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Soil samples show impact of Columbus's arrival

After Columbus landed on the island of Hispaniola (present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic), the farming culture of the indigenous people quickly disappeared. This has been demonstrated by Leiden archaeologists and colleagues from other universities on the basis of soil research. Publication in The Holocene.

The Bahamas, Cuba and Hispaniola. For one person this is the holy land, and for another it's the beginning of the end. It is where discoverer Christopher Columbus landed in 1492, making him the first European to set foot on land in the New World. This was without doubt an enormous achievement, but at the same time it heralded the demise of the continent's indigenous people, who were to suffer centuries of disease, slavery and marginalisation by the conquistadors.

Plantations in ruins

The speed with which the decline of the native culture occurred is now apparent from research by scientists  from Leiden University, the University of Amsterdam, the Vrije Universiteit and Utrecht University. They conducted soil research on the island of Hispaniola, which is today divided into Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Their research shows that indigenous horticulture came to an abrupt end in around 1500. Not long after the arrival of Columbus, the small-scale agricultural settlements (conucos) were in ruins and were overrun by the jungle, probably because the indigenous people were driven out, murdered or forced into slavery.  

For their research the scientists drilled a hole 2.5 metres deep in a remote river bed in the Cibao Valley. Columbus and his men passed through this valley in their search for the southern part of the island. You can deduce from the layers of sediment in the drill core  what the vegetation was like at a particular instance in history. You can see, for example, that before the arrival of the Spanish there was a lot of carbon in the soil, which indicates that the indigenous population burned down the rainforest in order to cultivate the land.

Rotting wood

‘You see that change in around 1500,' says Leiden archaeologist   Menno Hoogland, ‘because we suddenly find traces of moulds that live on rotting wood. This is a clear indication that the conucos were no longer maintained and fell into ruin. Fifty years or so later you see the first crops appear, cultivated by the Spanish colonisers: crops of the nightshade family, possibly tomatoes, but also other types, such as sweet potatoes. This shows that the Spanish took over the abandoned farmland and cultivated new crops there.' 

Leiden  archaeologists have been conducting research on the earliest contact between Europeans and the native Caribbean population for a long time. In the Nexus1492 project they are currently rewriting the history of this crucial period. 'You see a lot of people in the Dominican Republic with Indian features,' Hoogland comments. 'They are now finding out a lot more about their origins. Each piece of the puzzle that we solve gives them a better understanding of their roots.' 

Text: Merijn van Nuland
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