The Aborigines of Puerto Rico and Neighboring Islands / Edition 2

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A valuable recounting of the first formal archaeological excavations in Puerto Rico.

Originally published as the Twenty-Fifth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in 1907, this book was praised in an article in American Anthropologist as doing "more than any other to give a comprehensive idea of the archaeology of the West Indies."

Until that time, for mainly political reasons, little scientific research had been conducted by Americans on any of the Caribbean islands. Dr. Fewkes' unique skills of observation and experience served him well in the quest to understand Caribbean prehistory and culture. This volume, the result of his careful fieldwork in Puerto Rico in 1902-04, is magnificently illustrated by 93 plates and 43 line drawings of specimens from both public and private collections of the islands.

A 1907 article in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland described the volume as "a most valuable contribution to ethnographical science."


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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780817355746
  • Publisher: University of Alabama Press
  • Publication date: 5/3/2009
  • Series: Caribbean Archaeology and Ethnohistory Series
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 7.00 (w) x 10.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Jesse Walter Fewkes (1850–1930), referred to as the “dean of American archaeology” by John R. Swanton, was Director of the Bureau of American Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution.

L. Antonio Curet is Associate Curator of Archaeology at The Field Museum.

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Read an Excerpt

The Aborigines of Puerto Rico and Neighboring Islands

By Jesse Walter Fewkes

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2009 The University of Alabama
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-8249-0



By Jesse Walter Fewkes


The author of the following monograph was commissioned by the Director of the Bureau of American Ethnology to visit the island of Porto Rico in 1902, and to continue the exploration in 1903 and 1904. The object of these visits was the collection of data and specimens that would shed light on the prehistoric inhabitants of this West Indian island which had lately come into the possession of the United States. The first visit was a reconnoissance, preliminary to the more extended study that followed on the two visits referred to, in 1903 and 1904. The work in 1902 was limited to Porto Rico, but the fact became evident, as it progressed, that the problem of the character of the aboriginal Antilleans could not be satisfactorily solved from material collected on any one of the many West Indian islands. A special examination of neighboring islands for comparative studies became necessary. With this object in view the author was directed in 1903 to make a short trip to Haiti and in 1904 to visit Cuba, Trinidad, and the Lesser Antilles, which, extending from South America to Porto Rico, formed a natural way of intercommunication or migration of primitive races. The gathering of material in these excursions was especially successful, and important prehistoric objects from several of the islands visited were added to the existing collection in the National Museum. A general summary of the results of the expedition of 1903 has already been published in the Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, but this preliminary report was limited and only partially indicates the extent of the work performed or the amount and significance of the material collected. An enumeration of the latter, embracing more than 1,200 specimens, comprises the important collection of Archbishop Meriño, of Santo Domingo, and those of Señores Zeno Gandia, Neumann Gandia, Angelis, and Fernández, of Porto Rico. These important acquisitions, with the many specimens obtained one or two at a time by excavations or purchase, equaled in number the West Indian objects previously existing in the Smithsonian collection, which was already one of the largest in the world.

The collection made in 1904 was numerically somewhat smaller than that of 1903, but not less important. It contains several unique specimens that add greatly to the value of the material already acquired. Small collections were brought from Cuba, Trinidad, Barbados, St Vincent, and Grenada. The Neumann collection, which was the largest purchased in 1904, contains several rare specimens of types of stone artifacts hitherto unrepresented in the United States National Museum. Among the important objects obtained this year (1904) are a fine effigy vase, three three-pointed idols presented by Señor Zoller, of the Aguirre Central, near Ponce, and a collection of stone implements from St Vincent, presented by Mr Jacobson, of Port of Spain, Trinidad. While the collections now in Washington serve as the basis of this article, the author has drawn some of his material from published descriptions of Porto Rican prehistoric objects in the museums at New York, Copenhagen, Paris, Berlin, and London.

The author is indebted for assistance in his West Indian field work to many friends, among whom should be specially mentioned Maj. J. W. Powell, late Director of the Bureau of American Ethnology; Dr W J McGee, formerly ethnologist in charge, and Prof. W. H. Holmes, the present Chief. Numerous courtesies were extended to him by officials in Porto Rico, as well as by local archeologists in that and other islands. He takes this opportunity to express his thanks to all those to whom he has been indebted in the preparation of this work.

