Islands at the Crossroads: Migration, Seafaring, and Interaction in the Caribbean

Islands at the Crossroads: Migration, Seafaring, and Interaction in the Caribbean

by L. Antonio Curet

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A long sequence of social, cultural, and political processes characterizes an ever-dynamic Caribbean history. The Caribbean Basin is home to numerous linguistic and cultural traditions and fluid interactions that often map imperfectly onto former colonial and national traditions. Although much of this contact occurred within the confines of local cultural communities,… See more details below


A long sequence of social, cultural, and political processes characterizes an ever-dynamic Caribbean history. The Caribbean Basin is home to numerous linguistic and cultural traditions and fluid interactions that often map imperfectly onto former colonial and national traditions. Although much of this contact occurred within the confines of local cultural communities, regions, or islands, they nevertheless also include exchanges between islands, and in some cases, with the surrounding continents. recent research in the pragmatics of seafaring and trade suggests that in many cases long-distance intercultural interactions are crucial elements in shaping the social and cultural dynamics of the local populations.   The contributors to Islands at the Crossroads include scholars from the Caribbean, the United States, and Europe who look beyond cultural boundaries and colonial frontiers to explore the complex and layered ways in which both distant and more intimate sociocultural, political, and economic interactions have shaped Caribbean societies from seven thousand years ago to recent times.   Contributors Douglas V. Armstrong / Mary Jane Berman / Arie Boomert / Alistair J. Bright / Richard T. Callaghan / L. Antonio Curet / Mark W. Hauser / Corinne L. Hofman / Menno L. P. Hoogland / Kenneth G. Kelly / Sebastiaan Knippenberg / Ingrid Newquist / Isabel C. Rivera-Collazo / Reniel Rodríquez Ramos / Alice V. M. Samson / Peter E. Siegel / Christian Williamson

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“Curet and Hauser’s volume provides a sophisticated assessment of both Caribbean history and prehistory through the lens of interaction—the consequential ways that different groups of people intersected with one another on different scales and at different times from 5000 BC to the recent past. The individual papers address this overarching theme and present new data and interpretations. It’s an important collection for Caribbeanists, archaeologists in the Caribbean Basin, and archaeologists working in the Colonial Americas.”—Samuel M. Wilson, author of The Archaeology of the Caribbean

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University of Alabama Press
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Caribbean Archaeology and Ethnohistory
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Islands at the Crossroads

Migration, Seafaring, and Interaction in the Caribbean


Copyright © 2011 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-5655-2

Chapter One

Irving Rouse's Contribution to American Archaeology

The Case of Migration L. Antonio Curet

When discussing the study of long-distance interaction in the Caribbean, one cannot ignore the contributions of Irving Rouse. While he was not the first scholar to suggest the close relationship between the islands, South America, and even Central America, he, in collaboration with local archaeologists, was able to suggest potential routes supported by empirical evidence. From these studies, Rouse developed models to define different types of interaction, mainly migrations and intercultural relationships. These models have been applied in one way or another by almost every archaeologist working in the region. Unfortunately, for the longest time most Caribbeanists accepted these models as given, and they were used in an indiscriminate and uncritical manner.

In recent years I have been re-evaluating many of the basic assumptions and epistemology of the models used by many archaeologists in the Caribbean. This has led me to question the work of Irving Rouse, particularly, its postulations and premises (Curet 2003, 2004a, 2005). Because of these publications, many of my colleagues have confused the critique of Rouse's work with personal attacks. There is no doubt that Irving Rouse was the single individual who probably has contributed the most to Caribbean archaeology. His contributions (e.g., Rouse 1939, 1952, 1964, 1986; Rouse and Faber Morse 1999) to the archaeology of the region covers a wide geographic area from Venezuela to Cuba, various methodological approaches, and the development of a general chronological sequence for the whole archipelago and northeastern south America. In my opinion, two of the most important contributions of Irving Rouse to archaeology are his concept of modes and his approach to ancient migrations. However, this does not mean that his work is free of flaws, especially when it is considered that many of his premises are based on unfounded assumptions that were well accepted in the 1930s, but now considered erroneous. As a matter of fact, my criticisms were not directed that much to Rouse, but to many of us who kept using his methods, models, and system without questioning it from the perspective of modern anthropological theory.

It is unfortunate, however, that many of my own and other people's criticisms have emphasized the weaknesses or negative aspects of Rouse's work, while tending to ignore his positive contributions to the discipline. The main argument of this chapter is that despite many of the problems in Rouse's work, he impacted the discipline in ways that are normally not easily recognized and quickly discarded. Simply put, this chapter presents a tribute to Irving Rouse's contribution to the topic of migration in archaeology, one of the landmarks of his legacy. However, in order to understand Rouse's influence on this topic in archaeology, it is important to put it in a historical perspective and recognize that Rouse was a man of his times; that is, the first half of the 1900s. For this reason I begin this chapter by presenting the topic of migration in a historical perspective. Then, I discuss the developments in Rouse's positions through time, presenting their strengths and weaknesses. I end by putting these two discussions together and explaining how they helped shape some aspects of migrations in contemporary archaeology.

