By understanding the origin of the pendants made of animal teeth that have been found on Puerto Rico and Vieques, we can paint a picture of interaction between the insular Caribbean and the mainland during the Early Ceramic Age (500 BC to AD 600). Very few remains of tapirs, peccaries, and jaguars have been found in the Antilles. These tooth pendants are part of this very small but important collection as they were crafted from animals that are not native to this region. Therefore, the objects must have been imported, which makes them very suitable for isotope analysis to find their origin.
The first objects that were analysed to reconstruct their origins, were two jaguar tooth pendants. One of them was found at the site of Punta Candelero on the east coast of Puerto Rico, while the other one came from La Hueca-Sorcé on Vieques. Although both sites are located rather close to each other, the two jaguar teeth appear to come from very different regions. The origin of the Punta Candelero tooth seems to be in the Guiana Shield region of north-eastern South America. The tooth from La Hueca-Sorcé did not have such a clear origin as it could come from a range of areas stretching from north-western South America through Central America to parts of Mesoamerica. Nevertheless, it is very clear that both teeth had very different roots.
This is slightly different for the other two pendants that were analysed. One tapir and one peccary tooth analysed, and both also had very distinct origins compared to the jaguar teeth. While they were also found in La Hueca-Sorcé, they most probably came from either northern Venezuela, the Maya Mountains of Belize, or northern Central America.
The four tooth pendants: a - jaguar tooth from Punta Candelero; b - jaguar tooth from La Hueca-Sorcé; c - tapir tooth from La Hueca-Sorcé; d - pecary tooth from La Hueca-Sorcé (Laffoon et al. 2014)
There are a variety of important takeaways from analysing the origin of the tooth pendants. Some of the pendants might have even been directly transported by the first migrants arriving to Puerto Rico. This could have been the case for the jaguar tooth found at La Hueca-Sorcé. Its origin, that could lie in the Isthmo-Colombian region of north-eastern South America, is also the region that has been associated with the origin of the Indigenous peoples that produced a pottery style called Huecoid. The people of La Hueca-Sorcé produced the same pottery style. Thus, it is assumed that both of these groups were linked and that the people of La Hueca-Sorcé kept ties with their homeland in north-eastern South America.
On the other hand, the jaguar tooth from Punta Candelero also shows that connections with the mainland were maintained after migration as this is the youngest artefact. It also comes from the distinct Guiana Shield region. This could mean that the people of the Caribbean started trading with this region. Furthermore, the presence of these jaguar tooth pendants at these specific sites speaks for their importance as so-called ‘gem-centres’. A distinction that has to do with their role in trade networks during the Early Ceramic Period (500 BC - AD 600) and comes from the presence of a large variety of local and exotic semi-precious stones at these sites.
Text by Georg Müller, based on original published research (see further reading).
Laffoon, J.E., R. Rodríguez Ramos, L. Chanlatte Baik, Y. Narganes Storde, M. Rodríguez Lopez, G.R. Davies & C.L. Hofman, 2014. Long-distance exchange in the precolonial Circum-Caribbean: A multi-isotope study of animal tooth pendants from Puerto Rico, Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 35, 220–33.