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Computer models chart extensive Caribbean inter-island networks

The precolonial inhabitants of the Caribbean islands communicated, travelled, and exchanged objects and ideas along an expansive inter-island network. New methods of computer modeling shed light on these networks. Emma Slayton is set to discuss her work on this topic at her Defense on the 12th of September.

Least-cost pathway analysis

Although least-cost pathway analysis has been a popular method of research when exploring the physical connection between land locked archaeological sites, the method has scarcely been adapted to sea-based travelling. Emma Slayton worked with colleagues from the University of Konstanz on a tool to model past canoe routes that would help to balance this perspective. The tool used in this work modeled directed canoe voyages, or where the start and end points of pathways are pre-determined. This technique had not yet been applied in the Caribbean region where work has focused on understanding undirected, or drift, voyages.

Real World Canoeing

The new computer model operationalized by Slayton is innovative in that it follows an isochrone method when modeling direct routes. In simpler terms, the model incorporates factors such as weather conditions and undercurrents in various seasons, but also the strength and stamina of the precolonial Amerindian seafaring crews. According to Slayton, “It is likely that these considerations were vital to canoe navigators as changes in environmental conditions affected the difficulty and trajectory of routes in different seasons.”

Connecting the Caribbean

Archaeological sites submitted to the model were chosen based on the physical materials or stylistic elements of objects in their assemblages. “The material record can demonstrate the connection, computer modeling can hypothesize the travel corridors.” Combined with historic and ethnographic accounts, where possible, as well as modern experiential and experimental canoe studies, Slayton’s research provides a solid platform that realistically identifies connections and travel corridors between sites.

Although the model showed how archaeological sites can be directly connected across the sea, it also showed possible routes that passed by other islands. “These in-between islands could also represent places where crews rested during voyages, or exchanged goods with other Amerindians,” Slayton says.

Precolonial Mental Mapping

Slayton’s research demonstrates that the precolonial Caribbean peoples were avid seafarers and had an extensive knowledge of when, how, and along which routes to navigate the Caribbean Sea to exploit its environment and the possibilities of exchange between groups to its fullest extent.

About Emma Slayton

Emma Slayton currently holds a position at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, as the CLIR Fellow for Data Visualization and Curation, where she plans workshops and other content to promote the use of various data visualization methods, tools, and techniques.

See for more information Emma Slayton's defense page.

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