hbd: on puerto ricans and their heritage, part I: before the taíno


[Fig. 1] Pre-colonial map of Puerto Rico Borikén.

My next two Hispanic HBD posts focus on Puerto Rico – though I’ll refer to the island by its Taíno name Borikén throughout. To better understand Puerto Ricans and their heritage, we must look at Borikén’s pre-colonial and post-colonial history.

I. Prehistoric Peoples of Borikén

The story begins over 7,000 years ago with the Ortoiroid people – the first known settlers of the Caribbean (extant with these were the Casimiroid people, but they didn’t spread beyond western Borikén). Originating from Trinidad and Tobago sometime between 5500 and 5230 BC, the Ortoiroid first developed in South America before migrating northward to Trinidad and eventually making their way to Borikén. This migration pattern follows that of the Arawak and other Circum-Caribbean groups; indeed, the Ortoiroid may have preceded the Arawak. Archaeological evidence seems to support this, given that Ortoiroid artifacts suggest a pre-ceramic (i.e. non-agricultural) culture; on Borikén, one of the earliest known traces of the Ortoiroid is the so-called Coroso culture (active from 1000 BC to AD 200), first described by Irving Rouse in the 1930s. Unfortunately I couldn’t find his 1952 paper on the Coroso, but I did find several other relevant papers that cite it – including one of Rouse’s own from 1953; here’s an excerpt:

Rouse 1953 01

Sound familiar? It should, as these ceremonies (as well as the “zemis“) refer to Taíno culture. I’ll go into detail on the Taíno in Borikén in Part II of this post; for now, here’s another excerpt:

Rouse 1953 02

If this account is correct, it means that the Igneri displaced the Ortoiroid of Puerto Rico (the Coroso); the Igneri are a subset of the Saladoid people. The Cuevas style of pottery (and culture) described above flourished from AD 400 to 600, though the Saladoid occupied Borikén earlier. From Wikipedia:

This culture is thought to have originated at the lower Orinoco River near the modern settlements of Saladero and Barrancas in Venezuela. Seafaring people from the lowland region of the Orinoco River of South America migrated into and established settlements in the Lesser Antilles, Puerto Rico, and Hispaniola. They displaced the pre-ceramic Ortoiroid culture. As a horticultural people, they initially occupied wetter and more fertile islands that best accommodated their needs. These Indigenous peoples of the Americas were an Arawak-speaking culture.

Between 500-280 BCE, they immigrated into Puerto Rico and the Lesser Antilles, eventually making up a large portion of what was to become a single Caribbean culture.

(Emphasis mine.)

Alegría et al. found more evidence of Coroso culture in the late 1940s; they recorded their findings in this 1955 report. Their conclusions:

There is ample evidence, both archaeological and historical, that the West Indies were first occupied by peoples who followed a nonagricultural way of life. This mode of life has been referred to as the West Indian Archaic cultural tradition. Archaeological sites of this tradition are well represented in Cuba and Hispaniola, and they have been reported from the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Trinidad. The present paper has described excavations in a Puerto Rican cave site which offers stratigraphic proof of a preceramic, presumably nonagricultural, complex underlying the pottery bearing strata of the Igneri phase. The Igneri phase has been attributed to early agricultural Arawakans…The Archaic culture of the Loiza Cave shows some similarities to the Coroso culture which Rouse has defined tentatively from several sites in Puerto Rico.

(Emphasis mine.)

Alegría published some updates in his 1965 paper On Puerto Rican Archaeology; some excerpts:

The importance of the Hacienda Grande site lies in the presence of certain pottery traits which seem to indicate that it represents the earliest immigration of pottery-making Indians into the island. The fine-zoned crosshatched decoration and fine-carved designs filled with paint, which are not present in the other Period II sites in Puerto Rico, establish a relationship with the Saladoid sites in northeastern Venezuela…
With respect to Puerto Rico, Rouse (1952) considers that his Cuevas pottery style evolved into the Capa style, which represents the latest pottery of the island. According to him, the Ostiones style was an intermediate stage between the Cueves and the Capa. The differences in techniques between Cuevas and Ostiones pottery, and Capa as well, make us doubt this possibility. The radical changes in pottery forms and in decoration between Cuevas and Ostiones seem to indicate something more than an evolution. Along with these differences in pottery, we also note a radical change in food habits among the sites where the Cuevas pottery is found (Hacienda Grande, Cuevas, Canas, and Monserrate) and the Ostiones and Capa sitesThis evidence suggests that the Igneri Indian immigration into the Greater Antilles was stopped at Puerto Rico because of a new invasion of people from South America who came by way of the Lesser Antilles, conquered the Igneri, and prevented their movement westward to the oither islands in the Greater Antilles. The new invaders could have received some influence from Igneri women, which manifested itself in the Ostiones pottery, although the ceremonial white-on-red pottery was totally abandoned.

