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Tibes: People, Power, and Ritual at the Center of the Cosmos

Tibes: People, Power, and Ritual at the Center of the Cosmos

by L. Antonio Curet (Editor), Edwin Crespo-Torres (Contribution by), Lisa M. Stringer (Contribution by), Andrew Castor (Contribution by), Jeffrey B. Walker (Contribution by)

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The first comprehensive analysis of a strategically located ceremonial center on the island of Puerto Rico.

The prehistoric civic-ceremonial center of Tibes is located on the southern coast of Puerto Rico, just north of the modern coastal city of Ponce. Protected on two sides by a river, and on the other two sides by hills, this approximately 10.5-acre


The first comprehensive analysis of a strategically located ceremonial center on the island of Puerto Rico.

The prehistoric civic-ceremonial center of Tibes is located on the southern coast of Puerto Rico, just north of the modern coastal city of Ponce. Protected on two sides by a river, and on the other two sides by hills, this approximately 10.5-acre site remains as fertile and productive today as when first occupied over 2,000 years ago. Such a rich region would have been a choice location for native peoples because of the diversity in all resources, from land, air, and sea--and also symbolically crucial as a liminal space within the landscape. It may have been regarded as a space charged with numen or cosmic energy where different parts of the cosmos (natural vs. supernatural, or world of the living vs. world of the dead) overlap. Archaeological evidence reveals a long occupation, about 1,000 years, possibly followed by an extensive period of sporadic ceremonial use after the site itself was practically abandoned.

In this volume, nineteen Caribbeanists, across a wide academic spectrum, examine the geophysical, paleoethnobotanical, faunal, lithics, base rock, osteology, bone chemistry and nutrition, social landscape, and ceremonial constructs employed at Tibes. These scholars provide a concise, well-presented, comprehensive analysis of the evidence for local level changes in household economy, internal organization, accessibility to economic, religious, and symbolic resources related to the development and internal operation of socially stratified societies in the Caribbean.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"This volume is a landmark not only for furthering our understanding of the social and political dynamics of people engaged in the practice of coping with each other and the cosmos, but also because it demonstrates the kinds of methods that are critical to use in constructing believable narratives about the organization of ancient cultures."
--Peter E. Siegel, Montclair State University

“The volume brings new perspectives to the study of Greater Antillean sites usually lumped under the term ‘ceremonial centers’ despite their significant differences. The essays show definitively that ceremonial centers with ball courts had a long history before Spanish colonizers described them, and reveal something about the nature of indigenous political and symbolic organization. Highly recommended.”—CHOICE

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University of Alabama Press
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Caribbean Archaeology and Ethnohistory Series
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6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

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People, Power, and Ritual at the Center of the Cosmos


Copyright © 2010 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-5579-1

Chapter One


L. Antonio Curet and Lisa M. Stringer

After over a hundred years of research and time served as one of the backwaters of anthropological archaeology in the New World, Caribbean archaeology is experiencing a renaissance. In early times, archaeologists in this region concentrated almost exclusively on the important, but limited, issues of migrations and culture histories. Fairly simple methods of excavation and artifact and data analysis were used, and issues relating to other social and cultural practices were normally ignored or assumed without further confirmation. Since the early 1980s, however, Caribbean archaeologists have begun expanding their investigative horizons by adding a wide variety of research topics, including interaction between human communities (e.g., Crock 2000; Curet 2004; Hofman 1995; Hofman and Hoogland 1999; Rodríguez Ramos and Pagán Jiménez 2006; Torres 2001, 2005), social and cultural processes (e.g., Chanlatte Baik and Narganes Storde 1986; Curet 1992a, 1992b, 1996; Curet and Oliver 1998; Oliver 1998; Siegel 1989, 1991, 1992, 1996, 1999; Veloz Maggiolo 1991, 1993), subsistence systems (e.g., Chanlatte Baik and Narganes Storde 1983; deFrance 1989; deFrance et al. 1996; Newsom 1993; Newsom and Deagan 1994; Newsom and Wing 2004; Wing 2001a, 2001b, 2001c), and social organization (e.g., Boomert 2001; Curet 2002, 2003; Keegan and Maclachlan 1989; Keegan et al. 1998; Tavares María 1996; Valcárcel Rojas 1999, 2002). Furthermore, new field, laboratory, and data-processing methodologies have been applied or developed to ensure the collection of appropriate data to address these topics (see various papers in Hofman et al. 2008). Needless to say, many of the new avenues of research have forced a reevaluation of accepted understandings of the past inhabitants of the region.

The present book is about a project that is part of this trend. Particularly, our interest lies in studying changes in social organization in ancient Puerto Rico from a lower level and smaller scale of analysis. As in most regions throughout the world, Caribbean archaeology has traditionally studied changes in the archaeological record using cultures as the main unit of analysis. While useful to develop the general chronology of the region and to define spatial distributions of cultural traits, this approach is not appropriate to study fine-grained processes such as those present in social and cultural changes (see Curet 2003). On the contrary, in order to study many of these processes, research has to focus on smaller scales and lower levels of analysis, in social and cultural units where decisions were made and social and cultural interactions occurred that eventually led to the changes we are studying. This does not mean that we have to ignore higher levels and larger scales, but until recently these units have received most of the attention in the Caribbean, while we know very little about smaller units and the people who composed them. As discussed below, for this reason the Archaeological Project of Tibes has been designed to use households and the settlement as our main unit of analysis.

