Ancient Borinquen: Archaeology and Ethnohistory of Native Puerto Rico by Peter E. Siegel, Paperback | Barnes & Noble
Ancient Borinquen: Archaeology and Ethnohistory of Native Puerto Rico

Ancient Borinquen: Archaeology and Ethnohistory of Native Puerto Rico

by Peter E. Siegel

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Native American cultures of Puerto Rico prior to the arrival of the Spanish in 1493.

A book on the prehistory of a modern geopolitical entity is artificial. It is unlikely that prehistoric occupants recognized the same boundaries and responded to the same political forces that operated in the formation of current nations, states, or cities. Yet,


Native American cultures of Puerto Rico prior to the arrival of the Spanish in 1493.

A book on the prehistory of a modern geopolitical entity is artificial. It is unlikely that prehistoric occupants recognized the same boundaries and responded to the same political forces that operated in the formation of current nations, states, or cities. Yet, archaeologists traditionally have produced such volumes and they generally represent anchors for ongoing research in a specific region, in this case the island of Puerto Rico, its immediate neighbors, and the wider Caribbean basin.  

To varying degrees, this work addresses issues and draws data from beyond the boundaries of Puerto Rico because in prehistoric times the water between islands likely was not viewed as a boundary in our modern sense of the term. The last few decades have witnessed a growth of intense archaeological research on the island, from material culture in the form of lithics, ceramics, and rock art; to nutritional, architecture, and environmental studies; to rituals and social patterns; to the aftermath of Conquest.  

Ancient Borinquen provides a comprehensive overview of recent thinking, new data, syntheses, and insights into current Puerto Rican archaeology, and it reflects and illuminates similar concerns elsewhere in the West Indies, lowland South America, and Central America.


Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Puerto Rico has been the focus of intensive archaeological research for the last 20 years and more.  This impressive volume pulls together the insights from this work and presents them within a context that emphasizes both indigenous perspectives and Puerto Rico's connections to the rest of the Caribbean.”--Samuel Wilson, author of Hispaniola

"This volume does a commendable job assembling a comprehensive overview of recent archaeological work on Puerto Rico. The book furthers our understanding of Caribbean prehistory by focusing on this island interface between the Greater and Lesser Antilles."--Charles R. Ewen, author of From Spaniard to Creole

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Archaeology and Ethnohistory of Native Puerto Rico

The University of Alabama Press
Copyright © 2005 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-5238-7

Chapter One
The Crab-Shell Dichotomy Revisited The Lithics Speak Out

Reniel Rodríguez Ramos

In the early 1930s, Froelich Rainey was sponsored to pursue excavations in Puerto Rico as part of the Caribbean Archaeology Program of the Peabody Museum of Yale University. As stated by the program director, Cornelius Osgood (1942:6-7), these excavations were made in an "attempt to improve the methodology of archaeology through intensive research in a particular area, as well as to resolve the Historic problems of the aboriginal populations of the West Indies." Following these objectives, Rainey conducted fieldwork at eight sites in Puerto Rico, along the coast and in the mountainous interior. As a result of this work, Rainey indicated that there was a generalized disruption in the cultural sequence of Puerto Rico; he consistently observed the presence of a layer dominated by crab claws in midden deposits, thus named the Crab culture, overlaid by a cultural stratum that evidenced the intensive exploitation of shells and other marine dietary elements, which he termed the Shell culture. He also noted that the ceramics belonging to the Crab culture were well fired, had hard paste, and their surfaces were painted. In contrast, pottery from the Shell culture was unpainted and coarse-tempered. Rainey concluded that these two cultures reflected two different migrations from South America. Furthermore, even though by that date there had not yet been any formal discovery of a preceramic component in Puerto Rico, he indicated that "The recent excavations have had no bearing on this Ciboney culture except to show that some of the traits by which it is characterized according to Harrington are found in the late, Shell Culture, deposits in Porto Rico" (Rainey 1940:180). The existence of these two cultures, which among other things presented contrasting protein bases, gave rise to the highly discussed crab-shell dichotomy.

