Natural History

You Can’t Get There From Here

TT-5111510-1Whether Indian or archaeologist, transportation can be a challenge.
By Bill Keegan and Betsy Carlson

If there be any earthly Paradyse in the worlde, it can not be farre from these regions of the south, where the heaven is so beneficiall and the elements so temperate that they are neither bitten with the coulde in winter, nor molested with heate in summer.

Amerigo Vespucci, 1499

It was the fourth voyage that Christopher Columbus made to the New World. In 1498 he was sailing along the northeast coast of South America near Trinidad when he started getting strange navigational readings, which he took to indicate that he was sailing uphill. Being a devout Catholic, he interpreted this situation as evidence that there was a prominence on the earth shaped like a woman’s breast, on which would be found the “Terrestrial Paradise” (Garden of Eden). And since no man could go there without God’s permission, he changed course and sailed to the west.

As unbelievable as this story may sound, it is absolutely true.  Columbus understood the concept of sea “level,” so how could he imagine that he was sailing up a hill? His interpretation may have been based on his religious beliefs, but they also suggest that he had been at sea (and away from his wife) for far too long. From our vantage point, we can surmise that what Columbus failed to recognize was that he was sailing through the very strong, and largely freshwater, current that flows north through the Gulf of Paría (separating Trinidad from Venezuela) – a product of the enormous discharge of the Orinoco River. When it comes to traveling, sometimes it can be a real challenge to get where you are going.

It is hard not to be reminded of that old Bob & Ray comedy routine: A tourist in Maine approaches an old man on the side of the road and asks directions. The old man gives a complicated set of directions and then concludes, “no, that won’t work.” He then gives an even more complicated set of directions and again concludes, “No, that won’t work either.” Then yet again . . . and finally the old man looks at the tourist and says, “You can’t get there from here.” (It’s funnier with a Maine accent!)

For us, for Columbus, and for the Taínos, transportation has always been a major issue. The Taínos had only two choices – overland on foot (this is known as “walking”, which has become an increasingly rare form of transportation), or by water in boats. Columbus had the same two options, although his boats had slightly more room for relaxing on deck. However, keep in mind that the term “canoe” (some Taíno names for canoe are canoa, cayuco, and yuco) had much different implications in the past than it does today. Columbus observed Taíno “canoes” on the south coast of Cuba that had brightly painted bowsprits, were almost 100 feet long, and were driven by 90 men with paddles (naje). Imagine trying to squeeze 90 people into what today we call a canoe!?

Columbus described Taíno canoes as hollowed from a single log, often the trunk of a huge Ceiba or silk cotton tree. In order to construct a canoe you needed to first ask permission from the ancestors to cut down the tree, because the Ceiba was home to the ancestral spirits. Among the Warao Indians of the Orinoco Delta, only those who possessed sacred knowledge were allowed to build canoes. There were many forms of insurance that went into making canoes seaworthy.

When you live on an island, there is no more important form of transportation than a boat; they are essential to island life. Overwater travel was extremely important for the Taínos, and as such the only Taíno words that we know that relate to travel have to do with boats, bodies of water (ama, ni or ne), and how far away places are. In the Taíno language, something that was far away was called ya, but if it was really far away, it was called yaya (Yaya is also the name of their principal god, the supreme being with “no name”). The Taíno also had a word for outsiders – people who lived far away and didn’t belong to your group – they were called cuba.

For us, getting to and from various archaeological sites has often involved boats, and we have had our share of memorable boating experiences, like running out of gas at night off the north coast of Haiti and waiting for the morning fishermen to come help us out. Back in 1979, Keegan and Chal Misick sailed across the Caicos Bank to look for cave sites on East Caicos that had been reported in 1912, only to run aground several times. When you are stuck on a mound of sand in the middle of the Caicos Bank waiting for the tide to turn, you are very far from where you thought you were going to end up (thank God we picked up Lee Penn in South Caicos who really knew how to sail!). Sometimes you have to be inventive to get where you want to go. On a survey job at Silly Creek in Provo, we were ferried to work on jet skis.

The best way to do archaeological surveying is on foot. Unfortunately, archaeological sites are not always located near modern roads or even within walking distance of a bar. Travel on foot through the forest can be difficult. Anyone who has been in the “bush” knows that under a canopy of trees you lack visual references to direction, and the density of the vegetation can sometimes make passage almost impossible; this is what’s known as the “wall of bush” (the Taínos called it jiba). You can’t go under it, over it, around it, or through it, but somehow (with the help of machetes) you keep moving forward. The Taínos didn’t have machetes, but an advantage that they may have had is that when the bush contains primary mature forest, there are fewer obstructions because large trees prevent the growth of a dense understory.