He is indebted to Señor Ramon Imbert, of Puerto Plata, Santo Domingo, for an opportunity to study the latter's collection and to make use of sketches of several specimens; also to Señor Llenas, of Santiago de los Caballeros, and to many others. Unfortunately, he has not been able to examine the West Indian antiquities in European museums, with the important exception of a few stone idols and implements in the Museo Arqueológico, Madrid. These objects and some others exhibited in the Exposición Histórico in that city in 1892 were examined by the author, who was able at that time to make sketches of the most suggestive, which are pictured in the following pages. He regrets that he has not been able to see several small private collections of which he has information—those made by Mr Suchert, Herr Krüg, M. Pinart, and others. The best collection still remaining in Porto Rico is owned by Padre Nazario, of Guayanilla, but there are several smaller ones containing instructive material. Visits were made to Guayanilla, where the author was hospitably received by Padre Nazario and shown his collection, the result of a lifelong interest in Porto Rican archeology. It is particularly rich in unique amulets and three-pointed stones and has some rare pottery objects and a few stone collars. The many hieroglyphic markings on the stones that are most highly prized by the owner were also examined by the author, who does not consider them very ancient. In addition the author studied collections in Havana, Santiago de Cuba, St Christopher, Barbados, and in other places. Moreover, supplementary reading and study shed some light on the significance of several specimens the use and meaning of which had not been interpreted in the field.

A survey of all the results of his study and collecting, and comparison with the rich material available for that purpose in the Smithsonian Institution, led the author to the belief that a comprehensive report would be a desirable addition to the existing information on this important subject and an aid to later students in this field of research.

It became evident on the very threshold of the preparation of this report that there exists no comprehensive memoir in English on this subject, and it was therefore regarded as desirable to enlarge its scope so as to cover the whole ground; in other words, to give it a monographic form as far as possible, including the material available in the Smithsonian Institution. For this reason there is here added to descriptions of new objects a review of those in the Latimer collection, so well described by Professor Mason, whereby this work is made comprehensive and, it is hoped, exhaustive, so far as the Washington collection is concerned.

The author has used three methods of gathering knowledge on the subject of this memoir: (1) The historical, (2) the ethnological, and (3) the archeological.

The historical method deals with the published descriptions of the Indians by contemporaries of the discoverers—men like Las Casas, who saw the aborigines before their manners and customs had suffered very great changes. Documents specially describing the natives of Porto Rico are few, but, as the same or a closely related race inhabited the neighboring islands, it is legitimate to bring as an aid to this method of research descriptions, which are many, of the natives of these adjacent islands. It may be said in passing that all accounts of the natives of Porto Rico are derived largely from the writings of Las Casas, Ramon Pane, Benzoni, Oviedo, and Peter Martyr, who have given detailed accounts of the natives of Haiti, adding that whatever is true of the aborigines of this island holds also concerning those of Porto Rico. There are in fact no extensive special descriptions of the Porto Rican Indians earlier than the History of Porto Rico by Iñigo, published at the close of the eighteenth century, and as at that time the race had practically disappeared, the chapter on the native culture in this account was compiled largely from Oviedo and Las Casas. The historical method reveals many customs which are incomprehensible to historians unless they are familiar with the light that modern ethnology sheds on the comparative culture of races.

The archeological method supplements the historical, revealing the prehistoric condition of the island and the culture of the inhabitants before written records were made by Europeans. This method deals with stone implements, idols, pictographs, mortuary objects, human skeletons, and the like, including all the most enduring material evidences of man's prehistoric presence which occur in great numbers throughout the island.

The ethnological method considers the survivals in the bodily form and mental characters of the existing natives; their peculiar customs, characteristic words, music, and legends, all that is included in the comprehensive term folklore, the old-fashioned ways of life peculiar to the island. It deals likewise with survivals of language in names of places, animals, plants, and objects, including all aboriginal and many dialectic names peculiar to the modern islanders.

The anthropologist may approach his subject by the three methods above mentioned, any one of which reveals enough material to be made the basis of a special article; a knowledge of prehistoric Porto Rican culture may be derived from them all. Naturally, each method has its restrictions. The present population is composed of several amalgamated races, and we find in folklore at the present day evidences of all these races. Archeology is perhaps the most reliable source of information; but even the objects found in the ground, thoroughly-native as they appear, may have been the property of races other than the prehistoric Porto Rican.

