The golden badge, symbol of the authority of the chief.

The golden badge, symbol of the authority of the chief.

The indigenous people of the Caribbean used the word “guanin” to describe a metal alloy of gold, copper and silver that they used to make various objects. This metal, also called tumbaga, caracoli, low gold or alambre, was produced in the Caribbean cultures of Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia and even in the Andes. These cultures revered the metal and considered it a sacred symbol of the origin of life and human and natural existence.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, Europeans found guanin in the Greater Antilles and at various sites in Venezuela and Guyana. Pieces recovered from the indigenous cultures of the Greater Antilles, Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia date to the first centuries A.D. In Puerto Rico, a sheet of guanin was found at an archaeological site and was subjected to radiocarbon testing to determine its age. The test revealed that the piece dated to between 70 and 374 A.D. The pieces from the Central Andes are even older. Guanin has also been found in Cuba in forms very similar to those of the Tairona and Sinú cultures of Colombia. It has not been found, however, in the Lesser Antilles and only one piece has been found in Guyana, in northern South America, and it displays Colombian typology.

Guanin has a different appearance from gold, as it has reddish-gold tones, and the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean believed the color was very special. In Colombia and Central America, they made anthropomorphic (human forms) and zoomorphic (animal forms) figures from guanin using the lost wax method. The abundance and cultural significance of the material in Central America is so notable that the Caribbean coast has been called the Guanin Isthmus.

In most cases, sheets of guanin were used to make medallions worn around the neck by chiefs in important ceremonies or in battle. They were also used for choosing wives and for establishing alliances. Their brilliance and iridescence were associated with the sacred and thus legitimized the command ability of the chiefs and their ability to communicate with the supernatural.

Guanin was not fabricated in the Antilles, as smelting methods were not known there. The gold was molded through a technique of hammering the nuggets that were found in the rivers. It is believed that guanin came from Colombia and that its use arrived in the Antilles from northern South America. Some experts propose that smelting of guanin also took place in Guyana, but this has not been proven.

The long presence of guanin in various regions of the Americas shows the continuity of cultural interaction that existed in the Greater Antilles of the Caribbean and the continental zones of the Americas.

Author: Reniel Rodríguez Ramos
Published: December 26, 2011.

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