By Peter Espeut
In a few days it will be Heritage Week, when we celebrate those aspects of Jamaica we value, those we inherited from our forebears, and wish to pass on to future generations.
We tend to be so self-centred that we usually think only of things human (like culture and history) under the category of heritage; but we have only been on this rock about 1,400 years; there are others with a much longer Jamaican pedigree than ourselves.
When the first humans arrived about 650 AD (they called themselves Tainos, and spoke the Arawak language), they encountered a Jamaica full of animals and plants found nowhere else. Much of this original Jamaican natural heritage is still with us today, and it is my wish that more of us would celebrate it and protect it.
Of great interest is the coney, or hutia (called by some the Indian coney), quite common during the time of the Tainos. It was a staple of their diet; coney bones are commonly found by archaeologists in the middens (rubbish heaps) of Taino villages. There are some (although not many) of these mammals remaining in the wild in Jamaica, as humans have largely destroyed their habitat.
But coneys are more Jamaican than you or I, as they have been here for thousands of years. Let us celebrate the Jamaican coney - part of our Jamaican heritage. You can see them at Hope Zoo.
When I was in sixth form at St George's College, our biology club went on an exciting expedition (with Alpha girls) into the Blue Mountains in search of peripatus, a species falling in classification between the annelids (worms) and the arthropods (insects, spiders, crabs, etc). Peripatus is globally rare, and scientifically fascinating, and more Jamaican than you or I, as it has been here for thousands of years. Hail, peripatus!
Large iguanas wandered around Jamaica; it is said that the Liguanea Plain is so-called because it used to be crawling with them! They were a major part of the Taino diet; their bones are found in middens across Jamaica. Our ancestors also ate them. Edward Long, the historian, reports them being offered for sale, hanging by their tails, in the Spanish Town market. That is why I am not going to tell you where the few remaining wild iguanas may still be found. Celebrate Heritage Week by admiring them (don't eat them!) at Hope Zoo.
We may not know our Jamaicans as well as we think! Another rare Jamaican is the skink, a sort of cross between a snake and a lizard. It has short, stubby legs, but cannot lift itself off the ground, and so it writhes along like a snake. I saw my first Jamaican skink in the San Diego Zoo in California. Foreigners may know us better than we know ourselves!
And then there is the beautiful blue-tailed galliwasp. Its tail is longer than its body, and sports alternating black and deep blue bands. Wonderful to behold! Jamaica has some simply beautiful natural heritage!
There is much, much more: interesting are the blind cave frog (biologists call it Eleutherodactylus cavernicola), and the fish-eating bat (Noctilio leporinus), which dives into the sea at night to catch its dinner.
Jamaica is known to have 65 bird species which live and nest here (I am ignoring the migrants and the transients). Of this number, 28 species and 21 subspecies of birds are found nowhere else on earth. More endemic bird species occur in Jamaica than on any other Caribbean island or most other oceanic islands around the world, making Jamaica a very special place.
But we have lost so much of our natural heritage. When Columbus visited, there was a Jamaican monkey (given the name Xenothrix mcgregori), which we know only from skulls and bones found in caves. They did not survive alongside humans.
SEALS IN J'CAN WATERS
And did you know that the waters around Jamaica had thousands and thousands of seals? They were called Pedro Seals, and were killed by the thousands by our ancestors for their blubber. Bloody Bay in Hanover is so-called because the bay would run red with their blood. The name Montego Bay (Mantica Bay or Lard Bay) is also connected with this now extinct Jamaican. The last Jamaican seals to be seen were killed, and their skins may now be seen in the British Museum in London.
We humans can be egocentric and anthropocentric when we are ready, and often to our detriment. May I wish you all a wonderful Heritage Week.
Peter Espeut is an environmentalist and Roman Catholic deacon. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.