Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Starchy foodways: surveying indigenous botanical foods during the advent of European encounters in the northern and circum-Caribbean

How do the starchy botanical foodways reflect upon previous archaeological understandings in the northern and circum-Caribbean?

2015 - 2019
Corinne Hofman

This project challenges or expands upon previous archaeological understandings of botanical foodways in three geographic regions: Northern Dominican Republic, The Bahamas, and Central Nicaragua. The analyzed artifacts come from five archaeological sites from these regions, which all date to the Late Ceramic Age (c. AD 1000-1500).


Ethnohistoric accounts and indirect archaeological evidence influenced assumptions that manioc and sweet potato were staple cultigens for the precolonial Caribbean people and maize was the dietary staple in Central America. Recently, in the Greater Caribbean region, the diversity of plants, including arrowroot, bean, cocoyam, guáyiga, sweet potato, and maize used by indigenous people has been highlighted through microbotanical residue analyses. It remains to be seen if this pattern holds true for this projects’ research areas.

Case Studies

To address this issue four case studies will be investigated. The first case study is a comparative analysis of residues from clay griddles recovered from the archaeological sites of La Luperona and El Flaco located in northwestern Dominican Republic. This case study will draw comparisons with the southern Bahamas, specifically the archaeological site of Palmetto Junction located in Providenciales, Turks & Caicos Islands. The revealed starchy botanical foodways will add another dimension to previous general archaeological comparisons between the Greater Antilles and The Bahamas.

The second case study expands on the type of artifacts analyzed previously including shell tools from the three previously listed archaeological sites. Shell tools have been studied minimally, but archaeologists maintain they were used to work wood, ceramics, and plants. This study will investigate which plants were processed and if the plants were modified before shell tool processing.

The third case study continues with analyzing shell tools but also includes limestone microliths from the Rolling Heads site, Long Island, The Bahamas. Microliths were not typically made from limestone and it remains to be seen which plants these tools processed.

The fourth case study expands the scope of this project to mainland Central Nicaragua and will create new archaeological understandings in a research area without any paleoethnobotanical studies. The Barillas site in Central Nicaragua with unprecedented finds of ceramic griddles fragments challenges our views on ancient foodways in the region. The scarcity of these griddles has previously limited the range of possible foodways. The revealed botanical remains on these griddles will certainly expand the horizon of Central Nicaraguan foodways. The four case studies will produce published academic articles, each of which will contest or expand on previous archaeological considerations of botanical foodways.

After the initial European invasion into the circum-Caribbean, the Spanish soon left. However, the lives of the indigenous peoples were changed forever. The firsthand accounts of lifeways during European encounters are vivid yet biased and only a picture of that specific time. Archaeological excavations are the best means available to decipher the way of life of these societies before European contact.

In the Caribbean the present-day awareness and appreciation of precolonial heritage is on the rise, which is why there will be an emphasis on the benefits from understanding past diets as well as natural and human caused botanical diversity and what continuities or transformations are occurring into the present. This emphasis will be stressed and disseminated through academic publications, general public engagements, and conference presentations.

Initial sampling of more than 200 plant related artifacts will be carried out in the field labs. Extracted residue samples will be managed for separation of starch with heavy liquid flotations at Leiden University. Identification of botanical taxa will begin to illuminate the processed botanical sources. While the plants are being identified, a careful inspection of grain alterations will be carried out which will expose the different food processing techniques and functions of the artifacts thus highlighting the starchy botanical foodways.

Andy Ciofalo with Carlos Santiago extracting microbotanical residues in the archaeobotanical lab at Leiden University
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