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Rebuilding after natural disasters: lessons from the pre-Columbian era

As tropical storm Erika forms, the Caribbean prepares itself for the yearly hurricane season. The islands in the region are plagued regularly by natural disasters: tropical storms are the norm. Often these storms develop into destructive hurricanes and sometimes the islands suffer from earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. After a devastating earthquake wreaked havoc in Haiti in 2010, international humanitarian aid formed a key part of the disaster response, providing the bare necessities: water, food, medical assistance and shelter. Rebuilding after natural disasters is a significant challenge for these communities. Now archaeologists are uncovering how early settlers adapted their shelters to the harsh conditions of the region.

The Caribbean Architectural Mode

The archipelago has been populated for centuries; it is estimated that the first settlers arrived approximately 7500 years ago. These peoples, likely originating from the mainland, adapted to ecosystems and weather patterns markedly different from those of South America and managed to survive harsh weather conditions without relying on the technologies of today. We now know that Caribbean communities interacted intensively with one another; sharing goods, ideas and techniques across the archipelago. Presumably, these communities shared building methods, along with other knowledge.

Until ten years ago however, researchers lacked sufficient information to draw comparisons and find similarities between Caribbean architectural structures. The perishability of indigenous building materials and the vulnerability of Caribbean heritage contributed to this lack of data from the region. Now archaeologists can demonstrate the existence of common characteristics in structures within the region, which together form what is coined as the “Caribbean architectural mode”.

Repair and rebuilding in the lifecycle of a house. 1) digging foundations, 2) construction, 3) habitation & cycles of repair, 4) abandonment and re-use of parts, 5) ritual closing, 6) starting anew. From Samson, et al (2015), based on Samson 2010

The Caribbean structures consisted primarily of secure foundations and support posts combined with light materials, suggesting that these houses would have performed well both in surviving a storm and in speed of reconstruction afterwards.

In the past, Caribbean architecture was regarded unfavourably against the supposedly superior European design, due to the apparent lack of durability of the structures, among other things. It appears, however, that the flexibility of the structures was a critical characteristic of pre-Columbian housing. This feature enabled the houses to endure a considerable length of time through rebuilding and/or replacement of parts.

Thus, researchers suggest, the characteristics found in the Caribbean architectural mode could serve as a lesson for construction in the unpredictable Caribbean climate, in particular for humanitarian aid organisations in their continuous struggle to provide adequate and lasting shelter.

Postholes cut into the bedrock in Anse à la Gourde, Guadeloupe (left), and El Cabo, Dominican Republic (right). Note the regularity of the features. From Samson, et al. (2015)
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