Until recent years, researchers believed that the development of agriculture in the Caribbean was the result of the cultural expansion of the Saladoid, which occurred around the year 500 B.C. This supposition implied that the pre-Arawak groups, called the Archaics, which settled in the region previously, were nomadic and pre-agricultural. Although this theory is still asserted today, new studies have led to the possibility that the Archaics knew and used agricultural techniques.

The first data pointing to the new hypothesis was compiled in the 1990s. Evidence was found that suggested that the Archaic populations probably developed basic strategies of cultivating crops from the continental Americas, such as avocado, and zamia, a plant native to the Antilles.

The most recent studies have focused on the analysis of stone tools, specifically pebbles, and the starch granules found on them. These instruments are important because in other early settings in the Caribbean region, particularly in Panama and Colombia, they are related to the presence of agricultural products such as corn, beans, cassava and sweet potatoes, among others. This information served as the basis for a study that sought to determine, among other things, what kinds of foods were processed using the grinding pebbles and if the shape of their surfaces could be linked to a certain usage. As part of the study, a similar tool was used to recreate the work of processing corn, cassava and sweet potato. Based on this experiment, the formation of surfaces similar to those observed on the authentic archaeological objects was documented. Although this study did not produce definitive data with respect to the use of the implements, it served as the basis for suggesting that they could have been associated with this activity and that these crops could have been introduced to the Antilles in pre-Arawak times.

The hypothesis raised by this experimental study was supported later by studies of starch granules found on objects recovered from the Archaic sites of Maruca and Puerto Ferro in Puerto Rico and Vieques, respectively. The Maruca artifacts date to between 1300 and 400 B.C., while those of Puerto Ferro are estimated to be from around 700 B.C.

The results obtained so far from these tools show, for the first time and in a direct way, that the Archaics processed domestic plants and foreign crops. In Maruca, corn (Zea mays) starches were documented that had characteristics similar to those of the modern forms called Pollo and Negrito of Colombia and Cateto of Brazil. Other plants identified were cassava (Manihot esculenta), sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas), arrowleaf (Xanthosoma), beach bean (Canavalia sp.) and other legumes, possibly wild (Papilionoideae-Fabaceae) and domesticated (cf. Phaseolus), as well as a kind of yam (Dioscorea-Rajania) still not identified at the species level.

Meanwhile, starches of cassava, sweet potato, legumes (wild and possibly domesticated) and corn, products similar to those documented in Maruca, were also recovered at Puerto Ferro. Also identified were starches of Indian shot (Canna indica), as well as two local plants: zamia (Zamia sp.) and corozo palm (Acrocomia).

This evidence suggests that the inhabitants of these sites practiced agriculture through home gardens, modified parcels and the management of forests. It has been preliminarily established that this subsistence system was based on planting and collecting roots, tubers and seeds, both local and foreign.

Additionally, paleo-environmental studies conducted in northern Puerto Rico show a significant increase in the number of fires beginning in approximately 3300 B.C., which could have coincided with deforestation activities, a technique used to prepare land for planting. A similar situation was documented in Vieques around 850 B.C.

In the Dominican Republic and northern Puerto Rico — in archaeological sites dating to 1450 B.C. and before 1600 B.C., respectively — microbotanical evidence of corn was discovered. Some scholars have pointed to the early presence of corn in Mesoamerica, Central America and the northern part of the Amazon region [approximately 5000-800 B.C.]. This is consistent with the possibility that the Archaic migrants had access to corn before settling in the Antilles. Like corn, plants such as cassava, beans, beach beans, Indian shot and wild yams were known and used mainly in South America at least as early as 2000 B.C. Starch granules from cassava have been reported at archaeological sites in Central America (Panama) and South America (Colombia) from 4000 B.C., while evidence of sweet potato has been documented in the Casma Valley and in the Chicla caves in Peru, associated with pre-pottery making cultures from around 8000 and 1800 B.C.

Meanwhile, beans, beach beans (Canavalia sp.), Indian shot and wild yams have been identified in cultural settings from 4000 to 1100 B.C. in Central and South America, both in pre-pottery making sites (Aguadulce in Panama) and pottery-making sites (Valdivia in Ecuador, Ayacucho caves in Peru). The use of the palm and its fruits has also been documented in the lower tropical regions of South America since at least 7300 B.C.

The available data therefore indicates that during the initial periods of migration to the Antilles, the Archaics had already had contact with these crops. These findings also suggest that there was interaction between the Archaics and other Indo-American cultures that spread the techniques of cultivation.

Author: Reniel Rodríguez Ramos
Published: December 15, 2011.

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