So did the Taínos simply ramble through the forest, or did they build trails and roads? Like any of us would, the Taínos cleared trails to their gardens and between their villages. An elegant piece of evidence pointing to the use of prehistoric roads comes from the north coast of Haiti, where Clark Moore recognized that large Taíno villages were located at 27 km (17 mile) intervals. This interval represents a one-day, or about an eight-hour, leisurely walk. Today, walking 17 miles to visit your neighbor seems unrealistic, yet it is all what you are used to. In Haiti, where walking is the primary form of transportation, we frequently encountered people who had walked for miles with a bag of charcoal on their head. During one of our surveys we asked directions in broken Kweyol and began following our guide. After about a mile we realized that the person thought we were lost and was leading us back to our hotel – 25 miles away!

Over the years we have walked at least a thousand miles looking for archaeological sites, often covering 10 to 15 miles in a day. If you are doing a beach survey and you are at sea level, the horizon is about seven miles away.  You start out walking in the morning and you reach the “horizon” by noon! You reach your second “horizon” by dinner!

Walking along the beach is one thing, but cutting cross-country is quite different. When Dr. Shaun Sullivan did his research at MC-6 in 1978 he followed a 3.5 km (2 mile) trail from Bambarra that was maintained by Simon Forbes. Simon was then burning charcoal on the margins of Armstrong Pond. When we returned to work at the site in 1999, Simon had stopped going to Armstrong Pond and it took us six days to cut a new trail.

Getting your bearings within such an environment often requires regular tree climbing. Once, Keegan had the unfortunate experience of climbing a tree on Crooked Island in The Bahamas during a rainstorm to figure out where he was, and then realized that he was in a poisonwood tree!

In many parts of the world animals were used to replace walking or the transport of heavy burdens (horses, donkeys, oxen, llamas, camels, elephants, etc.). These animals were not available in the Americas (except llamas – and we’ll refrain from the Ogden Nash rhyme) until Europeans reintroduced them. We mention “reintroduced” because there were horses, camelids, and elephants (mammoths and mastodons) in the Americas until about 10,000 years ago. A major question for paleontologists is whether the first arrival of humans, who hunted them for food, or climate change at the end of the Pleistocene Epoch led to their extinction. Columbus brought horses on his second voyage. When the Taínos first saw men on horseback they thought they were one creature, like the mythical Centaur. Horses provided the Spanish with a huge advantage over the native peoples they subjugated. On one occasion we did travel to a site in Jamaica on horseback, but this was more for fun than necessity.

The last form of transportation that has been around for centuries but was never used by the Taínos is the wheel. In fact, the only evidence for wheels in the pre-European Americas is found on children’s toys in the Maya area. We wonder if they too played the game where you keep a wheel upright while propelling it with a stick.

Our modern investigations of the Taínos have been strongly dependent on wheels. Starting with the two-wheeled variety, Dr. Shaun Sullivan used a collapsible bicycle during his archaeological surveys in the Turks & Caicos in 1977. At that time there were only two trucks on Middle Caicos, and somehow these two trucks managed to get into a head-on collision! He also used a motorcycle to investigate possible site locations on Eleuthera.

Survey trucks are a whole other breed of vehicle. We rented a red pickup truck on Grand Turk one year that backfired and spewed sparks across the road every time you shifted gears. On our daily trips between North Creek and Waterloo we would send pedestrians scattering for cover as the truck passed through town. On St. Lucia our truck had only second and fourth gear when the transmission got hot; this necessitated zipping around hairpin-turns to maintain speed in order to ascend a steep slope. This was more memorable to the ten people in the bed of the truck.

Our most interesting forms of transport, however, were in southwest Jamaica. Each day, to get to our sites we had to cross the Dean’s Valley River. The first year we crossed the river in a cattle cart pulled by a large tractor. The next year we had a “jitney.” similar to the trams they use at Disney World. Every day, “tru da riva,” was the warning call sounded for everyone to get up on their seats and secure the gear as the water rushed across the jitney. The third year we graduated to a Land Rover that had been used in an off-road race across Africa. Camel cigarettes (the main sponsor) shipped the vehicle to Jamaica for promotional photographs. Using the spotlights on the roof, this vehicle was a great help in catching land crabs at night.

Transportation, and the development of new ways to get to places that “you can’t get there from here,” has been a major part of cultural evolution for thousands of years. We have used all kinds of transport to conduct our research on the Taínos, and the Taínos had their own forms of transport. But modern development requires new forms of access. In this regard, the Turks & Caicos is now investing in the construction of a road and bridges that will connect Middle Caicos with Provo. There are environmental issues to consider, but from the human perspective the new road will facilitate movement (and development) to the formerly “remote” islands of North and Middle Caicos. What we see is a future in which a visitor to Leeward Going Through asks, “Does this road go to Bambarra?” and the Belonger answers, “This road don’t go nowhere, it just rests here.”

Dr. Bill Keegan is Curator of Caribbean Archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida. Dr. Betsy Carlson is Senior Archaeologist with Southeastern Archaeological Research, Inc. (SEARCH) in Jonesville, Florida, and affiliate faculty at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

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