Project 1 – Transformations of Indigenous Caribbean Cultures and Societies Across the Historical Divide

Principal Investigator: Prof. dr. Corinne L. Hofman


Project 1 forms the archaeological backbone of NEXUS1492 and aims to examine transformations of indigenous cultures and societies across the historical divide, bridging the pre-colonial and colonial era (AD 1000-1800). Central questions include: How did indigenous societies deal with European colonisation and how did they reorient themselves in the face of constantly shifting power relations as reflected in the archaeological record? How did change manifest itself in terms of lifeways and deathways? How did Amerindian settlement organisation and settlement patterns, and environmental settings change after European encounters? How did technological traditions change across the historical divide and how are they reflected in artefact assemblages?

Lifeways and Deathways

The impacts of 1492 resulted in cultural and physical transformations in and renegotiations of Caribbean Amerindian lifeways and deathways. Yet, the nature of these transformations is poorly understood and understudied due to traditional perceptions on rapid Amerindian demise after the first encounters. Research in other regions of the Americas has demonstrated that the bioarchaeological record uniquely reflects the role of indigenous populations in contact settings and documents changes in health and disease, biological and social identities, diet, physical activity and workload, and burial practices (e.g., Larsen et al. 2001). This subproject will take a similar approach, but will apply multiple scales of social analyses, from the individual to the community, and to entire populations to explicitly empirical data. The impacts of European encounters will be assessed through a comparative analysis of late precolonial and early colonial burial assemblages from the Greater and Lesser Antilles. These assemblages will be examined for local variations in physical (e.g., increased workload, diseases, malnourishment) responses to encounter situations, for cultural (e.g., mortuary practices) changes anticipated by the confrontation of different worldviews and religious practices after 1492, and the changing biological identities due to mixing of different ancestries (e.g., intermarriage of Amerindians, Africans, and Europeans). The latest techniques in bioarchaeological, genetic and archaeothanatological research will be employed, building on previous work undertaken by the Leiden Caribbean Research Group.

Landscapes in Transformation

Colonisation had profound impacts on the structure and organisation of native landscapes, resulting in forced depopulation, dispersal and re-aggregation of Amerindian communities, imposition of new labour regimes and reorganisation of land-use for new industrial practices, formation of inter-ethnic spaces, and militarisation and mobilisation of Amerindian groups. A multi-scalar, integrated landscape approach will address Amerindian settlement organisation and settlement patterns, land-use, and landscape transformations as a result of colonial processes. Multi-disciplinary case-studies in the Dominican Republic and the Lesser Antilles will combine archaeological, historical, cartographic, paleo-environmental, and remote satellite and aerial data. This subproject will also document present-day landscape transformations, which destroy archaeological sites and ancient landscapes, and through synergy with Project 4, will provide a tool for local heritage management in the islands.

Changing Material Culture Repertoires

The earliest chronicles indicate that from first encounters Amerindians and Europeans were involved in exchange relationships. Despite dramatic differences in worldviews, values and aesthetics, European objects were rapidly introduced and circulated within indigenous networks. Attitudinal differences towards valuable objects led to the creation of new social and material worlds (Deagan 2003). The mixing of Amerindian and European artefacts in 15-16th century sites across the Caribbean and the presence of 17th century Amerindian pottery inlaid with European beads in the Lesser Antilles (revealed by Leiden excavations at Argyle, St. Vincent) reflect these early trade relationships. In addition, the differential inclusion of escaped African slaves by Amerindian communities beginning in the 16th century led to the creation of entirely new social identities and changing material culture repertoires. Amerindian-African-European intercultural dynamics are still reflected in present-day Afro-Caribbean earthenware which represents the last in a long line of local pottery manufacturing traditions in the Caribbean islands. This subproject aims to analyse transformation processes in material culture repertoires by studying (1) Amerindian ceramic manufacture and style across the historical divide, (2) mixed Amerindian-African-European assemblages dating to the early colonial period, and (3) present-day Afro-Caribbean ceramic manufacture.