Natural History

The Fourth Deadly Sin

This emblematic mammal did not survive to Taíno times.
By Bill Keegan and Betsy Carlson
The sloth is the stupidest animal that can be found in the world,
and is so awkward and slow in movement that it would require a whole day to go fifty paces.1
Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, 1526
This is not the preface to a novel by Lawrence Sanders. Instead, we are going to discuss the mammals of the Caribbean. Previously we have noted that animals often are used as symbols for both positive and negative characteristics among humans (for example, “King Richard the Lionhearted”). In the islands we often see human and animal figurines on pottery vessels that are either “zoomorphic” (animal features) or “anthropomorphic” (human features ascribed to animals). We focused on the sloth because here we seem to have a negative human characteristic ascribed to the beast.
In the sixth century, Pope Gregory I (“The Great”) identified the seven deadly sins as lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride. These sins have since received greater notoriety in Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” and more recently in the movies “Bedazzled” and “Seven.” The word “sloth” comes from the Latin “acedia,” which means an absence of caring. For the Pope, sloth was spiritual and/or actual apathy, putting off what God asks you to do, or not doing it at all. The slow and determined efforts of this large mammal, first encountered in Central and South America, made them the perfect poster child for this sin.
Sloths have inhabited the Americas for millennia. In Florida there are fossil sloths that stood over 20 feet tall! Sloths (biological families Megalonychidae and Bradypodidae) are today found only in Central and South America, but they also occupied the larger Caribbean islands up to about 4,400 years ago. The fact that sloths survived in the Antilles long after they disappeared from most of the Americas (approximately 11,000 years ago) is an indication that humans had a hand in their extinction. Just as the giant sloths of Florida were exterminated shortly after the arrival of humans, new evidence from the insular Caribbean indicates that they suffered a similar fate (recently published by our colleague Dr. David Steadman). There has been 13 different species of sloths identified so far across the Caribbean islands (living on Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, and Curaçao), none of which survived the encounter with the first hunters to enter this region. Thus, there is no Taíno word for the gentle and slow-moving sloth because their populations were extirpated long before the Taíno societies developed. A similar extinction occurred with monkeys living on Jamaica, Cuba, and Hispaniola.
There seems to be an early Spanish fascination with the sloths of Tierra Firme (Central America). Oviedo wrote, “they are quadrupeds, and on each small foot they have four long claws webbed together like those of a bird, but neither the claws nor the feet will support the animal. The legs are so small and the body so heavy, that the animal almost drags its belly on the ground. At the end of the [tall and straight neck] it has a face very round, very much like that of an owl. Its eyes are small and round; its nose like that of a monkey. Its mouth is very small and it moves its neck from one side to another like a stupid thing. Its voice, heard only at night, is quite different of any other animal in the world. It can be heard singing six tones, one higher and louder than the next, and always in descending order: la, sol, fa, mi, re, ut.” The “Sound of Music” sung in reverse!
Oviedo also reported, “No one can find out what this animal eats. I had one in my home, and from my observations I have come to believe that this animal lives on air. The sloth has never been seen to eat anything, but it turns its head and mouth into the wind more than any other direction, from which one can see that it is very fond of air.” We now know that sloths are omnivores that eat insects, small lizards and carrion, but their main diet is buds, tender shoots and leaves, primarily of the Cecropia tree. Leaves provide very little energy. Sloths have very complex stomachs to digest these plant foods, and maintain a very low metabolic rate and low body temperature. They were the largest package of meat available to the earliest human hunters in the Caribbean, and their slow demeanor made them easy to capture.
The Caribbean islands have been described as having a depauperate terrestrial fauna (a fancy way of saying that there are not a lot of land animals). Recent paleontological studies have shown that this was not always the case. Crocodiles, iguanas, tortoises, and dozens of birds disappeared from many islands soon after humans arrived. With regard to mammals, Charles Woods and Gary Morgan (formerly with the Florida Museum of Natural History) have identified what they call the 12% solution. Only 12% of the mammals that lived in the Caribbean in the past still survive today; the other 88% were driven to extinction, while new mammals have been introduced during historic times. The Taínos only had 11 names for mammals — four are for different kinds of dogs, five are rodents, and the last two live in the sea.
The main mammals of interest during Taíno times were the hutía and the cori (guinea pig). Hutía are a cat-size rodent that was endemic to many Caribbean islands, but there is also evidence that the Taínos and their ancestors moved them to other islands where they were penned and managed as a food source. There is evidence that guinea pigs were introduced from South America and moved around the islands in a similar way. Oviedo described the guinea pigs as similar to rabbits or young conies, noting, “they are not vicious and are very pretty. Some are entirely white, while others are white spotted with red and other colors.”
