Natural History

Talking Taino: Catch of the Day

tt-parrot1Contrary to our current dilemma, the Taino always knew where their fish came from.

By Bill Keegan and Betsy Carlson

“Here the fishes are so unlike ours that it is amazing; there are some like dorados, of the brightest colors in the world — blue, yellow, red, multi-colored, colored in a thousand ways; and the colors so bright that anyone would marvel and take a great delight in seeing them.”

Christopher Columbus, 17 October 1492

The Turks & Caicos are truly blessed. The crystal clear waters surrounding the Islands contain an abundance of marine life. As Columbus noted, many of these are marvelous to see, while others are marvelous to eat. The Spanish recorded more than 60 Taino names for fishes, sharks and marine mammals. Several of the names such as manatee (manati) and barracuda (baracutey) are in common use today.

There is a tendency to think that peoples in the past consumed foods simply to satisfy their hunger. Yet every culture in the world has developed its own unique cuisine. Unfortunately, the Spanish did not record any Taino recipes. Nevertheless, we know that the Tainos grilled, barbecued, smoked, salted (“corned”) and stewed fish in a pepper pot (with chili peppers and vegetables). They may also have baked fish in stone lined pits (much like the modern “clam bake”) and fried fish on flat clay griddles. Fish was the mainstay of the Taino diet. In fact, one might wonder how many children complained to their mothers: “Grouper for dinner, again?”

Taino meals were not as one-dimensional as we might expect. One of our most surprising discoveries occurred at the Coralie site on the north end of Grand Turk. At this site, some meals were prepared in an overturned carapace of a sea turtle and included fishes and iguanas in addition to turtle meat.

The Spanish noted that the most common Taino fishing techniques used hook and line, basket traps, nets and weirs (barriers used to prevent fishes from escaping enclosed areas at low tide). With regard to weirs, older residents of Middle Caicos told us that Farm Creek Pond (near Bambarra) once had a natural barrier (sandbar) across its mouth, and that during periods of extreme low tide you could walk out on the dry lake bed and pick up fish by hand. Today, this pond is entirely landlocked. In similar ponds and shallow bays, the Tainos kept fish in corrals of interwoven branches or canes. In this way, the fishes were kept alive until they were needed as food.

Archaeologists are able to identify many of the fishes consumed in pre-Columbian sites using a comparative method that is known as zooarchaeology. Zooarchaeologists carefully collect samples of animal bones from archaeological sites and then identify them by comparing the bones to known species. Using this approach, we now know that the most common fishes in West Indian archaeological deposits were grunts, parrotfishes, groupers, snappers and jacks. The Spanish recorded Taino names for many different species within these common fish families.

barracuda-toothThe most common food fish at the site of MC-6 on Middle Caicos was bonefish. This is partially due to the location of this site, which is on the southern bank-side shore of the island. Flats fishes were readily available close by the site, unlike reef fishes. Today, catching bonefish is a popular activity among sportfishermen, yet very few people consider eating them. However, their flesh is firm and flaky between all those small bones. Unlike today, “boniness” was not a criterion in prehistoric times for determining the palatability of various fish species.

Flesh preferences are often culturally defined.  Looking at archaeological sites throughout the Bahamas and Turks & Caicos Islands, the Lucayan Tainos’ favorite fish appears to be parrotfish and grunts. Is this because they couldn’t as easily capture the “better tasting” snappers or groupers? Were these high quality resources overfished? Is it possible they really preferred these fish species? Parrotfish are a soft fleshed but flavorful fish that are not esteemed in modern fish markets primarily because the flesh tends to spoil quickly. This would not have been a factor in prehistoric times. Grunts have tasty, firm white flesh but they contain a lot of bones and produce small fillets. However, these fishes are perfect for smoking and may explain why their head bones are so common in archaeological sites. It is also true that grunts and parrotfish are the most common fishes on the nearshore reefs.

One deterrent to fish edibility that affects both prehistoric and modern peoples is the possibility of ciguatera poisoning. This occurs most famously in barracuda but is also very common in jacks, groupers and snappers, as these are all high trophic level carnivores. Contrary to another popular belief, this poison is not always correlated to body size. Jacks can be very common in archaeological sites, but by modern standards they are considered barely edible. Snappers and groupers have the gold standard of fish flesh — firm, mild, “meaty” flesh that is low in fat and contains few bones. The Taino diet always included these carnivore fishes but they were never the dominant fish that they are in today’s modern diet.