In preparing the research design of the project, two approaches were kept in mind: multidisciplinary and multistage strategies. It is clear that in order to gain a better understanding of the past we need the combined information that can only be provided by other disciplines. Most of the chapters in this volume are the result of this approach, as they are the product of specialists in various fields of study. Although this was the idea since the inception of the project, it has to be admitted that not all these studies were part of the original research design and some of them became affiliated with the project in different ways. The paleoethnobotanical, zoological, soil, and regional studies were planned from the beginning, but other analyses such as the lithology, osteological, bone chemistry, geophysical, and regional studies were initiated by other colleagues. However, these latter colleagues have been working in collaboration with the main project to ensure an efficient way of integrating data from all projects and to benefit each other.

Moreover, the evidence collected and the results of the contributions of other colleagues to the project made us change some aspects of our approach. Even though our emphasis was on small units of analysis and lower levels of social groups, it was clear almost from the onset of the project that while many of the processes of interest tended to originate at these levels, they were also integrated within larger units and higher levels (see Torres, this volume). We were forced, therefore, to use a multiscalar approach to the analysis of the data. So, we ask the reader to keep in mind that while most of the chapters included in this volume concentrate on work done at Tibes, the results can be integrated into studies done of other sites in the region to help create a more complete picture.

In the rest of this chapter we present the geological, chronological, cultural, and theoretical contexts of the site and the project. The descriptions of these contexts will serve as a backdrop for all of the chapters that follow and serve as a basis for understanding both the issues and the explanations provided in each case. We finish the chapter with a short discussion of the rest of the volume.

Social and Political Change in the Caribbean

Although the Caribbean presents many advantages for the study of stratified societies, traditionally this topic has been neglected or poorly studied. With few exceptions, archaeological studies have emphasized cultural history with little attention to prehistoric social organizations. It was not until the 1970s that models for social and cultural changes began to be developed, but even then, the discipline continued to be focused mostly on culture-historical studies. Most of the early suggestions for studying the development of social stratification were environmental and demographic models (Chanlatte Baik and Narganes Storde 1986; López Sotomayor 1975; Stokes 1998; Veloz Maggiolo 1977-1978), in which generally the determinant factors (e.g., population growth and environmental stress) were taken for granted. Nevertheless, correlation between those factors and social and political changes has been little supported in the archaeological record (Curet 1992a, 1993). More recently, several Caribbeanists have taken a more political-economy approach to the study of social stratification and have emphasized sociopolitical, ideological, and economic factors involved in the development of this type of society. Many of these models tend to argue that emerging elite made use of some aspects of religious rituals and symbols to claim a special position in society that, when combined with control and use of economic power (e.g., through feasting), helped them to acquire, consolidate, and maintain political power. However, due to the lack of appropriate information, most of the published arguments have been based on coarse-grained data obtained from ethnohistoric sources, several sites, wide regions, entire islands, or even groups of islands (Curet 1992a, 1996; Curet and Oliver 1998; Keegan 1991; Keegan and Maclachlan 1989; Oliver 1998; Siegel 1996, 1999). Very little effort has gone toward the collection of more refined data at the smaller level of the community or household in order to develop more detailed and realistic models.

The approach of using information at the level of culture in the modeling of past human behavior in the Caribbean has multiple deficiencies, four of which are discussed here. First, as is the case in many parts of the world, there may be an overt reliance on ethnohistoric models to describe ancient social and political organizations. In the majority of cases these ethnohistoric reconstructions and models are extrapolated to explain and describe indigenous societies from previous periods and from other regions within the Caribbean. In other words, they become the standard used to evaluate and explain the archaeological record of disparate areas and periods. One correlate of using the early Spanish chronicles to characterize the indigenous groups from the Greater Antilles is the assumption that the information provided in the chronicles is representative of all the societies in these islands. This assumption is based on the premise that Caribbean societies from different islands were culturally and socially uniform with very little diversity. Following this line of thinking, most of the information provided in the chronicles has been applied to the reconstruction of other indigenous societies for which ethnohistoric documents are lacking. An example of this is the use of the terms and concepts of cacique and cacicazgo to describe any "stratified" indigenous society of the Greater Antilles, without addressing the applicability of the analogy. Other scholars have applied this model to the Lesser Antilles (Crock 2000) and Bahamas (Keegan 1992, 1997a), and one extreme application is the use of the cacicazgos of the Greater Antilles as a standard for studying similar societies in other parts of the New World (Redmond and Spencer 1994). Considering that the great majority of the ethnohistorical information was collected from various groups from the island of Hispaniola, it is unclear how much of the cultural and social reconstructions are applicable to other islands, or even to all parts of Hispaniola itself. There are strong reasons to doubt that all polities within Hispaniola and in the rest of the Caribbean were highly stratified and centralized societies (Anderson Córdova 1990; Curet 2003; Tavares María 1996; Wilson 1990). It is argued here, therefore, that although the cacicazgo model is a good starting point for the analysis of past social organizations in the Caribbean, its applicability in different regions and periods has to be tested rather than assumed.

