Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Tracing human mobility across the Caribbean

What are the patterns and processes of human mobility in the pre-colonial circum-Caribbean as revealed by burial populations and what are the underlying motives and socio-cultural principles on both micro- and macro-scales?

2008 - 2013
NWO Innovational Research Incentives Scheme NWO Innovational Research Incentives Scheme

Prof. A. Coppa (University La Sapienza, Rome)

Prof. dr. G.R. Davies (Faculty of Earth and Life Sciences, Free University, Amsterdam, PhD Supervisor)

Prof. dr. H. van der Plicht (Centre for Isotope Research, University Groningen)


The biological ancestry of pre-colonial Caribbean island populations has been one of the lines of evidence in tracing long-distance migration events (Rouse 1986, 1992). Recently, mitochondrial DNA analysis of modern populations, study of ancient DNA and that of morphological traits of human skeletal remains of the Antilles have attested the existence of linear migratory movements from mainland South America ( sensu Rouse), but Central America and other areas have not been sufficiently studied to be ruled out as areas of origin. The current state of knowledge is based on a small dataset, of predominantly modern samples, which perceived population movement as unilinear migratory events on a macro-scale.

At the other end of the spectrum, micro-scale studies on human mobility using palaeodemographic data and archaeometric analysis have recently been performed in the Antilles and, in the case of Puerto Rico, have shed light on both social and cultural processes operating at multiple societal levels (i.e. household, community, kinship group, polity). The recognition of a founder population at one of the sites is an example of the demographic developments traceable in archaeological populations.

Strontium (Sr) isotope analysis on skeletal remains from Guadeloupe suggests residential mobility of one fourth of the population in question on the basis of the non-local individuals identified, some of whom were associated with non-local grave goods. Additionally, taphonomical studies have highlighted an array of mortuary practices, crucial for providing the socio-cultural dimension for palaeodemographic and strontium data.

These studies show that the combination of palaeodemography and provenance studies with the analysis of mortuary practices has great potential for the study of human mobility. To realize its full potential it is necessary to widen the geographical and diachronical scope of analysis. A combined approach involving archaeological (cultural association, spatial distribution, mortuary practices), bioarchaeological (palaeodemography, living conditions) and archaeometric (provenance) data of burial assemblages representative both in time and space is imperative to map the network of human mobility and to detect the multi-scalar phenomena at play (e.g. exchange of marriage partners, capture of enemies, colonizing migration, post-mortem mobility) across different socio-political settings.

Research questions

The main research question is: what are the patterns and processes of human mobility in the pre-colonial circum-Caribbean as revealed by burial populations and what are the underlying motives and socio-cultural principles on both micro- and macro-scales? Related subquestions are: (1) what are the characteristics of the burial assemblages under study in terms of demography and living conditions, (2) what are the multi-scalar patterns of human mobility of circum-Caribbean communities, and (3) what do mortuary practices reveal about residence rules, exchange of ideas and a shared pan-Caribbean cosmovision?


The subproject aims at gaining insight into bioarchaeological and archaeometric population characteristics and mortuary ritual to understand the human mobility underpinning exchange of goods and ideas among the pre-colonial peoples of the circum-Caribbean, conceptualized in the realm of a region-wide Amerindian cosmovision.


The three-fold approach comprises the analysis of archaeological, bioarchaeological and archaeometric data. The data will consist of published studies on burial assemblages throughout the wider region representing various time periods as well as newly collected bioarchaeological information and samples. Focal points will be mortuary practices, palaeodemography, living conditions and provenance. The results will dovetail with those from existing studies of geno- (a-DNA) and phenotypic (dental and cranial) variation to improve understanding of the multi-scalar phenomena underlying human mobility across the region. The existing cooperation with Prof. A. Coppa (University La Sapienza, Rome) will be continued to further study the variation in dental morphology. The socio-cultural aspects of mortuary rituals will be analysed in the light of archaeological and anthropological theory as well as ethnohistorical and ethnographic data in close cooperation with the other subprojects. The collected data will provide new insights concerning the life histories of individuals, the level of integration of local communities into regional socio-political structures and the intensity and extent of mobility across the region.


This subproject is coordinated and synthesized by Senior Researcher dr. M.L.P. Hoogland and staffed by Postdoc dr. R.G.A.M. Panhuysen and a PhD to be appointed in open competition. The PhD will be supervised by the applicant prof. dr. Corinne Hofman and Prof. dr. G.R. Davies (Faculty of Earth and Life Sciences, Free University, Amsterdam). An analyst will perform the geochemical analyses.

Senior researcher

The Senior Researcher will document pre-colonial mortuary practices throughout the region to identify socio-ideological motivations behind the various practices regarding treatment and disposal of the dead. Mortuary practices attested at studied sites in the Antilles include house burials, the delayed filling in of the grave pit to hasten putrefaction, removal of select skeletal elements and deposition of isolated body parts. Extending the scope of this research both in time and space will provide a framework for the interpretation of the palaeodemographic and isotope data of the Postdoc and the PhD, resulting in a pan-Caribbean perspective of human mobility, grounded in socio-cultural behaviour and Amerindian cosmovision.

