Natural History

Flushing Out the Facts

The story of Columbus and the tortoise bone toilet seat.

By Bill Keegan and Betsy Carlson

Mr. Christopher Columbus

Sailed the sea without a compass

Well, when his men began a rumpus

Up spoke Christopher Columbus

He said, “There is land somewhere

So until we get there we will not go wrong

If we sing a swing song

Since the world is round, we’ll be safe and sound

’Till our goal is found we’ll just keep the rhythm bound”

Fats Waller


Columbus' "toilet seat" was the bones of a large tortoise

We are writing this in October, a time when Caribbean archaeologists’ fancy turns to Columbus. But it’s not our fault. For some reason the press cannot get enough of him, even after more than 500 years. Columbus was resurrected in 1892 as a symbol of the American dream. A man of simple means, very religious, and of Italian birth who set out to overthrow the science of his day and who stumbled upon a New World. In those days, America (more correctly, the United States of America) was attempting to become the new world power. The legitimacy of this claim was embodied in the Columbian Exposition, the World’s Fair held in Chicago in 1893 (a great read is The Devil in the White City by Erik Larsen, Vintage Books, 2004).

The timing of the Exposition is important. It was the eve of the Spanish-American War (the USS Maine was sunk in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898). The selection of Columbus as a symbol has infuriated Native American communities, but he was chosen to serve very particular political purposes. At the time the U.S. was attempting to deny all Spanish claims to the Americas. Columbus was an Italian who was forced to sail with a crew of prisoners and mutineers. Therefore, Spain deserved no credit for the “discovery” of America.

We should probably add religion to the mix. In his Papal decree ratified in 1498 as the “Treaty of Tordesilla” (or Tordesilha, if you prefer Portuguese), Pope Alexander VI ceded all of the lands 370º west of the Cape Verde Islands (east coast of Africa) to Spain. This gave Spain a “legitimate” claim to virtually all of the Americas. The fact that Spain’s claims were justified by the Pope did not sit well with the Protestant Christians who controlled the U.S. government. In their minds the Pope held no authority, and Spain also had no authority because an Italian was the responsible party. Scholars would later formalize this rejection of Spain by renaming Spanish America, Ibero-America or Hispanic America to “Latin America.”

With the exception of annual Columbus Day parades in New York (fueled mostly by Italian pride), the fire died to embers until just prior to the Quincentenary. The National Geographic Society stoked the flames in 1986 by proclaiming to the world that they had “discovered” the true place where Columbus “discovered” America. It was not modern day San Salvador as Samuel Eliot Morison had decided, but rather an island to the south known as Samana Cay. Not everyone was convinced. And after several years of public debates among proponents for San Salvador (Watlings Island), Samana Cay (National Geographic) and Grand Turk, the final debate was the Turks Island Landfall Conference held on Grand Turk in 1989. The Grand Turk protagonists — Robert Power, Josiah Marvel and Bertie Sadler — were loaded for bear. Unfortunately, none of the other main debaters (Mauricio Obregon for Morison and Joseph Judge for National Geographic) wanted to continue the show (“scheduling conflicts”).

Bob Power and Josiah Marvel deserve a lot of credit for putting their money where their mouth is. The crucial problem for the Grand Turk proponents was that no Indian sites had been found on Grand Turk despite prior archaeological surveys. They engaged an archaeologist to survey the island during the conference, and two Indian sites were found. “Champagne for everyone!” Unfortunately, further research has shown that the main site was abandoned centuries before Columbus sailed, and the site was in the wrong place. Minor details, especially when a new Indian site was found on the north end of Grand Turk thanks to the diligence of Brian Riggs, now Curator of the National Environmental Centre.

These extinct tortoise bones were found during excavations at Grand Turk.

These extinct tortoise bones were found during excavations at Grand Turk.

We were conducting test excavations at the new site of GT-3, located on the west side of North Creek, on the eve of the Columbus Quincentenary when Josiah Marvel arrived with a crew from a fledgling Provo cable television station. They were making a film to show that Grand Turk was Columbus’ first landfall, and wanted to include our archaeological investigations. Digging standard 50 by 50 cm shovel test pits we had just exposed a circular arrangement of bone from the carapace of a large tortoise. As the crew began filming, Keegan reminded them that in the past week John Noble Wilford, science editor for the New York Times, had written about excavations by Kathleen Deagan at La Isabela, Columbus’s first colony in the Dominican Republic. Dr. Deagan (of the Florida Museum of Natural History) had identified a portion of a ceramic vessel as a fragment of Columbus’ chamber pot. Pointing to the circular arrangement of tortoise shell bone that completely filled the excavation unit, Keegan jokingly proclaimed, “If Deagan found Columbus’ chamber pot, then we have found Columbus’ toilet seat!” The size and shape of the bone ring were evocative. “But, how can you be sure?” was the response. Brushing aside some loose sand, a turtle arm bone (humerus) was exposed to the outside of the bone ring. Keegan continued, “Because here is the flushing lever!” For some reason journalists seem to think that scientists have no sense of humor, but this is rarely true of archaeologists.

