Puerto Rican Artifacts at the Peabody

Contributed by Ryan Wheeler

A poorly known collection occupying several drawers at the Peabody Institute sheds a little light on the Taíno, the indigenous people of Puerto Rico and neighboring islands who met Christopher Columbus in 1492.

When Columbus landed in Hispaniola the Taíno population was perhaps in the millions and early records estimate that 85 percent of the population had been lost within a few decades. People lived in family groups, with some villages numbering 3,000 people. Native foods like fish, shellfish, birds, lizards, and other small animals augmented agricultural crops of cassava, yams, and other domesticates. A complex and elaborate religion included the worship of spirits called zemis, and like their neighbors in Mesoamerica, the Taíno played a ball game on a rectangular court that they called Batey. Hereditary chiefs and nobles ruled over commoners and slaves. The Taíno, however, soon succumbed to the Spanish conquest, but most of us recognize a handful of loan words in English that can be traced back to the Caribbean, including barbecue (barbacoa) and canoe (canoa).

Image of Ryan Wheeler at the Caguana Ceremonial Ball Courts Site in barrio Caguana, Utuado, Puerto Rico, 2006. The reconstructed ball court is lined with engraved stone slabs.
Ryan Wheeler at the Caguana Ceremonial Ball Courts Site in barrio Caguana, Utuado, Puerto Rico, 2006. The reconstructed ball court is lined with engraved stone slabs.

I got interested in the Taíno in 1999 when as an employee of the Florida State Archaeologist’s Office I conducted an investigation of the Miami Circle site in downtown Miami. Miami is a melting pot of people from Latin America and the Caribbean. Among those I met during my time in Miami were a group of folks from Puerto Rico who considered themselves living members of the Taíno tribe. Like most other archaeologist and anthropologists at that time I had learned that the Taíno were extinct—one of the first victims of European conquest and colonization of the Americas. My new friends shared that they had, however, preserved their language and culture, including many old songs which they were working to pass on to future generations. Over the next few years I met more Taíno people and several tribal members participated in my excavations near Lake Okeechobee in 2000.

A 2011 Smithsonian.com article by Robert M. Poole recounts his search for modern day Taíno in New York and Puerto Rico with surprising results. Like my friends in Miami, many Puerto Ricans acknowledged indigenous ancestry. Many of my archaeologist friends were still skeptical, suggesting that cultural practices were based on ethnohistoric accounts left by the Spanish and that language was being recreated based on Julian Granberry’s 2005 book Languages of the pre-Columbian Antilles. By the early 2000s there were several Taíno groups that asserted cultural affiliation, including the Jatibonicu Taino Tribal Nation of Boriken, who were the folks I knew. DNA analysis by Juan C. Martínez-Cruzado—reported in 2003 and 2006—suggests that the archaeologists and anthropologists got it wrong. Based on an island-wide DNA survey, Martinez-Cruzado found that 61 percent of all Puerto Ricans have Amerindian mitochondrial DNA, 27 percent have African and 12 percent Caucasian. Martinez-Cruzado’s study also pointed to evidence for cultural survivals into modern times, including traditional fishing practices.

So, back to the Peabody collections. Preserved in several drawers are petaloid celts, adornos and sherds from ceramic vessels (many depict animals), three-point stones (also called zemis), and a very heavy stone belt (or yoke) that would have been worn during the ball game. Mela Pons Alegria, in an article in Archaeology magazine, explains that the three-pointed stone zemis “are the oldest and most abundant” form of Taíno art, and evolve from simple triangular carvings to elaborate effigy forms. Flat areas hint that these may have been attached to handles or staffs. We have little catalog information, but it appears that the collection was a gift from Eugene M. Verges. A little poking around on genealogical sites shows that Eugene Marcelin Verges II was born in 1889 in Arroyo, Puerto Rico and was a student at Phillips Academy in 1907—he’s listed in the catalog as being from Wellesley, Mass.—he died in 1970. Verges’ father was engaged in the sugar business and it seems likely that the Peabody collections from Puerto Rico were made by the Verges family and gifted to us in the first part of the twentieth century.

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