A couple of years later, Irving Rouse arrived in Puerto Rico to continue the work initiated by Rainey as part of the Scientific Survey of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Rouse's (1940:49) initial impression of West Indian ceramics, based primarily on his typological analysis of materials from Puerto Rico and Haiti available at the Peabody Museum, was "that pottery-making in the West Indies had a multiple origin, from both North and South America, rather than a single origin from the latter continent." However, a decade later in his extensive publication of the results of his work on the island he presented a markedly different perspective (Rouse 1952a, 1952b). Based on the latter studies, Rouse concluded that there was a "continuum of ceramic modes" between the Crab and Shell culture pottery, suggesting that there was only one migration of pottery makers to the Antilles. Since then, Rouse's model has become the most widely used chrono-cultural framework in Caribbean archaeology. In the latest version of his model, Rouse (1992) indicated that there were two migrations to Puerto Rico: the Archaic peoples followed by the Saladoids. The Saladoids were divided into two subseries, the Huecan and the Cedrosan Saladoid; the Archaics as well as the Huecan Saladoid were quickly absorbed or pushed west to the Greater Antilles by the earliest Cedrosans (represented by the Hacienda Grande ceramic style), who then evolved in Puerto Rico into the Ostionoid series; this series presented two major subseries on the eastern and western halves of the island (Elenan and the Ostionan Ostionoid, respectively), which eventually developed into the Chican Ostionoid, the subseries that represents the remains of the Taínos.

There seems to be general agreement on two points: that Archaic cultures "contributed little to the subsequent peoples and cultures of the Greater Antilles" (Rouse and Alegría 1990:80) and that the Cedrosan Saladoid peoples represent the "ancestors of the Tainos" (e.g., Rouse 1992:37, 49). During the last three decades, with the upsurge of processual concerns concomitant with the generalized decrease in emphasis on chronology building, studies dealing with the ceramic age in Puerto Rico such as those on settlement patterns (Curet 1992a, 1992b; Torres 2001), sociopolitical organization (Curet 1992a; López 1975; Siegel 1992), religious development (Curet and Oliver 1998; Rouse 1982; Walker 1993), and dietary shifts (deFrance 1989; Keegan 1989a; Stokes 1998), among others, have commonly presumed the presence of a single cultural series operating on the island at any point in time. Following this argument, it has been proposed that intra-societal dynamics of Cedrosan populations led to increasing social complexity and shifts in material culture, resulting in the Ostionoid series and eventually culminating in the development of the Taíno culture that Columbus encountered upon his arrival to the islands. Thus, with a few notable exceptions (Alegría 1988; Chanlatte Baik and Narganes Storde 1983, 1990; Oliver 1999), most of the studies that have explored different aspects of the crab-shell dichotomy have focused on explaining the structural causes for the reported changes that resulted in the transformation from the Saladoid to the Ostionoid series, assuming the existence of a mono-cultural landscape on the island represented by the sole presence of Saladoid peoples. In cases where the existence of strong interactions between competing cultures during Period II has been mentioned as a cause for these changes (e.g., Rouse 1992; Siegel 1992), the antagonistic groups (e.g., La Hueca complex, Archaic groups) that have ignited such changes have been limited to a marginal function prior to their riddance, therefore not contributing important elements of their culture to the post-Saladoid cultural scenario of the island.

The cultural transformation from Saladoid to Ostionoid has been primarily documented on the basis of the supposed continuum of modes observed in ceramic production on the island. This use of ceramics as the primary analytical unit for establishing a cultural sequence for the ceramic age of Puerto Rico, as well as in the West Indies in general, has perhaps inadvertently resulted in a lack of systematic studies of other artifacts that might indicate the influence of other cultures or the operation of other processes of interaction. Because of this, material classes such as stone artifacts have usually taken the back seat in ceramic-age culture-historic studies, especially those related to the flaked lithic subsystem, based on the generalized notion that "The ceramicage flaked-stone industry does not produce temporally-diagnostic artifacts" (Siegel 1992:111). The lack of emphasis on lithic studies is especially intriguing in issues such as the nature of the contact situation between the Archaic peoples and the earliest ceramic bearers, when one takes into consideration that their interaction (i.e., the demise or displacement of Archaic populations), has been traditionally addressed by the ubiquity of pottery rather than on methodically studied lithic sets, which was one of the types of material employed by the two.

