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November 14, 2008 — Small islands dwarf large
ones in archaeological importance, says a University of Florida
researcher, who found that people who settled the Caribbean before
Christopher Columbus preferred more minute pieces of land because they
relied heavily on the sea.
“We’ve written history based on the bigger islands,” said Bill
Keegan, a University of Florida archaeologist whose study is published
online in the journal Human Ecology. “Yet not only are we now seeing
people earlier on smaller islands, but we’re seeing them move into
territories where we didn’t expect them to at the time that they
Early Ceramic Age settlements have been found in the U.S. Virgin
Islands and Montserrat, for example, but are absent from all of the
larger islands in the Lesser Antilles, Keegan said. And all of the
small islands along the windward east coast of St. Lucia have
substantial ceramic artifacts — evidence of settlement — despite being
less than one kilometer, or .62 mile, long, said Keegan, who is curator
of Caribbean archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History on
the UF campus.
It was thought that people preferred larger islands because the land
mass of bigger islands could support a more diverse range of habitats
and greater numbers of animal species for humans to subsist on, Keegan
said. In addition, the focus of long-term evolutionary patterns has
favored large islands, he said.
But small islands had coastlines rich with fish, and the absence of
dense woodlands made them more suited to farming and hunting small prey
such as iguanas, tortoises and hutias, a cat-sized rodent, he said.
“In the short term, small islands often are superior to larger
islands, and for a variety of reasons, they were actually people’s
first choice,” Keegan said. “They had better wind flow, fewer
mosquitoes and more plentiful marine resources. With sufficient water
and a relatively small amount of land to grow certain kinds of crops,
they had everything one would need.”
Because prehistoric people were drawn to these small islands, they
may tell scientists more than settlements on larger islands about early
patterns of life, Keegan said. To date, most archaeological excavations
have taken place on bigger islands in such countries as Cuba, Dominican
Republic and Puerto Rico, he said.
Much of Keegan’s research focused on Grand Turk, Middle Caicos and
very small cays in the Turks and Caicos Islands, along with Carriacou
in the Grenadine Islands, he said.
Pottery remains he found that were analyzed at the Florida Museum of
Natural History’s ceramic technology lab shows that humans often left
large islands for small ones, probably initially to take advantage of
abundant marine resources along the coastline, he said.
Ceramic pottery sherds recovered from the smaller Turks and Caicos
islands, for example, were actually found to have come from Haiti, he
said. “Traveling to the Turks and Caicos gave these people an
opportunity to get sources of food that weren’t locally available to
them,” he added.
In another case, pottery remains were found on an extremely tiny
island in the Turks and Caicos that had little soil and was accessible
only by a sand spit, Keegan said.
“The island looks just like a rock,” he said. “To think that anyone
would have any reason to be out there is just beyond believability. But
the island is named Pelican Cay, so people may have gone there to
capture sea birds and their eggs.”
People were drawn by the large varieties of fish, tortoises, iguanas
and sea turtles that were in much greater supply on Grand Turk than the
island of Hispaniola at the time, Keegan said. Remains from loggerhead
turtles as big as 1,000 pounds were excavated from Grand Turk, although
sea turtle sizes eventually declined to 60 pounds with
overexploitation, he said.
“The high rates of return from capturing these animals far
outweighed the costs of getting to Grand Turk,” he said. “Such human
migration patterns made good economic sense.”
It was probably easier to sail to other islands than traverse from
one end of an island to the other through the overgrown vegetation of
tropical woodlands, he said.
“Most island archaeologists today, including those in the Caribbean, recognize that the sea was their ancient highway,” he said.
And the smaller the island, the better. “Based on our work, it is
clear that marine resources on smaller islands in the Caribbean were
abundant, heavily exploited and even sought after by the native
peoples,” Keegan said. “You could say that ‘small is beautiful’ or
‘size doesn’t matter.’”
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