New archaeological evidence suggests that the inhabitants of the Caribbean islands maintained ties with various continental areas beyond northeastern South America, particularly with the inhabitants of the Colombian isthmus area, which includes the modern-day territories of Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia.

The hypothesis of isolation and disassociation among pre-Columbian Antillean groups and their continental neighbors took hold half a century ago with the work of Irving Rouse, who dethroned the idea a greater Caribbean cultural area — postulated by Julian Steward — by showing that development in the islands took place independently from the continental Caribbean areas, except for northeast South America.

Until now, it has been generally thought that during the pre-Arawak times there were two main routes of movement into the Antilles: one from the Yucatan peninsula, associated with the Casimiroid culture, and the other from northeastern South America, related to the Ortoiroid culture. However, paleo-botanical and ceremonial evidence appears to suggest the possible existence of multiple routes of movement and additional interaction, some of which denote influences from the Colombian isthmus area. For example, the presence of pebbles cut by grinding has been attributed to what is known as the Tropical Archaic Tradition, which is the name for those aspects shared by the cultures of the tropical zone. The samples that are most similar to the pebbles found on the islands have been those from the Antillean regions of Panama and Colombia, as had been originally postulated by Ricardo Alegría and others.

The presence of pottery in the second millennia B.C. in the Caribbean islands, from Cuba to Puerto Rico, locations traditionally considered to be pre-pottery, may be a sign of possible direct contact with early pottery makers from the Colombian isthmus zone or northeastern Venezuela. Add to this the presence of crops that have not yet been identified in the Archaic cultures of northeastern South America, nor in the Lesser Antilles, such as corn, cassava, and yams, among others. This could indicate a continuous flow of agricultural techniques and botanical products between the two zones over time.

The data support the possibility of population movements and interactions directly between the Greater Antilles and the Colombian isthmus. The exchange of goods and techniques increased beginning in at least the year 400 B.C., when trade focused on shiny adornments has been documented between both the Huecoid and Saladoids. The case of the Huecoid culture is important because of the presence of pieces whose iconography is similar to that documented in contemporary settings on the Atlantic coasts of Costa Rica and Panama. For example, motifs of birds with beaks, frogs, and plates with wings made of shells and stones that are markedly similar to those of the Huecoids have been documented in findings located in Línea Vieja in Costa Rica. The use of the technique known as string sawing, associated with the production of these kinds of pieces, as well as the practice of making them from soft rocks such as jadeitite and serpentinite, appear to show marked similarities between the two zones.

Also documented is the presence of the production of ornamental pieces from mother of pearl that are similar to those found at sites on the Colombian isthmus, particularly in Panama, that were contemporary to the Huecoids. In this case, the techniques of production of the pieces also appear to present similarities between the two zones. Both present bifaces with the edges polished and channeled surfaces like those documented in Ecuador and Colombia.

Polished black wooden pieces have also been found in the Huecoid settlements and are considered by Mary Helms to be indications of contact between the Antilles and Costa Rica in later settings. The presence of polished black wooden pieces in the early pottery-making era of Puerto Rico, however, appears to indicate that production of these kinds of items could have occurred much earlier than established by Helms.

Although examples of the Huecoid culture have been emphasized, it is believed that the Saladoid groups, of Arawak origin, also participated in these routes of interaction. For example, in the Maisabel archaeological site located in northern Puerto Rico, a gold and copper plate was recovered that dates to approximately 150 A.D. The absence of this kind of material in other early settings in the Lesser Antilles could indicate cultural interaction between the Greater Antilles and the Colombian isthmus.

After 500 A.D., there was a change, both in the Colombian isthmus and in the Antilles, in the production and movement of shiny adornments ranging from small in size to large items designed for public displays of power. This was accompanied by a decreased emphasis on exchange of soft rocks. There was also an increase in the trade of gold and wooden pieces among various zones. Some of the iconographic elements that continued to be produced in the Antilles and the Colombian isthmus had precedents in ancestral displays, such as the winged bat, for example, that was seen in the Antilles in both Huecoid and Saladoid displays and continued to be reformulated until Taino times. The same can be seen with the “ax god” motif, which is present in early Costa Rican and Antillean displays, but was later reproduced in similar forms in the Antilles on basic rocks. In post-Saladoid times in the Antilles, elements similar to those in the Colombian isthmus were also incorporated, including squatting figures that have been documented.

The presence of guinea pigs in late epochs in Puerto Rico and Antigua is another factor that suggests interaction between the northern Antilles and the Colombian isthmus. To date, no evidence of this species has been found south of the Anegada Passage. The same can be said about the presence of ceremonial courts, called “batey,” which have not been documented south of Antigua in findings earlier than those of the Greater Antilles.

In the area of Banes, Cuba, two pieces have been found that clearly came from Colombia. The first is a hanging ornithomorphic figure made of gold and copper, similar to those documented in the Sinu area of Colombia. The second is an anthropomorphic piece with a bifurcated headdress and holding a container in his hands. This is nearly identical to others associated with the style seen from the Caribbean area of Colombia to Costa Rica. Although doubts have been raised about the contextual integrity of these findings, the documentation of the movement of gold-copper pieces to the Antilles in early Saladoid and Ostionoid times in Puerto Rico raises the possibility that the Cuba pieces, as well as others documented in the Greater Antilles, had been transported to the zone via direct routes from Colombia or the Colombian isthmus.

It is believed that these trade routes made the greater Caribbean a contact zone in which the sea served as the linking element between the inhabitants of the different areas. Based on this, a broader focus beyond the islands has been proposed for Antillean archaeology, so that the island cultures can be studied in the greater context of the continental Caribbean.

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

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