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11 January 2020

Christopher Columbus, and other early settlers in the Caribbean, spoke about the indigenous islanders and described the Caribs as a fierce tribe that abducted women and cannibilised men (referring to attacks by Caribs on Arawak communities). These stories have been dismissed by modern commentators as a myth – implying Columbus was telling porkies. It fits in well with the modern mantra that cannibals did not exist except in the prejudiced minds of the early settlers. One problem has always been that Caribs were located in the northern islands by the settlers when modern archaeologists have insisted they were restricted to the southern chain of islands. Why people think it is alright to rubbish the observations of people in generations past is a mystery by itself. Never the less, a new study puts the issue to bed as an analysis of skulls puts the Caribs in Hispanoila, Jamaica and the Bahamas (just as implied by Columbus). Ask a Jamaican about the Caribs and likely as not they'll insist they still occupied the highlands until recently – and may actually still be out there in the bush. Hence, we essentially have academics arguing with other academics – or do we. The skulls show that indeed Caribs did live in Jamaica but the analysis revealed three separate waves of migration through the Caribbean islands. The earliest group arrived by way of the Yucatan, moving tino Cuba and the northern Antilles (and similarities in stone tools suports this idea). How far north this grou reached is at the moment unknown. Could they have got as far as North America.

The second wave of settlement is defined by the term Arawak and they seem to have come from Colombia and Venezuela, migrating to Puerto Rico between 800 and 200BC. They went on to spread through all the islands. Lastly, we have the Caribs, who seem to have arrived from the NW Amazonian area. Around the 9th century AD they were on the move again, colonising the northern Caribbean islands (including Jamaica and the Bahamas). They also had a specific pottery type. See https://phys.org/news/2020-01-carib-caribbean-boosting-credibility-colum…

The source of the story is Scientific Reports – go to https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-56929-3 … the Spanish, at first, insisted that indigenous peoples were paid for work and treated with a certain amount of respect. That attitude appears to have changed over time and not least because of the reports of cannibalism filtering back to the Spanish crown. All indigenous peoples in the Caribbean became Caribs as far as the European colonists were concerned and this meant all of them were liable to slavery – and no wages. This is why people from Jamaica and Barbados, for example, still say the Caribs lived in the hills until recently. These are the people who fled the  colonists to avoid slavery and were more likely to be Arawaks than Caribs. Fascinating piece of research.

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