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Pre-Columbian climate adaptation in the Caribbean

West India Committee envoy Robert McLaughlin discusses the importance of history in enabling us to understand the cyclical nature of climate change.

The Caribbean’s climatic context

The Caribbean’s climate has been in a state of constant flux; the islandscape we see today is only a snapshot of a perpetual battle between land and sea. In the past 12,000 years, Caribbean sea levels have risen 30 metres, but since the nineteenth century onwards this trend has been accelerated by man-made climate change; sea levels the world over are now rising faster than ever.

The Caribbean is an ideal region in which to interrogate past human engagement with sudden environmental disruption because archaeological and paleo-environmental data now reveals how Pre-Columbian societies survived for thousands of years in this volatile environment. By investigating how previous civilisations adapted to their own changing environments, archaeologists can re-evaluate global eco-dynamics and help us understand environmental hazards and avoid the subsequent consequences.

There is archaeological evidence of the colonisation of Cuba and Hispaniola some time after 7,000BC by people who lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Around 4,000BC more complex artefacts appear, made from stone and shell, which signal a phase of archaic people who moved further down the islands into the Lesser Antilles. Ceramic pottery is found from 2,500BC onwards, and from around 600AD there is abundant evidence of the emergence of large communities reliant upon agriculture. From 900AD we find evidence of socially stratified communities capable of extensive inter-island interaction.

Ecological knowledge transmitted through social memory

Ethno-historical records of the Taino people (indigenous people of the Caribbean) reveal that their complex belief systems incorporated the weather into their mythology. Meteorological knowledge was understood and communicated through symbology that was transmitted orally between generations, and remains preserved for us today in a handful of artefacts and the accounts of the first European explorers.

In Taino mythology, Boinyael, the ‘son of the grey serpent,’ is named for the heavy rain clouds he controlled. His twin, Marohu, brought the clear skies between the rains. During the Caribbean rainy season the downpours come and go suddenly with moments of bright sunshine between. The skies alternating between Boinyael and Marohu, several times a day, was interpreted as a celestial dance, or wrestling match, depending on the ferocity of the weather.

Once the hurricane season begins the natural harmony of this set of twins is replaced by the discord of another. Coatrisquie swells the rivers flooding the valleys and fields, and Guatauba casts down thunder and lightning to herald the arrival of his mistress, Gubancex, the deification of the hurricane. The stone and ceramic depictions of this goddess show her arms curling in opposite directions in an ‘s’ shape around her disembodied face. Informed by satellite imagery today, this symbol is instantly recognisable as the swirling spiral-armed cloud formation characteristic of a hurricane. The Taino appear to have discovered this while observing from ground level.

Pre-Columbian mitigation strategies

Excavations of Pre-Columbian settlements have uncovered dwellings of a similar design throughout the Caribbean that offer certain advantages to withstanding extreme weather. A typical Taino bohio was made of lightweight thatched materials that covered a structure of hardwood posts driven metres into the ground. Archaeologists have theorised that the woven floors of these dwellings would have been suspended from the ground to endure waterlogged conditions. Settlements were often built near cave systems that could be used as hurricane shelters. The underlying structure of the dwellings would have remained in place, and the only reconstruction work required would be to redress them with readily available local materials.

The use of easily reassembled architecture and local resources is a marked contrast to modern building methods. The period of long-term reconstruction that follows in the wake of a hurricane only amplifies its disastrous consequences for a community because affected areas must first be emptied of rubble and then construction materials sourced from abroad.

When Hurricane Ivan crossed Grenada in 2004, the disaster destroyed 89 per cent of the houses on the island. It took three months for emergency relief teams to remove 800,000 cubic metres of debris. The recovery efforts were eventually brought to a close after five years, at a total cost of US$1.38 billion.

Pre-Columbian settlements were generally built on the leeward side of islands to avoid the direct force of storms. European settlers instead valued ease of access and chose to build in natural harbours and alongside rivers. The vital importance of local ecological knowledge with regard to the choice of settlement location was exemplified in the devastation wrought by Tropical Storm Erika in Dominica last August. Ten inches of rain fell in a matter of hours, rivers swelled into torrents and much of the island, including its capital city and only airport, were submerged. Dominica’s infrastructure was not designed for such intense weather, not only were the roads and bridges too weak to withstand the deluge but the airport was built in the natural course of the Meliville Hall River.

More important than architecture and settlement location though are the networks of support that ensure affected communities survive environmental disasters. Early Pre-Columbian societies had diets that consisted of animal species from local environments, yet over time we see indications of a much wider diversity of marine ecosystem exploitation. Archaeologists have found evidence of food that was prepared in the highland interior of Cuba but sourced from offshore reefs 100km away. The ability to procure a varied range of food from great distances provides an insurance against sudden local scarcity; through tribal intermarriage the Taino established increasingly interconnected long-distance trade networks. Our modern advancement of this assurance of mutual aid is manifest in the disaster relief efforts of national governments and international organisations. Dominica began receiving immediate aid within hours: essential manpower arrived from Venezuela, medics from Cuba and the Royal Navy aided evacuation efforts and deployed engineers to re-establish telecommunications and water systems. Financial aid poured in from around the world.

The value of archaeology

Although there is no single causal link between the behaviour of the Taino and sudden climactic events there is undoubtedly important advantages in the means by which they reduced their vulnerability to them. The time-depth perspective of archaeology provides an ideal framework to comprehend the cyclical nature of climate change. Despite their specificity to a certain time and place, archaeological case studies are of direct relevance to developing an understanding of the human experience of global climate change. They provide the necessary context in which to understand the vulnerabilities of human populations to extreme weather and to demonstrate the long-term value of differing mitigation strategies. Archaeologists should therefore be encouraged to communicate the importance of ecological knowledge and social memory to the ongoing discussions regarding our changing climate.



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