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Date: Sun, 5 Jul 1998 15:46:19 -0400
Pedro Guanikeyu Torres, Council Elder <torresp@ALGORITHMS.COM>
Subject: Re: In the New York Times today (july 5) (Taino Indians of Cuba)
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Date: Saturday, July 04, 1998 11:05 PM
yy Subject: In the New York Times today (july 5)
Arocoel Pedro Guanikeyu Torres, Tribal Council Elder
[Publisher's note: Since this was written, DNA evidence overwhelmingly attests to the present-day survival of Taino Indians in the Caribbean.]
PUNTA ALEGRE, CubaThey were the first people to welcome Columbus to the New World. Within a catastrophically brief time, they became the first casualties of the clash of cultures that followed his arrival.
The native people of Cuba, Puerto Rico and some other Caribbean islandsknown as the Tainodisappeared in little more than a generation, leaving behind no monumental structures or written language. The tropical climate quickly destroyed most of their everyday belongings.
Until recently, archeologists in the Americas concentrated on more complex societies with large physical legacies: the Aztecs, Inca and Maya. Work in the Taino culture did not really begin until the 1950's, and just as it was getting under way, Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean, was jolted by revolution. Money for fieldwork became scarce and the embargo by the United States kept most American archeologists away.
But Canada kept close contact with Cuba and that sustained interchange eventually brought a leading Canadian archeologist to a remote site in Cuba that is now significantly expanding what is known about the mysterious Taino (pronounced TIE-no).
Digging at a remarkable underwater site in the small coastal town of Punta Alegre, David M. Pendergast, a vice president of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and Cuban specialists have uncovered what may be the first nearly complete piece of Taino architecture. It is a community building of wood and thatch, more than 60 feet in diameter, that stood on the northern coast of Cuba's central Ciego de Avila province 500 to 700 years ago.
The two-mile-long archeological site, the largest in Cuba, may also hold the preserved remains of as many as 25 other Taino houses.
After another season's work we'll have about as complete a
body of data on these perishable constructions as you could imagine
having anywhere in the world, said Pendergast, who has worked in
Belize uncovering Maya ruins for over 35 years.
The artifacts include everything from two mighty endposts, each more than 20 feet long and thick as a tree trunk, to smaller rafters and even sections of the thatch roof as well as some bowls and household goods. They were found not far from shore in about 2 1/2 feet of water, buried in a sulphur-rich layer of muck and mud that is so renowned locally for its restorative powers that there once was a small government-run mud therapy clinic on the beach.
Along with a similar discovery in the Dominican Republic -- a deep sinkhole called La Aleta, where fragile Taino baskets and gourds have been found preserved in an oxygen-free environmentthe Punta Alegre dig is providing extremely rare organic material that greatly advances the understanding of a people who left little lasting evidence about the 1,000 years they inhabited the Caribbean.
This site and La Aleta vastly expand our knowledge of everyday life
and will ultimately tell us a lot more about community
organization, said Dicey Taylor, one of the principal curators of
a recent Taino exhibit at the Museo del Barrio in New York.
the first real evidence of what Taino houses looked like, other than
post holes in the ground.
Punta Alegre, more than 200 miles east of Havana, started revealing its secrets long before the archeologists arrived. Over the last decade, two local fishermen have recovered almost 200 artifacts, including many rare wooden objects, and countless stone and ceramic pieces.
The fishermen, Pedro Guerra and Nelson Torna, found the pieces in a lagoon near the sea or washed up along the beach not far from their homes. Many are already on display at the Municipal Museum of Chambas in central Cuba. They include several rare duhos, the hammock-shaped wooden stools that Taino shamans squatted on.
The fishermen also found idols carved out of a black, heavy wood that are in such good condition that it is possible to see minute detail, like the vertebrae carved along the spine of a male figure. Also on display at the museum are an axe with the stone head still attached and several elaborately carved flat sticks that the Taino used to induce vomiting during purification ceremonies.
Irving Rouse, an emeritus professor of archeology at Yale University
who is widely recognized as an expert on the Taino, said that although
he had not yet heard much about the recent find at Punta Alegre he
thought it could be significant because
the amount of perishable
material from the Taino that has been found elsewhere is relatively
Rouse worked in Cuba in 1945 but has not been back since. He said that
household objects and houses
tell us what the living conditions
were like, unlike ceremonial objects from caves that provide an
idea of Taino funeral customs.
