Universiteit Leiden

nl en

Research project

Communicating Communities

Unravelling networks of human mobility and exchange of goods and ideas from a pre-colonial, pan-Caribbean perspective

2008 - 2013
Corinne Hofman

Short Abstract

Communicating Communities is an NWO Research Project (VICI) focusing on the Amerindian interaction networks operating between 6000 BC and the early Colonial period in the Caribbean from a pan-regional perspective. The project consist of three subprojects: Tracing human mobility across the Caribbean (subproject 1), Back to the source: Provenance and distribution of raw materials (subproject 2), Circulating ideas and social valuables in the circum-Caribbean (subproject 3).



Since the emergence of humankind people have maintained social contacts and travelled widely, establishing interaction networks in which goods are traded and ideas are transmitted, increasingly on a global scale. Like today, prehistoric community members participated in interaction networks of human mobility and exchange of goods and ideas, guided by their cosmovision, technology and socio-political organisation. The urge to garner status, thereby defining group and individual identity, and the desire for access to myriad materials and products formed important motivations.

This programme focuses on the Amerindian interaction networks operating between 6000 BC and the early Colonial period in the Caribbean from a pan-regional perspective. Only by the novel adoption of a diachronic, broad geographic perspective can the structure through time of these social networks be evaluated at local, archipelagic and - uniquely - pan-Caribbean scales. Expanding upon previous studies, this research will take an integrated three-dimensioned and multi-disciplinary approach to study the processes and underlying mechanisms of human mobility (social dimension) as well as the exchange of goods (material dimension) and ideas (ideological dimension), through the synergy of three subprojects.

The programme brings a pioneering pan-regional perspective to the study of communication and interaction2, elucidating the articulation of engagements between prehistoric island and coastal communities of differing socio-political complexity, filling a lacuna in mobility and exchange research worldwide. Innovative aspects are the application and refinement of state-of-the-art archaeological, bioarchaeological and archaeometric methods and techniques (e.g. isotope analysis, a-DNA, XRF), the implementation of current archaeological/anthropological theory, and the drawing upon ethnohistorical and ethnographic information on a pan-Caribbean scale. This poly-facetted approach requires national and international inter-institutional cooperation. Due to its wide-ranging, accessible and high-profile character, the programme stimulates the awareness and protection of Caribbean cultural heritage.


This programme aims to unravel the patterns and processes of human mobility and the exchange of goods and ideas at multiple scales in the circum-Caribbean region through time. In so doing, it expects to elucidate the nature of social relationships maintained between the supposedly egalitarian communities of the Lesser Antilles and the cacicazgos of the Greater Antilles, the Isthmo-Colombian region, and mainland South America. By wielding a three-dimensioned (social/material/ideological), multi-scalar and multi-disciplinary approach the programme should provide a holistic view on the operation of interaction network(s) across a wide, socio-politically diverse region and as such contribute to current academic debates regarding mobility and exchange.

Research questions

Adopting a pan-Caribbean perspective towards mobility and exchange allows the addressing of the following main research question: did one pan-Caribbean network, multiple networks or both concurrently (but involving different dimensions) operate during pre-colonial times and how were engagements between societies of differing socio-political complexity articulated through time?

Related subquestions are: what were the motivations for human mobility across the region? What were the provenance areas of raw materials and artifacts and what mechanisms underlay their distribution across the region? How can material and immaterial culture be interpreted in terms of Amerindian cosmovision and what are the mechanisms behind their distribution?


In order to evaluate the nature, motivation, extent and duration of pan-Caribbean social relationships, there is a need to extend the multi-disciplinary and multi-dimensioned approach developed in the VIDI research (NWO) to a broader time frame and geographical scale, i.e. the Lithic, Archaic and Ceramic Ages of the wider Caribbean. This will allow mapping of the interwoven dynamic relationships between people, goods and ideas expressed in inter-insular and inter-regional networks of mobility and exchange, subjected to the shifting and expansion of group territories, fission and fusion of local groups and different levels of socio-political organisation. The results of the proposed research programme will not only have implications for understanding social relationships on a pan-Caribbean scale during pre-colonial times, but also for considering similar processes in prehistoric societies worldwide.

The social, material and ideological dimensions will be addressed in three interconnected subprojects, each focused on reaching a series of specific goals concerning human mobility and exchange of goods and ideas. The subprojects will operate at micro- (community, household and individual) and macro-scales (cultures) and focus on processes involving socio-political and cosmological factors in a wide geographical area rather than on single events. The subprojects pursue the main research goal through different lines of inquiry adapted to dissimilar yet mutually supporting datasets.

Multi-disciplinary methods and techniques drawn from archaeology, bioarchaeology and archaeometry will be applied on human skeletal remains and artifacts from approximately excavated and published archaeological sites as well as museum collections throughout the circum-Caribbean region, supported by archaeological / anthropological theory and ethnohistorical and ethnographic information.

The subprojects will culminate in an overarching synthesis, tying together the results of the analyses of the human skeletal remains and those of the material and immaterial culture. The interlinked strains of research into artefact, human and socio-cultural biographies, will, taken together, form a higher order life-history of mobility and exchange from a pan-Caribbean perspective, which will then be embedded within the socio-political contexts (different levels of organisation, modes of production, types of exchange and levels of craft specialization) and cosmovision prevailing across the region and through time. The programme will be a platform from which to launch comparative, cross-cultural research and a means to engage in discussions on the applicability of archaeometric methods and techniques to archaeological materials. Conversely, the discussion issuing from different theoretical schools and disciplines will be brought to bear on the archaeology of the pre-colonial Caribbean, effecting theoretical progress within the field, broadening its inter-disciplinary viability and positioning it academically both on a regional and global scale.

The five-year project will be carried out by a research group comprising the applicant who will coordinate, supervise and synthesize the programme, two Senior Researchers, five Postdocs and two PhDs, who will be selected in open competition both nationally and internationally. Part of the research of two externally-funded PhDs will be implemented in subprojects. Furthermore, an analyst will be employed to carry out geochemical analyses for subprojects, as will a research assistant for the programme’s administration.

Related research

This website uses cookies.  More information.