(Emphasis mine.)

The Hacienda Grande culture actually precedes the Cuevas culture by about 100 years, peaking in Borikén between 250 BC and AD 300. Recent research corroborates the points I highlighted above – notably, this paper suggesting two waves of migration from opposite directions (i.e. from Central America to the Antilles and from South America to the same) and this paper suggesting a South American origin for the Arawak from whom the Taíno descend.

Curet et al. published a work called Prehispanic Social and Cultural Changes at Tibes, Puerto Rico; published in the Journal of Field Archaeology in 2006, the paper focus on local changes in society and culture within the Saladoid and Ostionoid (later Taíno) population in Borikén (and especially Tibes). Some excerpts:

The Saladoid series is characterized by high quality ceramics and the use of paint as the main decoration. Based on the lack of evidence of social stratification in burials and household deposits, most Caribbean researchers consider the Saladoid groups to have been relatively egalitarian or tribal in nature (e.g., Boomert 2001; Curet 1996; Curet and Oliver 1998; Lopez Sotomayor 1975: 103; Keegan 2000; Moscoso 1986: 307; Rouse 1992: 33; Siegel 1996, 1999)…artifactual and settlement pattern data suggest that the Taíno Indians had a more elaborate social and religious system than earlier groups.
In addition to the general trend in simplification of the pottery assemblage from the Hacienda Grande to the Santa Elena [AD 900 – 1200] styles there was also a decrease in quality. Saladoid ceramics tend to have finer paste and are thinner-walled than Elenan Ostionoid ceramics, and the general appearance of the former is more refined relative to the latter. Thus, the tendency in ceramics is of “degradation” of the workmanship and a reduction in the use of symbolic decoration in the form of designs. These gradual, but radical changes have been described as a “de-evolution” by Roe (1989), and the later ceramic styles as the “Dark Ages” of the Greater Antilles by Rouse (1982).
A concentric pattern [of ceramics] has been reported for other Saladoid and Ostionoid sites (Chanlatte Baik and Narganes Stordes 1983; Rodriguez 1991; Rouse 1952, 1992; Siegel 1989, 1996; Walters 1994) and is comparable to the layout of ethnohistorically and ethnographically described indigenous communities from South America (Heckenberger 1996; Heckenberger et al. 2003).
Guinea pig remains have been identified from three units at Tibes, and are represented by well-preserved and diagnostic cranial and post-cranial elements (n = 7, MNI = 5). Guinea pigs have an irregular distribution and are generally very rare at Caribbean sites (Newsom and Wing 2004; Wing 2001)…Because of their exotic origin and overall scarcity, however, it can be hypothesized that access to guinea pigs was restricted and that they were associated with higher-status households or individuals…the patterns based on the preliminary data suggest interesting trends in some aspects of subsistence resources. Two main changes are detectable. First, there was evidently an increase in the exploitation of hutias, or at least hutia remains become more numerous among the deposits during the span of occupation. Second, the appearance of guinea pigs coincides with the hypothesized development of social stratification and political regionalization.
[D]ata suggest that…the movement towards social inequality started much earlier than A.D. 1000, as many Caribbean archaeologists now believe, and even included the construction of single monumental structures. If so, around A.D. 1000-1200 the movement intensified, with a quick episode of construction that may reflect some consolidation of power in the process of political centralization, culminating in a short-lived powerful or influential polity that collapsed around A.D. 1200. This reconstruction is similar to the process of cycling suggested by Anderson (1994; cf. Steponaitis 1991) for the Savannah River chiefdoms, where some polities seem to have quickly arisen under certain historical and social conditions or under the leadership of a charismatic and politically astute leader. Once the social or physical environment changed to less favorable conditions, or the leader passed away, the polity suffered a marked decrease in scale and structural integrity. Hypothetically, this can occur relatively quickly, perhaps in one or two generations…[F]rom the perspective of changes in mortuary practice, Curet and Oliver (1998) argued that the social organization changed from lineal descent groups that acted as economic corporate groups during the Saladoid period to one where these kinds of groups were de-emphasized and smaller household units were accentuated.