Punta Alegre is a small coastal village where fishermen chase after tuna and baseball is played even under a scorching midday sun. The first archeological excavations in the area took place about 50 years ago. Using local volunteers, archeologists dug at a few upland mounds but found little.
Nelson Torna's father was one of the local men who worked on that earlier dig. After listening to his father's account of searching for the ancient people who once lived there, Torna took to walking the beach looking for artifacts.
He found small pieces of ceramic but little else. Then one day, a
northerly storm hit.
After a few days I came by to check what the
sea had done, Torna said. There, lying on the beach, was a small
carved stick, which he took home.
He does not remember what that first piece was because within a few days of being out of the water it had decomposed almost completely. But the thrill of finding the piece stuck with him, and he returned to the beach and a nearby lagoon day after day. Soon he found another wooden piece. This time he took off his shirt, soaked it in the sea and used it to wrap the artifact while he carried it home.
Torna's friend, Guerra, started to accompany him, and they quickly amassed an enormous quantity of artifacts, including the eight-inch-tall idols and the duhos.
We felt very excited and satisfied, Torna said.
they were pieces made long ago right here and the mud under the water
preserved them in a way that made it seem like they were made
In the early 1990s, a Canadian fly fishing group came through the area on a tour. One of the organizers heard about the fishermen and came to see their collection of artifacts.
When the group returned to Canada a member told Pendergast about the unusual collection. The following year he had to see for himself. No stranger to the region, Pendergast had never worked in Cuba, and found the chance to do so irresistible.
With the help of Jorge R. Calvera of Cuba's Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment, Pendergast got official permission to excavate. He agreed to raise the money needed to begin a modest dig, about $10,000 so far. Calvera serves as co-director of the project.
Pendergast believes the seabed off Punta Alegre was once dry land but was submerged by the rising water level in the Caribbean. Storms washed sand and shell debris over the settlement, but the removal of protective mangroves decades ago has allowed the sea to eat away at the site.
To begin the excavation, Pendergast had to devise a way of working on the sea bottom. He needed an enclosure but felt he could not drive caissons into the mud without risking damage to unseen artifacts. So he used plastic sheets and hundreds of sandbags to block off a small area. Two pumps ran continuously to empty water that seeped in.
During the first excavation, in 1997, the professional archeologists did not come up with anything to rival the fishermen's spectacular finds. But they did flag the location of more than 300 posts still rising out of the mud close to shore.
This year's dig focused on one set of posts that appeared to be arranged in the circular design of Taino houses as recorded by Spanish chroniclers.
Not far below the surface, the archeologists found the two massive notched endposts. They lay side by side as if they had gently fallen there long ago. Nearby they found rafters and pieces of thatch from the roof. They also uncovered charcoal from a hearth along with animal bones and fruit pits.
The clues were tantalizing, especially when combined with the fishermen's artifacts. The archeologists' first thesisthat the village had been surprised by a monster hurricaneseemed to be disproved by the orderly arrangement of the wooden pieces and the lack of skeletal remains.
The presence of valued artifacts like the duhos and the idols suggested the people had abruptly been forced to leave. The thesis Pendergast is considering now is that, perhaps because of the isolation of the Punta Alegre site, the Taino may have been able to survive unnoticed long after the Spaniards arrived.
The thesis is supported by the mixture of common and ceremonial artifacts, and two unusual pieces. One is a small shard of European ceramic that had been ground into a triangle, a shape the Taino valued highly. The other is part of a clay mug found by Guerra that suggests the Taino may have tried to copy the Spanish style.
We're beginning to see a little accumulation of evidence which
suggests that this community may have survived much later than
most, Pendergast said. The community could have gone undiscovered
until the early 17th century,
and then the Spaniards found it and
herded the people up and took them off somewhere, he said.
The team has taken back wood samples for carbon-14 dating at the University of Toronto.
At the end of this season's dig, Pendergast used the sand in the 1,000 sandbags to rebury the great house until he can return next winter or spring. To get to the bottom layer of material he believes he will have to use caissons but he is less concerned about damaging hidden artifacts now that he knows the rough dimensions of the house.
Unlike other archeologists forced to leave an active dig, Pendergast does not worry about vandalism or looting. Torna and Guerra will continue to watch the site, and comb the beach for new artifacts.
The greatest happiness that we have is the training we get and the
curiosity that is satisfied by being here in this place, Guerra
said. He would like to see a museum built on the beach, he said, where
the pieces he and Torna find could be permanently displayed.
It makes me very proud to have been part of it, he said,
because this is our history.