When you’re an explorer and you just touch down on what you believe is a new land never before visited by your kind, the last thing you want to find out about the residents of this land is that they have a taste for human flesh … in particular, invader’s flesh. Similarly, when you’re the cannibalistic residents of beautiful tropical islands and strange white strangers touch down on your shores, you may wonder how they taste … and you may actually find out when you fight back as they attack and attempt to enslave you. Christopher Columbus described such encounters on his first voyage to what is now the Greater Antilles, but those accounts were discounted because the known cannibal people of the time – the Caribe – were thought to live 1,000 miles south in the northwest Amazon area of South America. Now, new research using modern facial recognition tools has proven Columbus was telling the truth … at least in the case of his stories of cannibals in the so-called New World.
“I saw some who had marks of wounds on their bodies and I made signs to them asking what they were, and they showed me how people from other islands nearby came there and tried to take them, and how they defended themselves; and I believed and believe that they come from Tierra Firme to take them captive.”
The new study co-authored by William Keegan, Florida Museum of Natural History curator of Caribbean archaeology, and published in the journal Scientific Reports, gives excerpts from Columbus’ accounts of raids on the peaceful Arawaks by people they called Caribs or Cariba, the obvious root of the name of the sea where they lived. Unfortunately, Chris and his fellow invaders mispronounced Cariba as “Caniba” and that ironically became the root of the common descriptor of human flesh-eaters – cannibals!
While that name mistake is common knowledge and the Caribs were known to be South American flesh eaters, scholars questioned the idea of them being in the Greater Antilles before the time of Columbus and could find no proof. Archeologists studying tools and pottery from the islands saw no proof. That’s why Ann Ross, a professor of biological sciences at North Carolina State University and the study’s lead author, decided to analyze over 100 islander skulls from 800 to 1542 CE using a form of facial recognition software to compare features, such as eye socket size and nose length, with known Caribs. According to the study press release, Ross described her findings as “really stunning.”
“I had been stumped for years because I didn’t have this Bahamian component. Those remains were so key. This will change the perspective on the people and peopling of the Caribbean.”
The skulls showed three distinct cultural groups, with one coming from the Yucatan to settle first in Cuba and then the Northern Antilles. Arawak speakers were found to have migrated from coastal Colombia and Venezuela to Puerto Rico. However, the “stunning” revelation was the Caribs, who came from the Northern Amazon around 880, settling first in Jamaica and Hispaniola between 800 and 200 B.C., a journey also documented in pottery.
The earliest inhabitants of the Bahamas and Hispaniola, however, were not from Cuba as commonly thought, but the Northwest Amazon – the Caribs. Around A.D. 800, they pushed north into Hispaniola and Jamaica and then the Bahamas where Columbus encountered them. While no members of his crew were kidnapped or eaten, he logged the tales of the Arawaks and took them back to Spain, where the shocked royals and trip investors decided they should be enslaved – a decision made easier to follow by simply calling all islanders “Canibs” or cannibals.
The mistaken name and the confirmation that at least some of the native peoples were cannibals doesn’t let Columbus and the invading Europeans off the hook, but this discovery does expand the history of the indigenous peoples of the Americas beyond that written by the invaders.