The original societies of the Antilles arrived to the islands approximately 5,500 years ago from Central America and Venezuela. From the beginning of their settlement, the indigenous people had to adapt to their environment to ensure their subsistence, which meant the transformation of nature by human hands.

In the early 1990s, U.S. scientist David Burney and his colleagues conducted a paleontological study at Laguna Tortuguero, located between the municipalities of Vega Baja and Manati in Puerto Rico. They found that a strange pattern of increased fires began approximately 3,500 years ago in the area. At the time, Burney had his colleagues did not know that groups of humans inhabited the area in the northern part of the island in the time period studied.

Recently, a paleobotanical research technique (the study of ancient starches) has been applied in Puerto Rico to stone tools from two Archaic sites on the island that date to 3,300 to 2,900 years ago. These sites are known as Maruca (in Ponce) and Puerto Ferro (on Vieques). This technique uncovered evidence that proved that the Archaic people on the island not only hunted, fished and gathered foods, but also farmed the land. They introduced corn, cassava and yams almost 1,700 years earlier than previously estimated by experts in the region.

The new microbotanical evidence recovered from the tools for grinding vegetables were granules of starches that are found in tubers and seeds. Evidence was also found of the use of Antillean plants such as marunguey (Zamia sp.), wild yams and prickly palm.

Early agriculture had impacts on the environment, as also documented in Cuba, the Dominican Republic and the continental Caribbean. The original peoples of the Caribbean cleared forests and burned areas where they lived to prepare the land for agriculture. By introducing new species of plants, they undoubtedly affected the native vegetation and animal populations. These practices brought about the first changes in the region’s environment after the arrival of the first human settlers to the Antilles.

Author: Reniel Rodríguez Ramos
Published: December 16, 2011.

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