During the past two decades, many of the traditional conceptions about the configuration of the cultural landscape of precolonial Puerto Rico have been critically addressed from both political and disciplinary perspectives. Colonialist undercurrents embedded in the traditional models used to structure the indigenous history of the island have come into question and some of the fundamental ideas about the social and cultural makeup of the human collectivities that inhabited Puerto Rico have been drastically altered. The timing of the initial occupation of the island has been pushed back to more than five thousand years ago and the potential origin of some of these societies has also been reconsidered, including the possibility that some of groups moved across the Caribbean Sea from the Isthmo-Colombian region from where they brought phytocultural traditions that included the cultivation of a wide array of important economic plants. The cultural landscape of the island later expanded with the arrival of migrants from the surrounding continents who participated in long-distance interaction networks, as demonstrated by the trade of exotic goods mainly used for making personal adornments. The cultural plurality that existed on the island led to the development of distinct traditions that were not only forged by the diverse interactions that took place within Puerto Rico, but also by engagements that continued to take place with the inhabitants of other islands of the Antilles and surrounding continental regions. This all led to the articulation of a mosaic of cultural traditions that were diffusely united through the intersocietal negotiation of a set of codes that allowed the different collectivities to engage with one another while retaining their differences.
Reniel Rodríguez Ramos
Fidel Rodríguez Velásquez and Oliver Antczak
The island of Cubagua, known since the end of the 15th century as the “Island of Pearls,” is a small semi-arid island located in the southeastern Caribbean. Pre-colonially, the island formed part of an extensive network of communication and trade that crisscrossed the southeastern Caribbean and the adjacent coasts. In 1528, a settlement on the island of Cubagua was granted a charter to establish the city of Nueva Cádiz. This city played a central role in the exploitation of and trade in pearls during the the 16th century. During the early modern period, the pearls from this area circulated widely throughout the Atlantic world and inspiredabundant depictions that helped construct notions of the “New World” and brought competitions that forged new relationships between the Hispanic monarchy and American Indigenous populations. After 1540, the city was gradually abandoned. Since, the island has remained uninhabited and relatively unknown academically. However, the history of Nueva Cádiz has played an important role in debates over heritage protection, in museum narratives, and, ultimately, in the identity of the region.
Jonas Gregorio de Souza
Continuing advances in the archaeology of the Amazon have changed long-standing misconceptions about the rainforest as a homogeneous, nearly pristine environment occupied by small, scattered groups. Massive archaeological sites, deep deposits of anthropogenic soils, and earthworks found over thousands of kilometers now testify to the scale and intensity of past human impact in some parts of the Amazon. However, debate persists about the extent of such transformations, as distinct environments within the Amazon Basin (floodplains, savannas, seasonal forests) reveal different scales and intensities of pre-Columbian landscape modification. In that context, the discovery of hundreds of geometric earthen enclosures in the southern rim of the Amazon is proving that some areas that were previously considered virtually untouched forest may have been densely settled in the past. Although regional variations exist, most southern Amazonian enclosures appear to be defensive earthworks built at the turn of the second millennium ce, a period recognized by archaeologists as one of escalating population densities, migrations, and warfare across the Amazon Basin.
Kevin M. Gosner
In the last decades of the 18th century, with the visit in 1784 of José Antonio Calderón to the Maya ruins at Palenque and the discovery in 1790 of the statue of Coatlicue and the Stone of the Sun in the central plaza of Mexico City, the study of ancient Mexico entered a new era. In the century that followed, teams of field surveyors, mapmakers, graphic artists, and artifact collectors worked across central and southern Mexico as well as in Guatemala. Some were commissioned by the Spanish Crown or later by national governments; many arrived from England, France, Germany, and eventually the United States. Early on they worked side by side with geologists, geographers, and field biologists as part of natural history expeditions, accumulating collections of artifacts that would be displayed in curiosity cabinets and early museums alongside trays of colorful butterflies and stuffed tropical birds. And then, as foreign travel books won popular audiences in Europe and the United States, and as international investors arrived in Mexico and Central America, archaeology also was taken up by enthusiastic amateurs looking to sell books, build private collections, or organize international trade fairs. For serious students of ancient history, field exploration and advances in archaeological record-keeping transformed a body of research and scientific speculation that since the 16th century had been dominated by theologians, historians, and philologists, who studied Spanish chronicles and native language annals but paid scant attention to the remnants of material culture. In the process, Aztecs and Maya were rediscovered as historical subjects, their histories disconnected from that of contemporary Indian peasants and recast as rivals to the great civilizations of the Old World. Ruins of monumental architecture, recovered artifacts in sculptured stone or finely crafted metals, and ancient texts inscribed on wooden lintels and bark cloth were reclaimed as part of national patrimonies to be protected by new state agencies and displayed in modern museums. On January 20, 1911, the International School for American Archaeology and Ethnology formally opened in Mexico City, and this formative period in the archaeological study of ancient peoples ended. Manuel Gamio introduced the study of stratigraphy to fieldwork practices in Mexico and the discipline was transformed once again.
The arrival of Christopher Columbus in the northern Caribbean with three Spanish ships in October 1492 marked the beginning of continuing European contact with the Americas. With his second voyage of 1493 permanent European occupation of the Caribbean began, with enormous consequences for the peoples and ecology of the region. Failing to encounter the wealthy trading societies that Columbus had hoped to find by reaching Asia, Europeans in the Caribbean soon realized that they would have to involve themselves directly in organizing profitable enterprises. Gold mining in the northern islands and pearl fishing in the islands off the coast of Tierra Firme (present-day Venezuela) for some years proved enormously profitable but depended on Spaniards’ ability to exploit indigenous labor on a large scale. The imposition of the Spanish encomienda system, which required indigenous communities to provide labor for mining and commercial agriculture, and the large-scale capture and transportation of Native Americans from one locale to another wrought havoc among the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean and circum-Caribbean, resulting in high mortality and flight. Spaniards in the islands soon sought to supplement indigenous labor by importing African slaves who, in the early 16th century, became a significant if not always easily controlled presence in the region. From the earliest years the Spanish Caribbean was a complex, dynamic, and volatile region characterized by extensive interaction and conflict among diverse groups of people and by rapid economic and institutional development. Although the islands became the launching grounds for subsequent Spanish moves to the nearby mainland, throughout the 16th century and beyond they played a crucial role in sustaining Spain’s overseas empire and integrating it into the larger Atlantic system.