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Knowledge of Caribbean Amerindians crucial for colonisation of Americas

The significance of indigenous Amerindian knowledge has been marginalised in the history of the colonisation of the Americas. Wrongly, according to research by Leiden archaeologists. Indigenous knowledge and infrastructure were essential for the 'success' of the Spanish colonisers. Publication in the journal Antiquity.

The colonisation of the American continent started at the end of the fifteenth century when Columbus conquered large parts of the Caribbean. 'This region was the port of entry to the rest of the Americas,' Leiden Professor of Caribbean Archaeology Corinne Hofman explains. But the history of the colonisation of the American continent has largely overlooked the role of the region's original Amerindian population.

Native knowledge and infrastructure

Within the NEXUS1492 project Hofman and her colleagues are conducting extensive archaeological research on North Hispaniola, the island where Haiti and the Dominican Republic are now located. This is the area where Columbus first penetrated the interior of the island, on his second expedition in 1493. ‘The predominant narrative is that the Spanish arrived there, exterminated the native population and in less than twenty years destroyed their society and culture, before colonising large parts of the Americas,' Hofman says.  This account is correct, but it isn't complete. Hofman's research shows that the success of the Spanish colonists depended heavily on the knowledge and infrastructure of the native people. ‘Hispaniola was the testing ground for the Spanish colonisers,' according to Hofman. 'Without the knowledge of the landscape and geography that the indigenous people had built up, the colonisation of the Americas would have been very different; it would most likely have been much slower.' 

Archaeological finds and their origin in the Caribbean region. (Image: Corinne Hofman)
Archaeological finds and their origin in the Caribbean region. (Image: Corinne Hofman)

Spanish forts along the native route

Using archaeological research, drone images  and excavations, Hofman and her team examined more than 300 Amerindian settlements in North Hispaniola, in collaboration with archaeologists from the  Instituto Tecnologico de Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.  The discovery of all kinds of Spanish objects showed, for example, that the Spaniards used Amerindian roads and paths to navigate their way to the interior, which was rich in raw materials. The researchers discovered that the first line of Spanish forts, now known as the Ruta de (Cristóbal) Colón, were constructed along Amerindian routes. The Spanish also made use of the knowledge of the Caribbean people's knowledge of the landscape, for example, where gold could be found.

Customs preserved

According to traditional historiography, the culture of the Amerindians was completely erased by the region's integration into the socio-political system of Castille. The NEXUS1492 project also included research on present-day Dominican culture. This showed that there are still traces of the Amerindian past in contemporary society, in religious customs, for example - where Amerindian objects are placed on Catholic altars - or in the use of medicinal plants. Hofman: ‘We've also observed that the present inhabitants use agricultural techniques and fishing methods that can be traced back to the indigenous people before Columbus.' This  refutes the prevailing idea that the colonisers caused native customs to disappear or be replaced. Hofman: ‘The role of the Caribbean area and its original inhabitants in the colonisation of the Americas has been ignored for far too long. It's time to rewrite this disputed and forgotten chapter of our world history.'  

Different examples of native techniques - fishing, house building - that are still used today by the Dominican people.
Different examples of native techniques - fishing, house building - that are still used today by the Dominican people.

The article by Hofman and her colleagues, entitled ‘Indigenous Caribbean perspectives: archaeologies and legacies of the first colonised region in the New World’ appeared in the archaeology journal Antiquity.