Natural History

Mother Sea Turtle

hawksbill-5A look at the importance of turtles to the Tainos as food and myth.

By Bill Keegan and Betsy Carlson

“On a voyage north from Panama to Hispaniola, according to the journal kept in 1503 by Ferdinand Columbus, ‘we were in sight of two very small and low islands, full of tortoises,

as was all the sea about, insomuch that they look’d like little rocks, for which reason those islands were called Tortugas’ [today called the Cayman Islands]. The Caymans were common ground for sea rovers of all nations who came there mostly for tortugas; these green sea turtles, which could be kept alive on deck, supplied fresh provender for the pillage of the Caribbean.”

– Peter Matthiessen, Far Tortuga, Random House, 1975, p. 1.

The Caymans are among the only islands in the Caribbean with no evidence that prehistoric peoples ever reached their shores. The enormous abundance of Green sea turtles described there by Europeans likely characterize a similar abundance in the waters surrounding the Turks & Caicos when native peoples first arrived about 1,300 years ago.

The pre-Columbian turtle population of the West Indies has been estimated (Jackson 1997) to have been between 33 and 39 million adults. This figure is meant to describe population numbers before Europeans began harvesting Green turtles; pre-Columbian exploitation is not considered. In the past, sea turtles were obtainable in vast quantities but in limited areas.

You can imagine how esteemed sea turtle meat was in the Amerindian diet of the West Indies. The Tainos had several names for turtles including carey, which described the common sea turtle, likely a Green or Hawksbill. The term caguama referred to sea turtles that were bigger than carey and may have described a Loggerhead turtle, or perhaps any adult, nesting turtle.

As the turtle is an animal that lives both on land and in the ocean (bagua), the Taino associated the animal with boundary crossings and gave it spiritual powers. At a prehistoric cemetery in Aruba, a flexed human burial was placed under a sea turtle carapace. An intact Hawksbill turtle was found cached at the base of a trash midden in a St. Eustatius prehistoric site. Furthermore, the archaeologists investigating this site interpreted the shape of one of the large houses to be a visual rendering of a Hawksbill turtle shell.

The turtle has a prominent place in the Taino pantheon. The culture hero of the Taino cosmology was named Deminán Caracarocol. He was also referred to as the “humpback God” because he was often depicted with a bump protruding from his spine. As is shown on a ceramic idol discovered in a Santo Domingo area cave in the early 20th century, Deminán’s “humpback” is actually a turtle growing on his back. According to Taino myths, this female turtle was the progenitor of the Taino people—the most ancient of all ancestors.

And yes, turtles were important calorically as well as symbolically. Sea turtles are easy to harvest and provide a substantial quantity of meat that can be processed to increase its storability and turned into a trade item. Since sea turtles were not available in high quantities everywhere, hunters came to the turtle grounds. One of these turtle harvesting sites was found and investigated in Grand Turk, the Coralie Site.

The Coralie site was settled in the eighth century. Interestingly, the pottery the settlers brought with them (the Ostiones style) displayed only one decorative motif—turtles. Effigy bowls from this pottery style typically have modeled lugs depicting the turtle’s head and flippers with the vessel representing the turtle shell.

A great deal of the activity at the Coralie site revolved around turtle preparation and consumption, with the inhabitants likely using this island’s natural salt deposits to cure and store the surplus meat. This meat would have been taken back to the Greater Antilles. The recovered turtle bone sample from this site was the remains from an estimated 5,000 pounds of processed turtle meat. From the bones excavated in this site we can ask the following questions:

  • At what age were the turtles being harvested?
  • Were turtles nesting on Grand Turk?
  • How were they captured?
  • How were they processed?

tortoisebonesBased on the size of the recovered humerus bones in the site, the harvested population was 25% juveniles, 60% sub-adults and 15% adults. These sub-adults weighed between 50 and 150 pounds and were no longer than 2 1/2 feet. Sub-adults graze on turtle grass and occasional invertebrates in shallow tidal flats until reaching adulthood (at 30 years of age), at which time they migrate to deeper water feeding grounds. It takes even longer for females to reach sexual maturity, which occurs between the ages of 40 and 60. Adult Green turtles can live beyond 100 years. This extremely slow growth to reproductive age, the clustering behavior of the populations, and the accessibility of turtle eggs to predators are all factors that make Green turtle stocks difficult to sustain.

The turtle hunters of Grand Turk primarily harvested sub-adults from their feeding grounds, but the site did include the remains of two hatchlings (2″ in length). This shows that Grand Turk once supported a nesting population of Green turtles and that the few adult turtles in the site were captured while out of the water laying their eggs on an eastern Grand Turk beach. These large females are defenseless during this process and need only be turned over for capture. Nesting beaches are usually on the windward, rough side of an island, where the sand is coarse and the beach has a flat platform above high tide. There are no historic records of Greens ever having nested on Grand Turk, although there are past reports of turtle nesting beaches in the Caicos Islands.

Because of their predictable habits and aggregated populations, turtles are easy to hunt. Turtles sleep on shallow coral flats and migrate between feeding and sleeping sites along the same daily route. Though turtles can hold their breath for 10 to 20 minutes, they must regularly surface to get air. They exhale multiple times upon surfacing and can be heard and found before they dive again.

Harpooning is the most common turtle capture method worldwide, accomplished with a hardwood harpoon, tipped by a short detachable point that is secured to a line. The 17th century Island Carib of the Lesser Antilles used wooden spears that were 4 to 5′ long and tipped with wooden points. Turtlers work in teams of two; one maneuvers the boat while the other harpoons.

