Rhodes Scholarships, Goldwater Scholarships and memberships on the USA Today All-USA College academic teams.
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