(All emphasis mine.)

Taken together, this evidence suggests that egalitarianism prevailed not just among the Taíno, but among their ancestors! However, something seems to have occurred between AD 900 and 1200 that interfered with this somewhat. Some researchers liken this period to the “Dark Ages” – marked by lower-quality artifacts and increasing social stratification; the fourth and fifth quoted paragraphs give examples of such stratification in action. Note my emphasis in the last paragraph; a societal change from “lineal descent” to one that accentuated “smaller household units” might indicate a rise in clannishness. hbd chick‘s working definition of clannishness is:

…a set of behaviors and innate behavioral traits and predispositions which, when found in a population, result in the members of that population strongly favoring, in all areas of life, themselves, their family members — both near and extended, and even closely allied associates (esp. in clannish societies which are not arranged into clans), while at the same time strongly disfavoring those considered to be non-family and all unrelated, non-allied associates.

(Please note that I’ve no definitive evidence that the ruling polity (or polities) around AD 900-1200 was/were more clannish, but the evidence leads me to believe so. To borrow hbd chick’s expression, Further Research is RequiredTM!)

The comparison of certain Saladoid and Ostionoid sites to South American sites supports the Circum-Caribbean hypothesis of migration; moreover, the Taíno weren’t the only Amerindian group to migrate this way – there were also the Island Caribs with whom they traded (and fought). I promise to cover the Caribs in a future post as their interaction with the Taíno likely had a hand in shaping the pre-contact Caribbean.

Rodríguez Ramos et al., however, proposed an alternative hypothesis of the pottery evidence in the pre-Taíno Caribbean; some excerpts:

…an alternative explanation for the initial incorporation of pottery into the technological repertoire of at least some of these societies….documented thus far in the earliest pottery-bearing contexts seems to indicate that they were initially introduced for performing similar serving functions to those that were being carried out with other utensils. We argue that the production of these serving vessels was likely associated with social functions such as prestige-enhancing activities (e.g., feasting and/or sharing), as has been noted in other contexts (e.g., Hayden 1994, 1995; Rice 1999). This could explain the presence of this early pottery in sites with apparent superstructural importance such as caves with pictographs and petroglyphs (e.g., Martinez 1994; Rimoli and Nadal 1983), and caneyes (i.e., shellmounds) (e.g. Guarch and Payares 1964; Perez 1943; Pichardo 1946). Also, when this pottery has been found in open air sites it has always been recovered from mounded middens, which is where some pre-Arawak burials (mostly secondary) have been unearthed, also suggesting sumptuary meaning to these contexts.

(Emphasis mine.)

On the so-called “Dark Ages” of the Greater Antilles, Rodríguez Ramos et al. write:

…based on this evidence we would argue that instead of those different styles being strictly a result of the degeneration and regional diversification of Ostionoid pottery making through time, some could at least partly represent evolved versions of the early pottery of the islands. In line with this, the regional variations that seem to have existed in this early pottery could have eventually evolved into the different pottery styles present in “Pre-Taino” (in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic) or “Sub-Taino” (in Cuba) contexts. This multifocal development perhaps could explain the appearance of very distinctive Ostionoid styles in the Greater Antilles, that which in some cases were supposed to have evolved in less than two generations (e.g., Jamaican redware).

What this shows is that population evolution in the pre-Arawak Caribbean was very complex. Regarding Borikén, it was apparently so complex that Rodríguez Ramos wrote a book on it! The book (which I unfortunately do not own) covers population evolution in Borikén from prehistoric times (i.e. Ortoiroid) to contact. (N.B.: Should I get my hands on this book, I’ll update this post with the relevant facts and data!)

That’s all for now! In Part II of this post, I’ll discuss the Taíno in Borikén, the demographic changes resulting from contact, and Borikén’s current demographic and genetic makeup in-depth.

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