Migration in the History of American Archaeology

In the early years of archaeology, at the end of the nineteenth century, archaeological theory was dominated by cultural evolution. This perspective emphasized cultures as adaptive entities that shifted according to changes in the local environment in order to survive. Migration had little to contribute to this theoretical framework since it had little or no impact on the adaptation of cultures. If anything, migration was seen as evidence of failure of cultures to adapt to a particular setting or conditions.

Later on, with the antievolutionist movement in American anthropology, historical Particularism became the dominant paradigm in archaeology. The importance that this perspective gave to the collection and organization of data led to an emphasis on the definition of cultural areas and history based on the commonality of cultural traits within areas and periods. From this approach, any similarity between cultural areas and periods is explained by claiming diffusion of ideas or people. In other words, migration was used (abused and misused, according to Raymond Thompson, see below) as a potential explanation for the diffusion of cultural traits across the boundaries of cultural areas. However, as is discussed below, migrations were "identified" in the archaeological record very casually and without the appropriate evidence. Further, the recognition and definition of migration is not necessarily an explanation for changes in the archaeological record, but a descriptive statement.

In the 1950s the identification of migration in archaeology received a more rigorous treatment. It was during this time that migration was seen by American archaeologists as a critical factor that could produce a variety of responses from human groups, leading to cultural change. However, it was also admitted that a more formalized epistemology of migration studies was needed in order to create more scientifically robust conclusions. Two seminal publications came out during this time. The first one was the result of a seminar and was published by Gordon Willey and his colleagues, including Rouse (1956). The emphasis of both the seminar and the book was to model the changes produced by migration and cultural contact by taking into consideration different empirical cases from through out the world. They also stressed the need for distinguishing between archaeological inference and evidence and that all inferences have to include the evidence on which they are based. Rouse contributed, particularly, with the case of the interaction between the Saladoid and the archaic as an example of how a more "advanced" migrant group can interact with local "less-developed" natives and influence each other, but the former influencing the latter more significantly.

The second important publication of this time was an edited volume by Thompson (1958) that attempted to develop more rigorous standards to detect and define migrations in the archaeological record. In the introduction of the volume Thompson presents a critique of how migration was normally assumed and not proven by most archaeologists. Perhaps the strongest criticism was directed not that much as to how migration was assumed without supportive evidence, but at the use of migration to automatically and indiscriminately explain changes in the archaeological record without maintaining concordance between data and explanation. As Thompson himself stated in the introduction of the volume, "thus, the concept of migration is one of the most dangerous interpretive tools available to the student of man's past.... [M]igration has traditionally served as a convenient way out for the archaeologist who was expected to produce more than descriptive report.... Indeed, there does not seem to be a migration hypothesis too preposterous not to have been suggested by someone.... [S]kepticism and caution are the most powerful means of overcoming the major risks of migration" (1958:1–2).

Rouse, again, was invited to contribute to this volume, where he began developing many of the concepts and methods for the study of migrations that became instrumental in his later treatment on the topic.

From the 1960s to the 1980s, American archaeology abandoned and ignored migration as a potential process that was produced by or produced social changes in ancient groups. It was during these heydays of the New Archaeology that the topic of migration was depicted as inconsequential in the history of social developments. there are at least three main reasons for this "retreat of migrationism" (Adams 1978). First, despite the late efforts in the 1950s, studies on migration lacked a strong theoretical and methodological framework that could be related to cultural and social change in a formal and structured way. Second, migration was still seen by many as part of diffusionism and the emphasis of cultural history in the archaeology of the first half of the twentieth century. In other words, migration was considered part of the "unscientific" tendencies of the pre-new archaeology era. And, finally, new archaeologists, with their emphasis on local vs. external factors to explain social change, began to regard migration as inconsequential in ancient social processes.

During these decades there were two main publications that attempted to keep the topic of migration alive and bring it to the front of archaeological debates. first, in an article published in the Annual Review of Anthropology, William y. adams (1978) made a case for the importance of migration as a moving factor in the social processes of many societies. To build his case, he conducted a comparison with many other disciplines of the social sciences, including sociology, geography, and history, where migration is considered an important social process and factor. However, despite his plea to archaeologists to consider migration as a possibility to explain the archaeological record, Adams's publication did not provide any methodological or theoretical contribution of consequence.