Further, in most cases, we have assumed that the only possible form of "hierarchical" societies in the Caribbean is the cacicazgo described by the Spanish chronicles, without considering other possible forms of sociopolitical organization. In recent years, anthropological discussions of nonegalitarian societies have recognized the existence of various forms of social organization (i.e., heterarchy, corporate and network strategies, etc.), including some that contain features from both egalitarian and hierarchical societies as traditionally defined (Blanton et al. 1996; Crumley 1995; Feinman 1995; Feinman et al. 2000; McGuire and Saitta 1996; Saitta 1997). The possibility that some Period III or IV societies were organized in any of these alternate social forms has to be considered. We cannot discard a priori that other forms of hierarchical societies also existed in the Caribbean. Even if all of these groups were organized in cacicazgos as described by the Spaniards, there is evidence indicating that many of them had differential numbers of decision-making levels (Tavares María 1996; Wilson 1990). Thus, the political arena of the different islands or even regions within a culture area could have been composed of a spectrum of different types and sizes of middle-range societies instead of "standardized" political units or polities. Also, it is important to recognize that multiple forms of nonegalitarian societies could have existed not only in different islands but also within the same island or region.

Another deficiency present in many of the general models suggested for the Greater Antilles resides in the units of analysis used. Most of these models automatically make use of the cultural categories developed by Rouse (1992) for the reconstruction of culture history as the basic social and political unit without a further evaluation. We tend to ignore the reasons for their original creation and assume, consciously or unconsciously, that they are "natural" categories innate to the archaeological assemblages. While the definition of archaeological cultures was, and still is, very useful as a general chronological framework, it cannot be forgotten that they were created for tracking migrations and reconstructing cultural sequences and as such they are not necessarily concepts that should be used for every type of study. Rouse's categories were developed from a normative perspective that emphasized similarities and differences at higher levels of analysis, i.e., cultures and peoples, levels of analysis that may be inappropriate for the study of social processes that are mostly related to lower levels such as immediate regions, communities, households, or individuals. Competition for status, long-distance exchange, elite interaction, warfare, and other social activities are phenomena that occur at these lower levels and rarely at the level of culture. Many of these categories, moreover, are too encompassing and tend to homogenize significant social, cultural, and chronological variability in the archaeological record that, while not critical for culture history, are of vital importance for the understanding and reconstruction of social processes and organizations.

Finally, it has to be recognized that while most of the previous theoretical constructs deal with the "aggrandizers" or social climbers (especially the successful ones), it would be folly to envision the rest of the population as an idle entity shaped and formed according to the will of the power seekers. Since to a certain degree every faction, segment of society, household, and even person has the capacity to make decisions, the rest of the population has the option to resist, react, or conform to the actions of the social climbers. Thus, an important point in the study of social and cultural developments is the overall response (or level of resistance) of other segments of society to the machinations, strategies, and/or changes facilitated by some individuals or groups and how the emerging elite monopolized and sustained various forms of power. Thus, in certain situations (e.g., when power is shared by different institutions), factions or individuals have to negotiate and renegotiate with other segments of society to be able to accomplish specific social goals. This is an issue that has not been addressed by any of the models developed for the Caribbean.

Previous studies have highlighted the necessity of developing research strategies flexible enough to assess factors unique to individual case studies, relative to those based on general principles, in order to understand the broader significance of social and cultural developments. On the basis of the points discussed above, it is strongly believed that at least initially this can be accomplished by using domestic groups and communities as our basic units of analysis. It is for this reason that this research project focuses on the study of household and community economy, organization, and composition at the case study site in the Caribbean. Specifically, the project is interested in measuring at the local level changes in household economy, internal organization, and accessibility to economic, religious, and symbolic resources related to the development and internal operation of socially stratified societies. Thus, the study is concerned with determining the role of small groups of individuals in the development and reproduction of institutionalized leadership and how they managed or manipulated natural, economic, political, social, and ideological resources to acquire, increase, and maintain (or share) different forms of power (Blanton et al. 1996; Brumfiel 1992; Cowgill 1993; Earle 1997). At the same time, the project explores the organization of households within communities and the region and how these institutions shifted (or reacted) with changes in the social, political, and economic realms. Another point of interest is determining the environmental, social, and historical conditions that allowed the decisions made by individuals or factions to be successful in controlling different dimensions of social power (Earle 1997). Ultimately, we would like to understand how these small social units are related to the community and society at large by studying how their archaeological correlates relate to the public structures within the ceremonial center of Tibes.


Excerpted from Tibes Copyright © 2010 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

L. Antonio Curet is Assistant Curator in the Department of Anthropology at The Field Museum, Chicago, and author of Caribbean Paleodemography: Population, Culture History, and Sociopolitical Processes in Ancient Puerto Rico.

Lisa M. Stringer is Associate in the Department of Anthropology at The Field Museum.

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