On the subject of wilderness toilets, some years later while working on a very tiny cay off the north coast of Haiti (Île à Rat) we constructed a latrine in a remote location and built a frame on which we attached a toilet seat; a real, honest to goodness, wooden toilet seat. The fishermen who visited the island daily thought that this was the funniest thing they had ever seen — a toilet seat in the bushes! Through the entire month of excavation the seat and frame remained intact; the only thing that disappeared was a toilet paper roll.

In our last essay for “Talking Taino,” we talked about sloths in the Caribbean islands, which disappeared soon after the pre-Taínos arrived about 5,000 years ago. Similarly, Columbus’ “toilet seat” was the bones of a large tortoise (think Galapagos-type tortoise) that disappeared from the Turks & Caicos Islands at least 400 years before the Spanish arrived, apparently driven to extinction by human predation. This leads us to a discussion of another large reptile that used to commonly inhabit the Bahamian archipelago — the crocodile (which the Taíno called caiman).

On the fourth Bahamian island that Columbus visited during his first voyage he encountered a strange creature that fled into a saltwater pond. He described it as five palmas in length (about six feet), and reported that the natives killed it with spears and collected the carcass for Columbus to carry back to Spain. This “lagarto de las aguas” (literally, water lizard) was something that Columbus had never seen before. Based on its size and behavior he seems to be describing a saltwater American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus). Crocodiles are today rarely found in The Bahamas, but they do still live in Cuba and Jamaica (take the “Black River Safari” when you are there, and bring chicken parts).

We do know that crocodiles lived in the Bahama Islands until fairly recently. Their bones have been found at Taíno (Lucayan) sites on Crooked Island and Acklins Island, and Daniel McKinnon reported in his 1804 travelogue that he was fed “alligator” meat at Lovely Bay, Acklins Island. The Caicos Bank would have been an ideal habitat for the crocodile, although no crocodile bones have yet been found in any archaeological sites in the Turks & Caicos Islands. Crocodile remains have even been recovered from remote Grand Cayman where there is no evidence that humans set foot there until Europeans arrived.

The remains of an extinct tortoise lie exposed in Sawmill Sink, Abaco.

The remains of an extinct tortoise lie exposed in Sawmill Sink, Abaco.

Our knowledge of the past distributions of animals is changing as our ability to collect samples from previously inaccessible locations improves. One of the most informative new environments is blue holes because they frequently have submerged sediments that are not exposed to oxygen and thus facilitate the preservation of organic materials. Drs. David Steadman and Richard Franz (of the Florida Museum of Natural History) have been investigating the Sawmill Sink blue hole on Abaco Island in The Bahamas. In this underwater setting they recently recovered 18 crocodile skeletons, tortoises, birds, and other plants and animals that lived in the islands. These new discoveries will be highlighted in a forthcoming National Geographic television program on Bahamian blue holes. Blue holes were also important and sacred locations for the Taíno, where occasionally they buried their dead, and there is a sinkhole on Providenciales in which five Taíno burials were observed. According to the Spanish chroniclers, the Taíno word for sink hole or blue hole was xaguey.

It would be impossible for us to “talk Taíno” without the assistance of the Spanish. The Taínos had no written language, so only those animals that were observed by the Spanish in the presence of the Taíno have recorded Taíno names. The tortoise and many other species were extinct before the Spanish arrived. It is important to remember that written history has a funny way of tricking us into believing that we have all the answers about the past. However, often what we “know” was written by the victors and after centuries of unrecorded events. Some records even contain intentional misrepresentation, much like the story of Columbus and the tortoise shell toilet seat. The true stories (if we may be so bold) of history are complex, fascinating, and open to multiple interpretations. Fats Waller was right, “One never knows, do one?”

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.

They are the authors of Talking Taino, published by The University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, ISBN – 13: 978-0-8173-5508-1.

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