When Taino men came home from the sea, they knew exactly what types of fish they were eating, and their wives would prepare the fish in appropriate dishes. Today, zooarchaeologists usually know which fish they are eating based on years of studying bones (and years of enjoying Caribbean seafood). In recent years, the demand for seafood has resulted in the importation of foreign species that mimic, but fail to meet, the qualities of the most popular fishes. In fact, it recently was reported that 80% of the seafood consumed in the United States was imported from a foreign country. You can no longer be certain what you are served, which raises the question: Do you know which fish you are eating?

parrot-fish-teethFollowing Columbus’ first voyage, there was a huge exchange of foods between the Americas and Europe. This “Columbian Exchange” sent mostly plant foods such as corn, beans, squash, tomatoes, potatoes, vanilla and chocolate to Europe; with cattle, goats, sheep, pigs, wheat, olives and various other domesticates to the Americas. We are now in the midst of what might be called the “Asian Exchange.” In order to meet increasing demand for certain fishes, in the face of declining stocks due to overfishing, tons of fish are imported from Asia every year. The problem that has developed is that these fish often are mislabeled as grouper or other prized food fishes. In some ways this situation is reminiscent of the shift from American lobster (Homarus americanus) to the less expensive Caribbean spiny lobster (Panulirus argus) in U.S. restaurants over the past three decades. The two are not the same; they taste different and have different flesh textures, yet both are marketed as “lobster.”

The present situation is more extreme. The Florida Attorney General’s office recently tested 24 grouper samples from Florida restaurants and only 7 of the 24 were confirmed grouper. A common substitute is Asian catfish. Their suppliers either duped the restaurateurs or the restaurants were complicit in turning a blind eye to what they must have known was not really grouper. To counter this trend of misrepresentation, the Florida Department of Agriculture recently posted a web page to help consumers distinguish Florida grouper from Asian catfish:

So how do you know if the fish that you were served is the same as advertised? First, if you are in the Turks & Caicos and if you are eating at a local restaurant you can relax (although the cruise ships are provisioned in Florida so there could be some problems there).  Second, you could ask your waiter if the grouper is from the genus Epinephelus or if the red snapper is Lutjanus, and then watch their startled response. Third, you can send a portion of your meal for DNA testing, but this will add considerably to the cost of the meal. Actually, if you order a grouper sandwich smothered in tartar sauce or a grouper filet covered in Creole or pepper sauce (a more Taino way of dining), then it doesn’t really matter what kind of fish you are eating, and it is virtually impossible to tell.

We can offer you another solution, but it requires ordering the whole fish and then checking its teeth. Groupers have hundreds of tiny pointed teeth that curve up the inside of the mouth. Snappers’ teeth lie only on one plane and they have very large canines at the front. Parrotfish teeth can’t be mistaken for any other fish as they have plates with multiple rows of diamond shaped teeth (they tend to lose a lot of teeth biting coral heads). Grunts and jacks both have a single row of small teeth. Barracuda have razor sharp flat teeth with sharp points that are similar to the teeth of large tunas. These differences in anatomy reflect different fish diets, with the carnivorous fish having the sharp pointed teeth and the herbivores having teeth for crushing and grinding.

To us, the best solution is to eat like a Taino. You can go fishing and capture your dinner with total confidence in the species you are eating. You can go to the priciest of restaurants and trust their honesty. Or you can avoid grouper and snapper and order fish like parrotfish, grunt and porgy. You won’t find these at upscale restaurants, but there are many local establishments that know how to prepare these in delicious dishes. While recently dining in Port Royal, Jamaica, a group of us ordered the “steamed fish.” When you inquire about what kind of fish you will be served in these small fishing villages the answer is often “reef fish.” Each person at the table that night got a different species of reef fish, among them grunts, parrotfish and juvenile groupers. Each was tasty and prepared well and we definitely knew what we were eating. Now add a little pepper sauce and you will recognize immediately the fabulous flavor of Taino dining.

Dr. Bill Keegan is Curator of Caribbean Archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida. Dr. Betsy Carlson is an Archaeologist at Southeastern

Archaeological Research, Inc., Jonesville, Florida.

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