For a long time, there has been a hindering divide that splits the history of the Caribbean into before and after 1492. This has created two types of approaches to the history of the Caribbean where most research has been focused on the second type, the one after the arrival of Columbus. This divide goes along with biases towards European documentation of Caribbean life and marginalisation of Indigenous perspectives on their own pasts. Another issue is the idea that the Antilles were interpreted as being somewhat isolated from the surrounding mainland. National borders also factor into this. They are way more clear-cut boundaries than anything pre-colonial Indigenous peoples would have known. Studying the past today is sometimes fragmented along those lines.
The idea of a pan-Caribbean perspective tries to combat these issues in the study of the Caribbean past. It tries to see the region as more than just its individual parts and rather as a well-connected world. For archaeologists, that means that we try to look at the bigger picture. For example, this includes exploring evidence for long-distance exchange of material between different islands and with the surrounding continent. Through this, we can also understand the mobility of pre-colonial Caribbean people and how they interacted with each other.
The study of such networks has led to an increased understanding of the socio-cultural diversity that plays a central role in the pre-colonial Caribbean region. While being part of a network of constant contact, this interaction did not create an identical cross-Caribbean culture. It can rather be understood as a mosaic of cultures that unite over identities. These identities can be traced by archaeologists through several ways, such as by studying similarities in objects or by tracing how people moved across the region. All in all, it can be said that the Caribbean before the invasion of the Europeans was not static but was characterised through contact rather than isolation.
To come to this conclusion archaeologists had to change their overall approach to studying the Caribbean. They had to leave the isolationist, one-way approach to studying the region behind. They rather had to embrace an approach that includes input from a multitude of different disciplines and an open-mindedness towards many different ideas and lines of evidence. Let’s take a look at a few of these varying approaches and how they contribute to a pan-Caribbean perspective.
One of these approaches is the one that most people probably see as the ‘classical’ way of going about doing archaeology, directly studying specific artefacts. One example of this is the way of studying the distribution of jade and jadeitite objects across the Caribbean. Another one would be tracking a very common shell artefact carved in the shape of a face called guaíza and how people exchanged it. This showed that it was given as a gift the transaction would not include a counter gift from the other party, something that was assumed to happen up to that point.
On the other hand, other newer technologies play an important part in this as well. For example, studying the possible canoe routes between different sites and islands in the pre-Columbian Caribbean through the use of a GIS, geographical information system. This is a type of program that allows capturing and analysing geographical data as well as visualising this data. One of the ways used, is by determining the easiest way between sites using ‘surface cost maps’ that analyse which route would be the most efficient to take. This results in giving new insights into how people and material moved across the Caribbean sea. Lastly, researchers always have to reflect on themselves. In the case of the Caribbean this meant that most of what we thought to know did not necessarily paint an accurate reality of how people moved and migrated but was rather a reflection of our own biases.
As we have seen approaching the Caribbean past from a pan-Caribbean perspective can help to shape a clearer picture and combat some of the biases that persist. Nevertheless, it is important to always revaluate scientific practice while doing this as not to raise new biases. The best way to make that possible is through a very diverse approach that reflects the people of the circum-Caribbean. Diverse but always connected and part of a larger world.
Text by Georg Müller, based on original published research (see further reading).
Photo: Dugout canoe, Kalinago territory, Dominica (Hofman, C.L. & M.L.P. Hoogland, 2016. Saba’s first inhabitants; A story of 3300 years of Amerindian occupation prior to European contact (1800 BC- AD 1492). Sidestone Press, Leiden).
Geurds, A., 2011. The Social in the Circum-Caribbean: Toward a Transcontextual Order, in Communities in Contact: Essays in Archaeology, Ethnohistory & Ethnography of the Amerindian Circum-Caribbean, eds. C.L. Hofman & A. van Duijvenbode. Leiden: Sidestone Press, 45–59.
Hofman, C. & A.J. Bright, 2010. Towards a pan-Caribbean perspective of pre-colonial mobility and exchange: preface to a special volume of the journal of Caribbean archaeology., Journal of Caribbean archaeology 3, 1–3.
Hofman, C., A. Mol, M. Hoogland & R. Valcárcel Rojas, 2014. Stage of encounters: migration, mobility and interaction in the pre-colonial and early colonial Caribbean, World Archaeology 46(4), 590–609.
Keegan, W.F., 2010. Boundary-work, Reputational Systems, and the Delineation of Prehistoric Insular Caribbean Culture History, Special Publication 18.
Mol, A.A.A., 2010. Something for nothing: Exploring the Importance of strong reciprocity in the Greater Caribbean, Special Publication 17.
Rodríguez Ramos, R., 2010. What is the Caribbean? An Archaeological Perspective, Special Publication 33.
Slayton, E.R., 2018. Seascape Corridors. Modeling Routes to Connect Communities Across the Caribbean Sea. Leiden: Sidestone Press.