Of the three methods of treating the subject, the archeological, which is followed in the main in this report, also offers a good opportunity for original work; but data are drawn from historical and ethnographical sources to give the memoir a more comprehensive character, and are introduced when necessary to interpret the meaning of archeological objects.


The culture of a people is largely determined by its environment. The climate, fauna, flora, geology, and other physical conditions are important elements of this environment. Isolation, with consequent freedom from attack of foes, by which pure blood is retained for a considerable time, develops characteristic cultures in different parts of the world which vary with physiographical conditions. A brief description of the physical features of Porto Rico naturally precedes, therefore, a study of the culture of its aboriginal inhabitants.

Porto Rico, the smallest of the Greater Antilles, is situated in the Tropics, between North and South America. Its greatest length from east to west is a little more than 100 miles and its width about 36, the area being approximately 3,600 square miles. There are no islands near Porto Rico in the Atlantic ocean on the north, and the watery waste of the Caribbean sea separates it from South America on the south, so that access from either direction implies extensive knowledge of ocean navigation. Near its eastern end begins the Lesser Antilles, a chain of islands, one almost in sight of another, extending southward to the mouth of the Orinoco, in Venezuela. On the west a comparatively narrow strait separates Porto Rico from Haiti, which in turn lies not far from Cuba. In short, the island of Porto Rico may be said to be situated midway in the chain of islands connecting Florida and Venezuela.

A chain of mountains, culminating at an altitude of about four thousand feet in the Yunque at the eastern end, crosses the island from east to west. These mountains are formed in part of calcareous rock, and contain many caves. On the north and south sides of the mountainous backbone there are small parallel ranges of rounded hills, skirted by low land along the coasts. The shores have a few good harbors, into which flow several rivers and lagoons that offer favorable places for that peculiar fluviatile culture characteristic of people like those who live on the delta at the mouth of the Orinoco and around Lake Maracaibo. The caves along the north coast are large, and the beaches afford good landings and camping resorts, the sites of the latter being generally indicated by shell heaps of some size.

The winter is never cold in Porto Rico. The trees and plants yield edible food throughout the year, removing one stimulus to store a food supply that is felt by the primitive agriculturist of the Temperate zones. An inducement to economy of food and to a development of high culture thereby is rarely found in the Tropics. Vegetable food is available at all times. There are seasons for planting and harvesting, but no arid deserts to disappoint the agriculturist. The land is well watered, inviting tillage at all times. The temperature in Porto Rico never falls to a point where men need firewood to keep them warm or closed houses to shield them from cold. The only shelter one requires is a protection from rain and sun.

Both the fauna and the flora of the West Indies are South American in their affinities, and animals and plants such as belong to that part of the continent served the natives for food. Of indigenous animals there may be mentioned the agouti, utia, bats, and various lizards, as the iguanas. It is not saying too much to affirm that the majority of large indigenous animals capable of being utilized as food by the natives were derived from South America. The same statement applies to native plants and trees which served for food, raiment, houses, and canoes, and to those that furnished fibers. Among others may be mentioned maize, manioc, yams, potatoes, cotton, various palms and other woods, like the ceiba, and numerous native tree fruits.

Large mammals capable of domestication were wanting and a supply of food animals adequate to support a great population did not exist. The marine fauna of Porto Rico available for economic purposes was large. The manatee was an inhabitant of the lagoons and river mouths. Many edible fishes lived near the shore and in the rivers, and the lagoons abounded in mollusks, crabs, and turtles, tempting to a fisherman's life. In many places along the shore there are deposits of shells and fragments of ollas and other broken pieces of pottery mixed with bones of birds and fishes. The greatest of these deposits, according to Doctor Stahl measuring more than 2 meters in height, is at the Cueva de las Golondrinas, near the mouth of the Rio Manati. The contents of these shell heaps imply that mollusks, birds, and fishes constituted a considerable part of the food of the people inhabiting the coast.


The Europeans who first landed on the shores of Porto Rico reported the island to be densely peopled. The early Spanish voyagers state that the population was distributed over the whole island, but that it was thickly settled in the littoral tracts and along the banks of the rivers. It has been estimated that the population was 200,000, probably too large a number, though a conservative estimate would still make prehistoric Porto Rico a populous island.