By the time Europeans arrived these animals were in such short supply that they were reserved as food for the chiefs. Although one might assume that only the chiefs were allowed to eat them, they played a more important role in the redistribution of foods during periodic feasts. In other words, the chiefs may have controlled their distribution, but everyone who attended the feast was allowed to eat them.
Populations of hutía can still be found in Jamaica (where they are called “coneys”) and Cuba. In fact, the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanámo Bay has a huge problem with these furry critters. Populations have grown dramatically within the boundaries of the base where they have no natural predators. One complication for the naval personnel is that these rodents commonly gnaw through the brake and coolant lines of their vehicles, so all of the cars and trucks have chicken wire attached to the chasse. Despite population control efforts, the “banana rat” (so named for their banana-shaped scat) is thriving.
There is a similar problem in the Bahamas. About 20 years ago the Bahamas National Trust decided to relocate hutías from the last natural population on the Plana Cays (near Acklins Island) to a cay in the Exumas called Warderick Wells. The favored food of hutía seems to be the bark of young trees, and the result has been nearly complete deforestation of the cay. Population studies have shown that in spite of the fact that hutía produce few offspring per year, the adults apparently never die! The population has grown at an exponential rate for the past 20 years. A further complication is that originally it was believed that hutía couldn’t swim and that it would be possible to confine them to a single island. Yet today there are hutía living on two cays adjacent to Warderick Wells and their voracious appetite is having similar devastating consequences for the vegetation. The Bahamas National Trust Scientific Advisory Committee is now discussing the challenge of saving an endangered species while preserving the local vegetation.
Rodents have long been part of the human diet. For the Taínos the hutía was a tasty treat reserved for special occasions. Today we view rodents as disgusting and distasteful (as lampooned in the Monty Python skit where “rat” was every other item on the menu, not to mention Spam). Our disgust with rats (rodents) comes from our experiences with the Norwegian rat (Rattus rattus). Not only do they pilfer crops, they also carry a variety of diseases, including the bubonic plague. Eating our food supply is one thing, but killing millions of people is quite another. [But we like mice, especially in Florida, where Mickey contributes millions of dollars per year to the state’s economy.]
The Norwegian rat was a stowaway on Columbus’ first voyage. During the excavation of the archaeological site at En Bas Saline, Haiti, Dr. Kathleen Deagan found that many of the animal bones in this site attributed to Columbus’ first settlement in the New World were from rats and pigs. Current evidence suggests that the Spanish contingent at En Bas Saline is Fort La Navidad, which was established after the sinking of the Santa Maria. As Kathy describes it, she found the evidence for the first rat to abandon a sinking ship in the Americas!
Archaeological and paleontological studies have shown that there was never a great diversity of mammals in the Caribbean islands. The one exception may be bats. This situation changed with the arrival of Europeans who brought horses, pigs, donkeys, new types of dogs, cats, rats, etc. These new mammals have had a huge impact on the local cultures and environments. Lacking competitors, and preying on animals that had lacked other predators for centuries, they transformed the Caribbean landscape. In many places they are now considered pests, and local governments are looking for humane ways to eradicate them. In essence we are looking at the potential for a new wave of mass extinction in the islands.
Returning to the underappreciated sloth, Oviedo wrote, “I have never seen such an ugly animal or one that is more useless.” But we think sloths actually have a sort of “Teddy bear” appearance, and are surprised that they have not achieved the same status as koalas, baby seals, and lemurs in the cute, cuddly, stuffed animal market.
Even though the sloth was literally “eaten off” of these islands over 4,000 years ago, this animal reminds us of what many of us love about life in the islands, particular the ritual of slowing down, turning to face the eastern tradewinds, and slowly digesting your evening meal. The animal may be gone, but they remain emblematic. The modern attraction to the Caribbean islands can at times be pretty well summed up by the seven deadly sins.  Sloth, while on vacation, is the least objectionable.
(We would be remiss if we did not also mention the seven heavenly virtues:  chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility. We will leave the Boy Scout law out of this for the time being.)
1Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, Natural History of the West Indies (translated and edited by Sterling A. Stoudemire), Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959 [original 1526].
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, (at left) published by The University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, ISBN – 13: 978-0-8173-5508-1.