In an effort to expand the baseline used to address the crab-shell dichotomy, I framed the present study within two main objectives. The first of these was to determine if there is a "continuum of modes" in the lithic industries between the Saladoid and the Ostionoid series in Puerto Rico. The primary database consists of 2,907 lithic artifacts obtained from the Paso del Indio site (PDI) (see Walker, this volume). PDI offers a unique opportunity to address long-term changes in lithic patterning. In particular, I have investigated changes in raw material selection and tool production through time. Sealed contexts within the site correspond to the major subseries identified for the ceramic age of the island, thus data on inter-assemblage variability from PDI can be used to examine the degree of continuity in lithic production. An underlying hypothesis is the conservative nature of lithic technology, whose processual templates seem to be more stable than those observed in the production of other items of material culture such as ceramics, as has been repeatedly argued for the West Indies (Bartone and Crock 1993; Crock and Bartone 1998; Rodríguez Ramos 1999a, 2001a; Walker 1980a, 1997a) and for other contexts as well (e.g., Parry and Kelly 1987; Ranere 1975).

A comparison of the data on inter-assemblage variability generated by the technological analysis of the lithics from this site, coupled with that reported from other sites on the island will serve as the basis for the second objective, which will encompass a revisit to Rainey's notion of the persistence of Archaic elements in the post-Crab culture of Puerto Rico. In the present work I will argue that this crab-shell dichotomy is at least partly the result of the influence of Archaic populations in the articulation of a post-Saladoid cultural scenario of the island. Thus, I consider that this dichotomy, instead of being simply a consequence of the development of Cedrosan populations, is to a great extent the result of the ways in which the interactions between the Archaic cultures and the ceramics bearers were framed.

The Crab-Shell Dichotomy in Context: The Case of Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico presents the longest continuous span of occupation in the Antilles. Until the 1970s, the earliest occupations of the island were dated to approximately uncalibrated 2275 ± 85 B.P. (Veloz Maggiolo et al. 1975). The general view of these "preceramic" societies considered them to have been fairly stationary following their initial occupation of Puerto Rico to their demise by the earliest ceramic-bearing migrants, which was estimated then to be around the time of Christ. The static character of these societies was partly based on the information provided in the Spanish chronicles regarding the cave dwellers that inhabited Cabo San Antonio in western Cuba and the Guacayarima peninsula in southwestern Haiti (Dávila 1985b; Keegan 1989b, 1992). Conventional wisdom regarding preceramic peoples of Puerto Rico was that they lived in caves, were exclusively hunters and gatherers, were marginal to agro-ceramic societies when coexisting in proximate areas, and that they did not evolve much through time. The chronicles were cited to support the notion that the Archaic peoples were pushed by the Saladoid colonists into isolated refugia of Cuba and Haiti (e.g., Rouse and Allaire 1978). Notions of Archaic social arrangements were also based on analogies with hunting and gathering groups from continental contexts, which basically consisted of nuclear units who tended to shift their residential locations periodically in response to the movement of their protein sources or due to the differential food availability resulting from seasonal changes (Pantel 1996).

The dates for and ideas about the initial entrance of these pre-Arawak peoples to the island have changed markedly during the past two decades. The Angostura and Maruca sites have extended the initial peopling of Puerto Rico to at least 4000 B.C., approximately three millennia earlier than previously thought. Further, our notions about preceramic adaptive strategies have been revised. For instance, Angostura and Maruca are open-air habitation sites, in contrast to the assumption that caves were the primary residential locations. The assumption that Archaic societies were "largely circumscribed to island boundaries" (Oliver 1992a:25) has been questioned by the documentation of interisland circulation of stone raw materials (Febles 1998, citing Jeff Walker [personal communication]; Rodríguez Ramos 2001b).