Mortuary practices will be studied through the analysis of: (1) taphonomical processes of the individual burials, enhancing understanding of the handling of the body (pre- and post-deposition), (2) composition of the grave assemblage, and (3) the provenance and cultural associations of the grave goods. Combined with data on sex, age and health status and the spatial distribution in the cemetery and settlement this will provide information on the treatment of the dead on a local scale, and, by comparison among burial assemblages, also on a regional scale. Ethnohistorical and ethnographic information will be used to explore the recursive relationship between mortuary practices and Amerindian cosmovision. Physical manipulation of skeletal remains is intrinsically related to a society’s eschatological beliefs in the soul, the afterlife and the soul’s journey towards the spirit world, as well as the behaviour of the living, reacting to phenomena like illness, death and the rotting of the corpse. It has to be taken into account that societies were anything but static, with social interaction (trading, raiding, alliance building) effecting a high degree of inter-community mobility. Furthermore, kinship systems (matrilinear and patrilinear) and residence rules (matrilocal, patrilocal, or neolocal) would have played an important role in determining pre-mortem mobility patterns (supposedly resulting in differing localities of birth and disposal), although the possibility of post-mortem mobility cannot be discounted either. Despite considerable cultural and societal variety and great mobility throughout the region, it should be possible to construct a non-generalized pan-Caribbean animistic paradigm for the interpretation of the dynamic relationship between corpse, soul and living community. Specific research questions to be answered in the realm of the study of the mortuary practices include: (1) what are the characteristics of circum-Caribbean mortuary practices through time and space, (2) what is the recursive relationship between the domains of mortuary practice and cosmovision, and (3) how can the dynamic relationship between the corpse, soul and living community be conceptualised?


The Postdoc will study physical anthropological, palaeopathological and dietary parameters to acquire insight into pre-colonial demography and living conditions. The preservation and recovery rates of human remains and analysis of the proportion of non-adults, males and females in burial assemblages will be examined to determine whether the buried populations reflect the mortality in a standard population and to what extent indicators of health and pathology can be observed. The interpretation of the palaeodemographic data will consider objections to the traditional methodology and newly-advanced approaches. Data on health and pathology will be collected in a standardized way, allowing their incorporation in existing datasets obtained in the course of the VIDI research. In addition, distribution patterns of infectious diseases such as treponemal disease, encountered in large numbers among the Late Ceramic Age populations of the Antilles, will be traced and are considered valuable for the study of interaction between populations and their health status. Samples will be collected for a trial study to identify ancient DNA of pathogenic microbes, such as the bacteria causing treponemal disease. Dietary information has proven to be crucial to gain knowledge concerning living conditions. In combination with osteological indicators of dietary deficiencies, following prior research in the islands diet will be studied through the analysis of carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) isotopes in cooperation with Prof. dr. H. van der Plicht (Centre for Isotope Research, University Groningen). These data will also feed into the strontium isotope analysis of the PhD. Specific research questions to be answered in the realm of demography, living conditions and palaeopathology include: (1) what are the demographic characteristics of the burial assemblages, (2) what were the living conditions within the pre-colonial Caribbean communities in terms of diet and health through time, and (3) what is the relation between infectious diseases and human mobility throughout the circum-Caribbean?


The PhD will carry out an isotope study to document the provenance of individuals in the burial assemblages, providing insight in human mobility on the community level across the region. Sr isotope analysis has been successfully applied within the VIDI programme on the intra-regional scale of the Lesser Antilles. This method has equally shown its usefulness for inter-regional human mobility in regions such as Mesoamerica, Europe, and the Southwest United States. For this study, the analysis will be expanded by adding lead (Pb) and neodymium (Nd) isotopes in order to obtain a high resolution on the loci of origin of the individuals involved. The PhD will analyse samples consisting of human bone and teeth, animal teeth and local soil. On the basis of these data the researcher will determine the proportion of non-local individuals in the populations under study and determine the provenance of non-local individuals. By comparing isotope ratios of human skeletal remains of non-local individuals at a site with local signatures of surrounding regions (soil, rock, groundwater and rice rat samples), inter-community networks (e.g. exchange of marriage partners between kinship groups, origin of founder populations) can be (re)constructed and as such this study will test archaeological / anthropological theory on human mobility. Crucial for the analyses is the inventarizing of the local signatures of the various islands or the geological diversity of the islands in order to determine the provenance of non-local individuals. For this purpose a series of geological samples as well as of faunal samples has already been collected in the context of the VIDI programme, and the dataset will be expanded for the current research project. Earlier studies have shown that various processes in the soil have caused changes in the isotope ratios in the bone. To circumvent these diagenetic changes new methods are currently being developed in a pilot study financed by the Leiden University Foundation (LUF). These methods will be applied in this study to obtain isotope ratios for different phases of an individual’s life. In this way possible changes in the loci of residence of an individual can be determined by analyzing skeletal material formed at different moments during life. This will result in a personal life history. Specific research questions to be answered in the realm of human mobility include: (1) what is the proportion of non-local individuals in the various burial assemblages and what is the sex-age distribution of these individuals, (2) what is the life-history of non-local individuals in the burial assemblages under study, and (3) which patterns and types of mobility can be inferred from the isotope data?

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