This emblematic mammal did not survive to Taíno times.

By Bill Keegan and Betsy Carlson

The sloth is the stupidest animal that can be found in the world, and is so awkward and slow in movement that it would require a whole day to go fifty paces. 1

Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, 1526

This is not the preface to a novel by Lawrence Sanders. Instead, we are going to discuss the mammals of the Caribbean. Previously we have noted that animals often are used as symbols for both positive and negative characteristics among humans (for example, “King Richard the Lionhearted”). In the islands we often see human and animal figurines on pottery vessels that are either “zoomorphic” (animal features) or “anthropomorphic” (human features ascribed to animals). We focused on the sloth because here we seem to have a negative human characteristic ascribed to the beast.

In the sixth century, Pope Gregory I (“The Great”) identified the seven deadly sins as lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride. These sins have since received greater notoriety in Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” and more recently in the movies “Bedazzled” and “Seven.” The word “sloth” comes from the Latin “acedia,” which means an absence of caring. For the Pope, sloth was spiritual and/or actual apathy, putting off what God asks you to do, or not doing it at all. The slow and determined efforts of this large mammal, first encountered in Central and South America, made them the perfect poster child for this sin.

The sloth was extirpated before Taino societies developed.

The sloth was extirpated before Taino societies developed.

Sloths have inhabited the Americas for millennia. In Florida there are fossil sloths that stood over 20 feet tall! Sloths (biological families Megalonychidae and Bradypodidae) are today found only in Central and South America, but they also occupied the larger Caribbean islands up to about 4,400 years ago. The fact that sloths survived in the Antilles long after they disappeared from most of the Americas (approximately 11,000 years ago) is an indication that humans had a hand in their extinction. Just as the giant sloths of Florida were exterminated shortly after the arrival of humans, new evidence from the insular Caribbean indicates that they suffered a similar fate (recently published by our colleague Dr. David Steadman). There has been 13 different species of sloths identified so far across the Caribbean islands (living on Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, and Curaçao), none of which survived the encounter with the first hunters to enter this region. Thus, there is no Taíno word for the gentle and slow-moving sloth because their populations were extirpated long before the Taíno societies developed. A similar extinction occurred with monkeys living on Jamaica, Cuba, and Hispaniola.

There seems to be an early Spanish fascination with the sloths of Tierra Firme (Central America). Oviedo wrote, “they are quadrupeds, and on each small foot they have four long claws webbed together like those of a bird, but neither the claws nor the feet will support the animal. The legs are so small and the body so heavy, that the animal almost drags its belly on the ground. At the end of the [tall and straight neck] it has a face very round, very much like that of an owl. Its eyes are small and round; its nose like that of a monkey. Its mouth is very small and it moves its neck from one side to another like a stupid thing. Its voice, heard only at night, is quite different of any other animal in the world. It can be heard singing six tones, one higher and louder than the next, and always in descending order: la, sol, fa, mi, re, ut.” The “Sound of Music” sung in reverse!

Oviedo also reported, “No one can find out what this animal eats. I had one in my home, and from my observations I have come to believe that this animal lives on air. The sloth has never been seen to eat anything, but it turns its head and mouth into the wind more than any other direction, from which one can see that it is very fond of air.” We now know that sloths are omnivores that eat insects, small lizards and carrion, but their main diet is buds, tender shoots and leaves, primarily of the Cecropia tree. Leaves provide very little energy. Sloths have very complex stomachs to digest these plant foods, and maintain a very low metabolic rate and low body temperature. They were the largest package of meat available to the earliest human hunters in the Caribbean, and their slow demeanor made them easy to capture.

The Caribbean islands have been described as having a depauperate terrestrial fauna (a fancy way of saying that there are not a lot of land animals). Recent paleontological studies have shown that this was not always the case. Crocodiles, iguanas, tortoises, and dozens of birds disappeared from many islands soon after humans arrived. With regard to mammals, Charles Woods and Gary Morgan (formerly with the Florida Museum of Natural History) have identified what they call the 12% solution. Only 12% of the mammals that lived in the Caribbean in the past still survive today; the other 88% were driven to extinction, while new mammals have been introduced during historic times. The Taínos only had 11 names for mammals — four are for different kinds of dogs, five are rodents, and the last two live in the sea.

