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Stabroek News

The Taino's place in Jamaica's history
published: Sunday | November 19, 2006

Title: The Earliest Inhabitants

The Dynamics of the Jamaican Taino

Edited by: Lesley-Gail Atkinson

Publisher: University of the West Indies Press

Reviewer: Barbara Nelson

Many of us in Jamaica have been taught that the Arawaks were our indigenous people and we continue to refer to them as such. The Arawaks, in fact, were the ethnic group that lived in the northern part of the Guianas. The Tainos were "the ethnic group that inhabited the Bahamian archipelago, most of the Greater Antilles, and the northern part of the Lesser Antilles prior to and during the time of Columbus."

The Earliest Inhabitants aims to promote Jamaican Tainan archaeology and highlight the diverse research conducted on our prehistoric sites and artefacts.

The editor, Lesley-Gail Atkinson, is an archaeologist with the Jamaica National Heritage Trust. She explains in her introduction to the 215-page volume, "Jamaican prehistory is regarded as one of the least studied Caribbean disciplines. That is not necessarily the case. The fact is that published Jamaican archaeological research has not had sufficient international circulation."

The Earliest Inhabitants is the first compilation on the Jamaican Tainos since J.E. Duerden in 1897 published a compilation on Jamaican prehistory, which included various sites, and research on the island's Taino artefacts.

The editor's passion for archaeology and her belief that "the knowledge and the artefacts do not belong to the Jamaica National Heritage Trust or the Institute of Jamaica, but to the people of Jamaica" inspired her to "undertake this ambitious project"

It took her almost 15 months to complete the project and she feels it is "a starting point and it aims to fill some of the gaps in Jamaican archaeology".

Six of the 14 papers are reprints of articles that are not widely available and deemed to be of archaeological significance. The remaining eight are based on recent archaeological research.

The volume has four thematic sections:

Section 1: Assessment and Excavation of Taino sites

The first chapter: The Development of Jamaican Prehistory provides a background for the evolution of Jamaican Tainan archaeology and the overall development of Jamaican archaeological research.

The Taino Settlement of the Kingston Area reports on a survey of18 sites that are arranged in an arc around Kingston. Some of the sites are difficult to access today because they are in socially volatile areas (Wareika and Rennok Lodge), while others have been partially or totally built over, for example, Norbrook and Hope Tavern.

The Pre-Columbian Site of Chancery Hall, St. Andrew is a three-part report on the discovery of the site in 1991 by George Lechler to the discoveries made at the site so far.

In Excavations at Green Castle, St. Mary, Philip Allsworth-Jones and Kit Wesler describe progress and findings in the excavations.

The Impact of Land-Based Development on Taino Archaeology in Jamaica. In this chapter, Andrea Richards examines the impact of land-based development on Taino Archaeology in Jamaica. She notes that the total number of recorded Taino sites in Jamaica is 357 and of this total 53 or 14.9 per cent have been reported destroyed as a result of infrastructural and real estate development, farming, natural disasters and raw material extraction.

Section 2: Taino Exploitation of Natural Resources illustrates the importance of natural resources for the Jamaican Tainos. The chapters are:

Notes on the Natural History of Jamaica - Wendy Lee.

The Exploitation and

Transformation of Jamaica's Natural Vegetation - Lesley-Gail Atkinson. She notes that the Tainos were known for their majestic canoas (canoes); they slept in hamacas, (hammocks) made from well-woven cotton cloth; and the married women (according to Irving Rouse) wore short skirts called naguas

In Early Arawak Subsistence Strategies: The Rodney's House site of Jamaica - Sylvia Scudder reports on the analysis of the faunal remains recovered in 1978 from Rodney's house, St. Catherine.

Section 3: Analysis of Taino Archaeological Data

In Jamaica, the most abundant artefacts recovered from Taino sites are ceramics and, second, stone tools. This section analyses and highlights the importance particularly of the stone and ceramic artefacts. The chapters are:

Petrography and Source of Some Arawak Rock artefacts from Jamaica - M. John Roobol and James W. Lee.

Jamaican Taino Pottery - Norma Rodney-Harrack

Jamaican Redware - James W. Lee

Taino Ceramics from Post-Contact Jamaica - Robyn P. Woodward identifies evidence of Taino Hispanic cultural contact at Sevilla la Nueva, St. Ann's Bay that is one of the most significant sites in Jamaica.

Section 4 : Taino Art Forms

The Petroglyphs of Jamaica - James W. Lee, published in 1990 highlights the discovery of cave art sites before 1952 and sites discovered between 1952 and 1985. Lee identified 24 cave art sites; since then eleven more sites have been discovered. Most cave art sites in Jamaica are found in the southern parishes of Clarendon, St. Elizabeth, St. Catherine and Manchester.

Zemis, trees and symbolic landscapes:

Three Taino Carvings from Jamaica by Nicholas Saunders and Dorrick Gray.

The publishers feel the collection will appeal not only to archaeologists, historians and students of archaeology, but also to anyone who is interested in Jamaica's history and archaeology.

I found The Earliest Inhabitants a very enlightening, enjoyable and absorbing book.

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