Assumptions about Archaic subsistence patterns have been challenged recently. Plants recovered from Archaic deposits may have originated in Belize (Newsom 1993). Siegel et al. (this volume) obtained evidence for considerable forest clearing in the vicinity of the Maisabel site as early as uncalibrated 3820 ± 70 B.P. Horticultural practices in the area from which these groups supposedly originated were already established at the time of their migration, indicating their capacity of manipulating the natural landscape (Siegel et al., this volume; Wilson et al. 1998).

There is evidence for considerable subsistence variability on the island during the Archaic period; in some places terrestrial resources were emphasized, especially in interior rockshelter sites (e.g., Cueva Tembladera [Martínez 1994]; Cueva Gemelos [Dávila 1981]; Sabana Seca [Sanders et al. 2001]), while in coastal open-air contexts littoral and/or maritime resources were favored (e.g., Maruca [Rodríguez López 1997]; Cayo Cofresí [Figueroa 1991; Veloz Maggiolo et al. 1975]). A great part of the protein obtained from the sea was generated by the collection of mollusks from both coastal and open-sea sources. Some of these sites also present the development of techniques for increasing the effectiveness of fish capture, such as the use of tended facilities (i.e., cast nests), as has been indirectly observed by the recovery of netweights both in Puerto Rico (Ayes Suárez 1988, 1989), as well as in other sites in the Greater Antilles (e.g., El Curro in the Dominican Republic [Ortega and Guerrero 1981]; Caimanes III in Cuba [Navarrete 1989]). Other fish-capture techniques were based on the use of spears tipped by shell and bone points. The fact that Archaic peoples had well-established techniques for protein capture from terrestrial and riverine sources indicates that they had mastered one of the greatest challenges of living in an insular setting lacking macrofauna: consistent meat obtainment in inland contexts.

Identifying Archaic cultural complexes has become a debatable topic on the island. Some scholars have indicated that the dissimilarities in artifact assemblages are the result of culturally distinct traditions (i.e., Rouse 1992), while others have argued that the observed variability might indicate functional rather than cultural differences (Lundberg 1980). Pantel (1988, 1991) suggested that differences might relate to variability in raw material sources instead of distinct stone-working traditions. There is also no clear evidence for separating Lithic from Archaic assemblages, as most preceramic contexts bear indications of pecking and grinding techniques from the earliest phases of occupation. Despite these classificatory dilemmas, pre-Saladoid assemblages of Puerto Rico present a fairly conservative flaked-stone repertoire, comprised of freehand flakes used in a wide variety of ways, mostly in activities such as scraping, cutting, or drilling. Flakes were produced using cherts as well as river-rolled metavolcanics. Assemblages indicate that flake production occurred in most cases offsite, rather than transporting raw materials to the places where tools were needed and used (Rodríguez Ramos 2002). There is no evidence for the manufacture of bifacially flaked-stone tools; flaking operations have been mostly limited to core reduction for producing flakes as final products. Based on his analysis of the Cerrillos assemblages, Pantel (1991:160) observed that flakes from preceramic sites are characterized by "the absence of cortex, a perpendicular striking platform and [the] absence of secondary flaking." Therefore, flake production tends to ascribe to parallel freehand flaking formats over cores with single or inverted platforms. By following this reduction format, pre-Arawak knappers were able to extract some of the massive flakes that have commonly been ascribed to chopping functions. These flakes show little, if any, secondary modification, primarily limited to abrupt unifacial retouch along the tool margins to create incurbate or denticulate working edges.


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Meet the Author

Peter E. Siegel is a Principal Archaeologist and Senior Project Manager with John Milner Associates, a cultural heritage management firm specializing in archaeology, architecture, and planning.

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