In the turtle remains from Coralie, there are a few examples of carapace with round, possible harpoon holes. This photograph shows two harpooned turtle shells. The example on the left is a bone located halfway down the animal’s back and the hole is 3″ off the mid-point of the spinal column. This was a fairly accurate harpoon shot. The hole is wider on the interior than it is on the exterior, showing that more of the interior bone was blown out by impact. This pleural was examined and X-rayed by Dr. Bill Maples, a former forensic scientist with the University of Florida, who concluded that the bone displayed a depressed fracture; a puncture wound produced by some blunt instrument—likely a wood tipped harpoon.

Nets may have also been used to capture turtles. Historic records show that as late as 1878, Green turtles were being harvested in nets from the mouth of North Creek, the large inland lagoon on Grand Turk, and exported to the commercial New York market. The Coralie site is located on the shore of North Creek and it is likely that turtles were captured prehistorically inside this lagoon.

The Miskito Indians of Nicaragua are a modern turtle hunting society. Using harpoons, these hunters regularly captured adult turtles from dugout canoes. They were successful on their turtle hunts 73% of the time. However, the Miskito would only strike a turtle weighing less than 100 pounds if there was an extreme meat shortage in their village. They called these “chicken turtles.” Small chicken turtles were all that were harvested at the site of MC-6 on Middle Caicos. This is the only other excavated site in the Bahamian archipelago with significant amounts of sea turtle remains. Here, all the individuals would have weighed less than 50 pounds. Due to the location of MC-6 on the shallow bank side of the island, it is likely that only young juveniles lived in this tidal flat habitat near the site.

In the Coralie site, turtle bone was recovered within large cooking hearths. Apparently, little butchering of the turtle was done before roasting. The hearths contained long bones, the shell bones, some broken skull pieces and even the small bones of the fins and tail. Eggs from females, green fat deposits, and blood would have been removed before roasting and consumed. The turtles were then roasted whole in their shells.

Every part of the turtle skeleton was found in the site in the proportions expected if the turtles were being processed on site. There is one discrepancy—the number of recovered humerus bones was nearly twice the number of femur bones recovered. Although no re-working of the humerus bones was noticed, their disproportional abundance may indicate a secondary use. Certain Amerindian cultures from the Guianas used sea turtle humerus bones as tool handles. At the Giaudy site on St. Lucia, Keegan found a hollowed out sea turtle humerus shaft, which could have functioned as a handle.

The Coralie site also contained small fire pits with associated post stains that did not contain any bone remains. These were the remains of Taino barbacoa (barbeques) where strips of meat or fish could have been dried and smoked. Another method to store meat would be to salt and sun dry provisions on long lines stretched along the beach. Turtle fins could also have been prepared in this manner.

Besides Green turtles, other large reptiles inhabited the prehistoric Bahamian archipelago and some were exploited in the Turks & Caicos. A large Loggerhead turtle weighing approximately 1,000 lbs. was found in the Coralie site. This is evidence that both Loggerheads and Greens were nesting on Grand Turk beaches in the past. Crocodiles (called caimen by the Taino) inhabited many of the Bahamian Islands in the past. They have been identified at prehistoric archaeological sites on Crooked Island and Acklins Island and from paleontological deposits on New Providence, San Salvador and Abaco. There is no evidence yet that crocodiles ever inhabited Grand Turk or any of the Caicos Islands.

turtlemanSlider turtles (called hicotea by the Taino) were commonly consumed prehistorically, but these freshwater turtles presently inhabit only the islands of Great Inagua, Andros, Eleuthera, and Cat. Limited to islands with freshwater habitats, they have not been found in any Turks & Caicos deposits, but they have been found archaeologically on San Salvador. These Slider turtles are either relics of the last Ice Age or were transported by humans (Lucayans) from the Greater Antilles to the Bahamas. There is a biological similarity between the freshwater turtles from Jamaica and those of the central Bahams, whereas the Inagua turtles are more similar to those from Hispaniola. It is possible that people were moving these animals between islands in prehistory to provide a ready food source.

Even though all native species of West Indian tortoise are extinct, they are known from cave sites in the Bahamas, Hispaniola, Cuba, Barbuda, Mona Island and Middle Caicos and were found in cooking hearths at the Coralie site. Due to its isolated and predator-free existence, the Grand Turk tortoise is three times larger than the South American tortoises. Two of the Grand Turk specimens measured 2 1/2 feet long. This is another slow growing species that takes 20 years, under optimal conditions, to reach sexual maturity. Tortoises were only exploited on Grand Turk in the last phase of occupation at Coralie.

It must be remembered that few of the staple foods in this prehistoric Taino diet still inhabit this region. The process of resource overexploitation began prehistorically. Sea turtle remains decrease over time in the Coralie site and the largest specimens came from the earlier deposits. Nesting beaches may have been overexploited first. It is possible the Grand Turk tortoise did not survive its exploitation documented at the Coralie site. There is no evidence of tortoise in later prehistoric sites on Grand Turk or any historic records of their presence in the Turks & Caicos Islands.

Yes, the 15th century Europeans were amazed at the density of turtle populations they encountered. During the second voyage of Columbus (1493), near the Gulf of Batabanó in southwest Cuba, Andres Bernáldez described seeing so many sea turtles “that it seemed as if the ships would run aground on them, and their shells actually clattered” along the topsides. Now imagine Taino dugout canoes approaching the shores of Grand Turk, clattering through waters brimming with populations of the mother sea turtle.

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 with Southeastern Archaeological Research, Inc., Jonesville, Florida.



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