Marauding ‘Caribs’ invaded the northern Caribbean in 800AD – hundreds of years earlier than previously thought, a new study revealed.
This adds credibility to claims by Christopher Columbus that the South American ‘cannibal marauders’ were living on the islands when he arrived in 1492.
His claims had long been disputed by archaeologists who said there was no evidence Caribs had ever ventured further north than Guadeloupe – until this study.
Experts from the Florida Museum of Natural History studied the skulls of the earliest Caribbean inhabitants and found the Caribs among them, proving Columbus right.
Columbus claimed the peaceful Arawaks, who also lived there, were terrorised by Carib raiders who he said ‘practiced abduction of women and cannibalism of men’.
‘I’ve spent years trying to prove Columbus wrong when he was right’, admitted William Keegan, senior researcher at the museum.
‘We’re going to have to reinterpret everything we thought we knew’, he said.
Researchers tested skulls using modern techniques and were able to reveal that there was actually a Carib presence in the Caribbean when Columbus visited – and in fact much earlier and much more prominent than they expected.
Previous studies relied on artifacts such as tools and pottery to trace the geographical origin and movement of people through the Caribbean over time.
Researchers say that by adding a biological component they were able to bring the regions history into a sharper focus.
Ann Ross, a professor of biological sciences at North Carolina State University led the research into the skulls.
She used 3D facial ‘landmarks,’ such as the size of an eye socket or length of a nose, to analyze more than 100 skulls dating from about 800AD to 1542.
‘These landmarks can act as a genetic proxy for determining how closely people are related to one another’, she said.
‘The analysis not only revealed three distinct Caribbean people groups, but also their migration routes, which was really stunning.’
They were able to determine the presence of Carib people due to the fact they practiced artificial cranial modification.
This means they engaged in a practice called “skull flattening” to produce particular characteristics.
Dr Ross and her team confirmed existing theories about the two waves of migration from South America to the Caribbean, but also added a new third wave that was nor previously known to science.
They examined the skulls and confirmed that the Caribbean’s earliest settlers came from the Yucatan, moving into Cuba and the Northern Antilles.
‘This supports a previous hypothesis based on similarities in stone tools.’
The second wave came from the Arawak, who expanded up through Cuba and into the Bahamas between 800 and 200 BC.
Around 800AD, the Caribs pushed north into Hispaniola and Jamaica and then the Bahamas – where they were well established by the time Columbus arrived.
‘I had been stumped for years as I didn’t have the Bahama component,’ she said.
‘Those remains were so key. This will change the perspective on the people and peopling of the Caribbean.’
For Dr Keegan, the discovery lays to rest a puzzle that pestered him for years – why a type of pottery known as Meillacoid appears in Hispaniola by 800AD, Jamaica around 900AD and the Bahamas around 1000AD.
‘Why was this pottery so different from everything else we see?’ he said. ‘It makes sense that Meillacoid pottery is associated with the Carib expansion.’
The sudden appearance of Meillacoid pottery also corresponds with a general reshuffling of people in the Caribbean after a 1,000-year period of tranquility, further evidence that ‘Carib invaders were on the move,’ Dr Keegan said.
Arawaks and Caribs were enemies, but they often lived side by side with occasional intermarriage before blood feuds erupted, he said.
“Maybe there was some cannibalism involved. If you need to frighten your enemies, that’s a really good way to do it.
‘Whether or not it was accurate, the European perception that Caribs were cannibals had a tremendous impact on the region’s history.
‘The Spanish monarchy initially insisted that indigenous people be paid for work and treated with respect, but reversed its position after receiving reports that they refused to convert to Christianity and ate human flesh.’
This led the Spanish crown to say ‘if they’re going to behave that way they can all be enslaved’, according to Dr Keegan.