Fear and Loathing in the Caribbean

I think there are few more fascinating reads around than the early 16th century narratives of European adventurers in the Americas.    Most of these travelers had sized up their financial prospects at home and found them grimly wanting as younger sons of nobility or aspiring merchants.  So they signed up for long dangerous sea voyages in small sailing ships to lands few of their friends or family had ever heard of and fewer still could really imagine.

My overall impression is that these early travelers spent a good deal of their time in the Americas quaking in their boots.   Yes,  they had their swords and arquebuses and Spanish mastiffs,  but in the early decades of contact,  before smallpox and European diseases swept across the land and turned thriving villages into ghost towns,   these would-be colonists were hugely outnumbered.   In Jamaica alone,  for example,  the early Spanish sailors encountered some 60,000 Taino. Continue reading

Reclaiming the Lost DNA of Ancient Languages

Imagine for a moment that you are 80 years old (easier for some of us,  I admit, than others.)   Now imagine that you are the last person left on earth who can speak English.   No one can sit down and chat companionably with you in your mother tongue.  No one can laugh at your jokes or puns or understand what it means to “grin like a Cheshire cat.”  You are  alone, and all the cultural knowledge embedded in the English language will be lost when you die.

That,  of course,  is the predicament of many elderly speakers of aboriginal languages around the world.  The  Indigenous Language Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico, calculates, for example,  that in the United States alone,  42 percent of the 300 or languages once spoken by  aboriginal people are now extinct. And it’s not just words, grammar and syntax that are being lost:  it’s “the DNA of a culture,”  as Bruce Cole,  a former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities in the U.S.,  once put it so aptly . Continue reading

Francisco Pizarro’s Forgotten Army?

Who really conquered the Inca Empire?  I found myself mulling over that question for the first time today, after reading a really fascinating new paper published online in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology by a team of American and Peruvian scientists.  Led by Melissa Murphy,  a physical anthropologist at the University of Wyoming in Laramie,  the team has just pored over the skeletal remains of 258 Inca men and women,  who perished from extreme violence sometime between 1470 and 1540.

First,  let me very briefly summarize the conventional view of the Conquest of Peru.  According to the Spanish chronicles (the only surviving written source of the invasion),  Francisco Pizarro set sail from Panama in January 1531 with 3 ships and  180 men.   Landing near the port of Tumbes in the midst of a civil war in the Inca realm known as Tawantinsuyu,   Pizarro and his men journeyed inland.   At the Inca provincial town of Cajamarca, they laid an ambush and captured  the Inca king Atawallpa,  whom they subsequently executed.   In November 1533,  Pizarro’s force occupied the Inca capital of Cuzco, bringing the empire to its knees.

I personally don’t recall hearing or reading much about  indigenous Andean peoples fighting on the side of the  Spanish invaders.  But as the new paper by Murphy and her team points out,  aboriginal people  certainly seem to have played a part in the Conquest of  Peru,  and perhaps quite a large part.

Murphy and her colleagues examined human remains excavated from two large Inca  cemeteries in the archaeological zone of Puruchuco-Huaquerones,  7 miles from the center of Lima.  Many of these individuals likely died during the ill-fated siege of Lima,  when Inca forces tried to expel the Spaniards in 1536.  As expected, Murphy and her colleagues found ample evidence of severe injuries caused by medieval European weaponry–the top spike of a polearm, the beak of a war hammer,  and possible gunshot wounds.   (Intriguingly,  evidence of slashing injuries from swords is missing from these victims.)

But what I found especially intriguing in this study was the evidence that team-members found for wounds inflicted by  indigenous weapons,  such as clubs and maces.  Indeed,  as the authors note,  “the majority of perimortem injuries to the cranium were likely due to blunt force trauma, probably from native weaponry like maces or clubs,  with only a few of the injuries caused by Spanish weapons.”

Now of course,  Spanish soldiers might well have picked up native weapons and used them expediently.  But some Spanish chroniclers do refer on occasion to indigenous allies and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that they were under-representing the numbers in order to make themselves look especially courageous to readers back home.

