From the guanahatabey to the archaic of puerto rico: the nonevident evidence

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From the Guanahatabey to the Archaic of Puerto Rico: The Nonevident Evidence
Reniel Rodríguez Ramos, Universidad de Puerto Rico–Utuado

Abstract. Some of the early Spanish chronicles make reference to the presence of cave dwellers inhabiting the westernmost section of Cuba as well as the Guacayarima Peninsula in southwestern Haiti. These people, who supposedly lived marginal to Taino society,were named the Guanahatabey or Ciboney culture. The different descriptions of those groups shared elements that were later adopted uncritically in the construction of the social and cultural aspects of the so-called archaic culture tradition of Puerto Rico. Although half a millennium later the tendency to assign every aceramic deposit to the Ciboney or Guanahatabey culture has been overcome, mostof the notions implicit in these descriptions remain current in the generalized vision of these societies. In this work, I analyze the implications that these early accounts have had on the development of our perception of the archaic culture of Puerto Rico and contrast them against the archaeological data generated thus far, which tend to indicate a much more complex scenario than that originallyproposed.

On Columbus’s second voyage to the New World he sailed along southwestern Cuba, where Diego, his Lucayan translator, established contact with “savages” whose language was unintelligible to him. This has commonly been considered the earliest encounter with what later came to be known as the Guanahatabey or Ciboney culture. Additional early Spanish accounts about the existence of thesegroups, inhabiting both the western section of Cuba and the Guacayarima Peninsula in southwestern Haiti, provided more detailed and suspiciously consistent depictions of these peoples. Although the descriptions were limited to groups inhabiting Cuba and Haiti, it is often assumed that they represent all of the pre-Arawak groups of the Caribbean.1 In this sense they have been instrumental in theEthnohistory 55:3 (Summer 2008) DOI 10.1215/00141801-2008-002 Copyright 2008 by American Society for Ethnohistory


Reniel Rodríguez Ramos

construction of the current perception of the so-called archaic culture of Puerto Rico. In the present work I revisit some of the concepts adopted from those early accounts and from ethnographic models imported from other localities to construct thefirst chapter of Puerto Rican history. While some critics have suggested that at least some of these pre-Arawak societies were more complex than initially established, the general conception among Caribbeanist researchers is that they were “hunters-fishers” (La Rosa 2003: 143) who “did not make ceramics or practice agriculture” (Callaghan 2003: 324). The few cases that did posit higher degrees ofsocial complexity for these peoples (e.g., Curet 2003; Keegan 1994) presented no hard data to support such an assumption. Thus the present work will provide a historical overview of how the current imagery of pre-Arawak societies came to be constructed to provide a context on which to build a new perspective about the first inhabitants of Puerto Rico based on recently generated archaeologicaldata. The Early Spanish Accounts It is commonly accepted that the earliest contact with non-Tainian groups was registered during Columbus’s second voyage. This episode was described by Andrés Bernaldez (1896: 658) who noted that during Columbus’s journey along the southern coast of Cuba, near the area of Batanabó, they “no hallaron villas ni lugares en la costa de la mar de ella, salvo pequeñaspoblaciones con la gente, de las cuales no podían haber fabla, por que luego huían como los vian” (did not find villages nor places in the coast, except for small groups of people with whom they could not speak because they ran away). Diego Velázquez (qtd. in Alegría 1955: 4) provided a more detailed description in a 1514 letter to King Fernando de Aragón regarding the conquest of the island when he...
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