Universiteit Leiden

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Dissertation

Facing Society

A mere day after setting foot ashore in the Bahamas on October 13th 1492, Christopher Columbus notes the broad foreheads of the inhabitants of the Americas. These permanently altered cranial shapes are deliberately created through the application of pressure to the head of the infant in the first years of life and embody identities in indigenous Caribbean communities.

Author
Anne van Duijvenbode
Date
16 May 2017

Facing Society studies the establishment, embodiment, and transformation of indigenous identities against the backdrop of broader social, cultural, and political developments in Caribbean communities before and after 1492. This is accomplished through an integrated multi-disciplinary approach combining osteology, archaeology, (ethno)history, anthropology, and sociology.

The first evidence of head shaping practices in the region comes from the Early Ceramic Age, specifically along the social frontier between different groups in the north-eastern Caribbean. Thus, the rise of intentional cranial modification appears connected to processes of interaction and exchange across social boundaries that act as loci for innovation. By the Late Ceramic Age, head shaping was found in communities across the Caribbean, yet different regional patterns emerge in conjunction with diverging social developments. A relatively homogeneous pattern of cranial modification emerges in the Greater Antilles, with high prevalence rates and an emphasis on frontal flattening. These shared practices indicate a collective identity fostering social cohesion in expanding communities and tying distant villages in the Greater Antillean interaction sphere together into a social web extending across seas and boundaries. Patterns seen in the Lesser Antilles and on the mainland, on the other hand, are characterised by diversity and represent various local identities.

The arrival of Columbus in 1492 had profound repercussions for the communities of the Caribbean. The processes of colonisation, acculturation, and resistance characterising the Early Colonial Period transformed indigenous societies and identities, and consequently impacted head shaping practices. Such a decline in intentional cranial modification was observed at the early colonial site of El Chorro de MaĆ­ta on Cuba, but transformations of deeply imbedded social practices would likely have occurred at different rates across Caribbean communities. An unexpected yet brief revival of head shaping practices was seen among the Black Carib, a community of free African descendants on the island of St. Vincent, in the 17th and 18th centuries. Some traces of head shaping practices and other indigenous early socialisation processes can still be found in modern Caribbean communities to this day demonstrating the lasting importance of indigenous social practices in the cultural mosaic of the current Caribbean.