Moreover,  we know that the Incas had made a host of enemies during their own conquests, particularly on the northern coast of Peru.   And these dissidents might have seen Pizarro and his men initially as liberators,  before they truly understood the rapacity  of the Spanish forces.   Certainly, this is what happened in Mexico, when aboriginal people rallied to the banner of  Hernando Cortez,  eager to rise up against their oppressors, the Aztecs.

This new research by Murphy and her colleagues is the first forensic-style study of the Inca victims who fell during the Conquest of Peru.  I really look forward to reading more.

Signs of Respect

As regular readers will know,  I  recently fumed here over the poor conservation of a petroglyph-covered  boulder at the Vancouver Museum,  after reading a troubling post over at Northwest Coast Archaeology.   I questioned the wisdom of removing such boulders and slabs from the  places where they were created and installing them in  museums.  I then suggested that the Vancouver Museum repatriate the damaged boulder in question.

Since then,  Northwest Coast has posted more on this disturbing state of affairs, and recently  I received a great email on these issues from George Nicholas, an archaeologist at Simon Fraser University and the director of Intellectual Property issues in Cultural Heritage. George is kindly guest-blogging on this today. -HP


I think the notion that rock art is about more than the images is something that has been largely ignored, certainly by the public, but also by many archaeologists and anthropologists. People often tend to focus on the details of the images, rather than on the context of the rock art. But one doesn’t work without the other.

In his book Ways of Seeing, John Berger notes that before photography, before the age of reproductive technology, one could only see a particular image (such as the Last Supper fresco) in the church in which it was painted. The same obviously holds true for Lascaux and all other rock art.

Taken out of their geographic context, the images are divorced not only from the place itself (which may be imbued with meaning of its own), but also from the emotional landscape and viewscape. I’m sure you’ve been to petroglyph sites where there’s sort of a mystical feel to the place. I find that at the Three Sister’s Rockshelter in British Columbia’s Marble Canyon. The silence of the moss-filled forest that surrounds the blue-grey rock face adds an important dimension to the rock art.

And of course, we approach rock art from the perspective of the western world. Our worldview is based on a set of dichotomies: the distinctions between the natural and supernatural realms; between people and nature; between past, present, and future; between genders, and all the rest. Such distinctions may be absent, however, in many indigenous societies; they may live in a world in which ancestral spirits are part of this existence (owing to lack of separation between past and present; between natural and supernatural realms).

So all of this, then, begs several questions. What does rock “art” really represent?  How are we supposed to view it? What should we do with it, from a heritage preservation perspective? Indeed, is rock art something that should be preserved?

Most western archaeologists would say yes to the latter question.  But in Australia, contemporary Aboriginal persons sometimes paint over ancient images as a way of continually replenishing the world; it is the act of painting that is important (like the creation of Navajo sand paintings used in healing ceremonies, and later destroyed, much to the consternation of western observers).

The Zuni people have a similar tradition.  They carve wooden figurines of their war gods, the Ayahu:ta, and place them in outdoor shrines. After a period of time, the figurines are replaced with new ones. Zuni tribal member and archaeologist Edmund Ladd notes in his writings that “When a new image of the Ahayu:ta is installed in a shrine, the ‘old’ one is removed to ‘the pile,’ which is where all the previous gods have been lain. This act of removal specifically does NOT have the same connotations as ‘throwing away’ or ‘discarding.’ The image of the god that has been replaced must remain at the site to which it was removed and be allowed to disintegrate there.” So, from a Zuni perspective, proper stewardship is letting the ahayu:ta decay.

Rock art raises many fundamental issues,  as well as conflicting claims that certain items of heritage belong to a specific group or are part of the heritage of human kind. In recent decades, archaeologists have been very much part of this debate.

My own position is that I see merit in both positions, but also that the tension between the two positions is important because it forces us (as archaeologists, as heritage managers, as member of descendant communities, etc) to think about the nature of heritage in new ways.

-George Nicholas

Above:  The rock art of Bohuslan, Sweden.  Photo by Julius Agrippa.  Below:  Contemporary Aboriginal artist Mundara Koorang. Photo by Novyaradnum.