According to Oviedo, the cacique Guarionex led 3,000 warriors to the assault of the Spanish town founded by Sotomayor on the western end of the island. Supposing that the women, children, and other nonbelligerents of this territory were not included in this enumeration, a conservative estimate would make the population of this end of the island in the years 1510 and 1511 at least 10,000. Considering that this command of Guarionex was drawn, not from the whole island, but only from the western end, it is reasonable to conclude that if the remaining population of Porto Rico were equally dense the number of natives amounted to at least 30,000.

Frequent wars and epidemics, however, rapidly decimated them after their discovery, while a system of repartimientos, or division of them as slaves among the Spaniards, speedily diminished still further the number of natives, so that the race was practically exterminated in a few years. Before their extinction Indians were brought to Porto Rico from neighboring islands, and Kongo Africans were introduced from across the ocean, so that it is impossible to estimate with precision the size of the aboriginal population at the time the repartimientos were made.

It is said that 5,500 Indians were divided among Europeans, but this number could hardly have included the whole native population and takes no account of those in the mountains who had not been conquered.

Señor Brau, the most reliable historian of the island, gives the following data regarding the distribution of Indians in 1511–12 after the affair at Jacueco, taken from the Muñoz documents: Haciendas of their royal highnesses, 500; Baltasar de Castro, the factor, 200; Miguel Diaz, the chief constable, 200; Juan Ceron, the major, 150; Diego Morales, bachelor at law, 150; Amador de Lares, 150; Louis Sotomayor, 100; Miguel Diaz Daux, factor, 200; municipal council, 100; Sebastian de la Gama, 90; Gil de Malpartida, 70; Juan Bono (a merchant), 70; Juan Velasquez, 70; Antonio de Rivadeneya, 60; Gracian Cansino, 60; Louis de Apueyo, 60; the apothecary, 50; Francisco Cereceda, 50; to 40 other individuals (40 each), 1,600; distributed in 1509–10 to 9 persons, 1,060; total, 5,100. The figures given in the enumeration of slaves sometimes include those introduced from other islands. Thus, in 1514 the cacique Jamaica Arecibo, with 200 Indians, was assigned to Lope Conchillos, but how many of the latter were natives of Porto Rico does not appear. Arecibo himself was from Jamaica. It is impossible to arrive at any very close estimate of the population of prehistoric Porto Rico from Spanish accounts, but 30,000 is probably as close an estimate as can be made from the available data.


Excerpted from The Aborigines of Puerto Rico and Neighboring Islands by Jesse Walter Fewkes. Copyright © 2009 The University of Alabama. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 17

Physical features of Porto Rico 21

Precolumbian population 23

Present descendants of the Porto Rican Indians 24

Race and kinship 26

Bodily characteristics 28

Mental and moral characteristics 31

Government 33

Political divisions 35

Houses 41

Thatched with grasses 43

Thatched with palm leaves 44

With palm leaves on walls, and straw-thatched roofs 45

With slabs of palm wood on walls 45

Secular customs 47

Naming children; marriage customs 47

Hunting and fishing 48

Agriculture 50

Religion 53

Zemiism 54

Zemis of wood 57

Zemis of stone 58

Zemis of cotton cloth inclosing bones 58

Zemis painted on their bodies and faces 58

Priesthood 59

Divination 60

Medicine practices 61

Narcotics 63

Rites and ceremonies 64

Ceremony to bring crops 66

Survival of ceremony in modern dances 68

Burial ceremonies 69

Myths 72

Traditions of origin 74

A modern legend 75

The name Borinquen 76

Archeological sites 78

Dance plazas 79

Shell heaps 85

Caves 87

Archeological objects 89

Celts 92

Enigmatical stones 97

Pestles 99

Mortars 105

Beads and pendants 108

Stone balls 110

Three-pointed stones 111

Type with head on anterior and legs on posterior projection 111

Type with face between anterior and conoid projection 121

Type with conoid projection modified into a head 125

Smooth stones 127

Interpretation 128

Semicircular stones 132

Stone heads 133

Disks with human faces 135

Stone amulets 138

Pictographs 148

River pictographs 150

Cave pictographs 155

Stone collars 159

Massive collars 162

Slender collars 163

Theories of the use of stone collars 167

Elbow stones 172

Knobbed heads174

Pillar stones 175

Large stone idols 178

Pottery 179

Shell and bone carvings 192

Wooden objects 194

Cassava graters 194

Dance object 194

Swallowing-sticks 195

Ceremonial baton 195

Idols 196

Stools 202

Canoes 207

Other objects 209

Gold objects 211

Basketry and textiles 212

Conclusions 214

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