In the face of the anti-migrationist sentiments of the time, Rouse rose to the occasion and published his work, Migrations in Prehistory (1986), the second relevant publication of these years. This book was clearly the result of two things: a reaction to the lack of interest in migrations among American archaeologists and the need for a more conscious, standardized, and formalized methodology to define migrations. In this book, Rouse presented a strong defense for the importance of migrations in many social and cultural processes in ancient times. He also presented several conceptual contributions and offered in detail a methodology he had been developing for years to detect and define the migration of cultures in the archaeological record. Independently of its validity, to date, this book is the most extensive treatise on the archaeological study of migrations. In my opinion, the main contribution of this book is that it kept the topic of migration in the front lines of American archaeology.

The acceptance of migration in the modeling by American archaeologists did not begin to happen until the 1990s, after the publications of important articles by David W. Anthony (1990, 1992; see also Burmeister 2000; Härke 1998). In these publications, Anthony also defends the study of migration in ancient times, but, contrary to Rouse, he does this by presenting a whole new theoretical and epistemological perspective inherited from ethnography and other disciplines. Anthony argues that the sociological importance of studying migrations does not lie on the actual event of moving from one place to another, but on the totality of the structure of migration. In other words, migration is a social process (not an event) which starts even before people begin considering moving and can end even years after the actual movement took place. Moreover, he stresses that one of the main problems of past approaches to migration, especially from cultural historians (including Rouse), is that they focused on the movement of cultures and not people, when it is the latter that actually makes the decision to move and migrate. This led, eventually, to the use of the wrong methodology and premises that limited enormously the potential of using migrations in archaeological explanations.

It is against this historical background that we have to consider Rouse's work in order to evaluate his contributions. But, before talking about this, it is necessary, first, to discuss the strengths and pitfalls of the methodology and premises of his approach.

Rouse's Approach to Ancient Migrations

It can be said that Rouse's interest in migration was present from the beginning of his career in the Caribbean (Rouse 1939, 1952, 1964; Rouse and Cruxent 1963). Migration is a topic of interest for any archaeologist working in islands, especially to determine the origin of the islanders at the time of European contact. However, before Raymond Thompson's volume in 1958, most of Rouse's work was similar to others of the time, where migration was dealt with in a very casual and uncritical manner. Migration was assumed in many instances and not proven rigorously. It is in his contribution to Thompson's book, that we can see Rouse's (1958) serious preoccupation with identifying migrations in the archaeological record, and he begins making a conscious effort to systematize and standardize the way we study them. Here he stresses five issues that need to be considered to demonstrate adequately that a migration has taken place:

1. Identify the migrating people as an intrusive unit in the region.

2. Trace this unit back to its homeland.

3. Determine that all occurrences of the unit are contemporaneous, both in the homeland and the final destination.

4. Establish the existence of favorable conditions for migration (e.g., seafaring technology to migrate to islands).

5. Demonstrate that some other hypothesis, such as independent invention or diffusion of traits, does not better fit the facts of the situation [Rouse 1958:65].

With these suggestions Rouse puts many of the unconscious assumptions made by many archaeologists at that time (and even of today) on a conscious plane. Two things from these suggestions are of great importance. The first one is that when Rouse talks about units, he is referring to archaeological units (site-units). Thus, from the onset Rouse is stressing the importance of maintaining in a conscious manner concordance between the migrant group and its archaeological correlate. The second important point is that Rouse recognized that multiple human actions could create patterns in the archaeological record that could look like evidence for migration, especially, diffusion and independent invention. Although this sounds obvious to many of us today, it has to be remembered that before the 1960s the interpretation of the archaeological record was generally done in a subjective and uncritical manner. As a matter of fact, the issues related to some of these suggestions were not even discussed critically in American archaeology until the new Archaeology. Moreover, Rouse developed and defined the concepts such as trait-unit and site-unit. "'site-unit intrusion' refers to the migration of one or more communities, recognizable archaeologically as site-units, from one area to another, whereas 'trait-unit intrusion' refers to the spread of one or more cultural elements from the communities of one area to the communities of another without migration" (Rouse 1958:63). According to Rouse, in studying migration many people did not go beyond identifying the trait-unit intrusion, when they should have focused instead on the site-unit intrusion. recognizing this distinction is critical for maintaining concordance between data and interpretation, in this case, between changes in the archaeological record and migration. To accomplish this, Rouse sees the necessity of using a multidisciplinary approach (e.g., physical anthropology, linguistics, and ethnography), where multiple lines of evidence are used to define and confirm migrations.

In his 1986 publication Rouse continued with his preoccupation of identifying migrations and the need for their rigorous identification. Here, however, he defines many of the concepts more clearly and offers more detailed suggestions on how to empirically and systematically identify migrations, particularly following a bottom-up approach. In the conceptual realm he began by distinguishing between population movement and immigration. For Rouse, population movement refers to a large number of people moving across a boundary, while immigration is the movement of small numbers of people (e.g., families). According to Rouse, the former is easier to identify archaeologically, but the latter is practically invisible.


Excerpted from Islands at the Crossroads Copyright © 2011 by The University of Alabama Press. 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.
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