The main mammals of interest during Taíno times were the hutía and the cori (guinea pig). Hutía are a cat-size rodent that was endemic to many Caribbean islands, but there is also evidence that the Taínos and their ancestors moved them to other islands where they were penned and managed as a food source. There is evidence that guinea pigs were introduced from South America and moved around the islands in a similar way. Oviedo described the guinea pigs as similar to rabbits or young conies, noting, “they are not vicious and are very pretty. Some are entirely white, while others are white spotted with red and other colors.”

By the time Europeans arrived these animals were in such short supply that they were reserved as food for the chiefs. Although one might assume that only the chiefs were allowed to eat them, they played a more important role in the redistribution of foods during periodic feasts. In other words, the chiefs may have controlled their distribution, but everyone who attended the feast was allowed to eat them.

Populations of hutía can still be found in Jamaica (where they are called “coneys”) and Cuba. In fact, the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanámo Bay has a huge problem with these furry critters. Populations have grown dramatically within the boundaries of the base where they have no natural predators. One complication for the naval personnel is that these rodents commonly gnaw through the brake and coolant lines of their vehicles, so all of the cars and trucks have chicken wire attached to the chasse. Despite population control efforts, the “banana rat” (so named for their banana-shaped scat) is thriving.

There is a similar problem in the Bahamas. About 20 years ago the Bahamas National Trust decided to relocate hutías from the last natural population on the Plana Cays (near Acklins Island) to a cay in the Exumas called Warderick Wells. The favored food of hutía seems to be the bark of young trees, and the result has been nearly complete deforestation of the cay. Population studies have shown that in spite of the fact that hutía produce few offspring per year, the adults apparently never die! The population has grown at an exponential rate for the past 20 years. A further complication is that originally it was believed that hutía couldn’t swim and that it would be possible to confine them to a single island. Yet today there are hutía living on two cays adjacent to Warderick Wells and their voracious appetite is having similar devastating consequences for the vegetation. The Bahamas National Trust Scientific Advisory Committee is now discussing the challenge of saving an endangered species while preserving the local vegetation.

Rodents have long been part of the human diet. For the Taínos the hutía was a tasty treat reserved for special occasions. Today we view rodents as disgusting and distasteful (as lampooned in the Monty Python skit where “rat” was every other item on the menu, not to mention Spam). Our disgust with rats (rodents) comes from our experiences with the Norwegian rat (Rattus rattus). Not only do they pilfer crops, they also carry a variety of diseases, including the bubonic plague. Eating our food supply is one thing, but killing millions of people is quite another. [But we like mice, especially in Florida, where Mickey contributes millions of dollars per year to the state’s economy.]

The Norwegian rat was a stowaway on Columbus’ first voyage. During the excavation of the archaeological site at En Bas Saline, Haiti, Dr. Kathleen Deagan found that many of the animal bones in this site attributed to Columbus’ first settlement in the New World were from rats and pigs. Current evidence suggests that the Spanish contingent at En Bas Saline is Fort La Navidad, which was established after the sinking of the Santa Maria. As Kathy describes it, she found the evidence for the first rat to abandon a sinking ship in the Americas!

Archaeological and paleontological studies have shown that there was never a great diversity of mammals in the Caribbean islands. The one exception may be bats. This situation changed with the arrival of Europeans who brought horses, pigs, donkeys, new types of dogs, cats, rats, etc. These new mammals have had a huge impact on the local cultures and environments. Lacking competitors, and preying on animals that had lacked other predators for centuries, they transformed the Caribbean landscape. In many places they are now considered pests, and local governments are looking for humane ways to eradicate them. In essence we are looking at the potential for a new wave of mass extinction in the islands.

Returning to the underappreciated sloth, Oviedo wrote, “I have never seen such an ugly animal or one that is more useless.” But we think sloths actually have a sort of “Teddy bear” appearance, and are surprised that they have not achieved the same status as koalas, baby seals, and lemurs in the cute, cuddly, stuffed animal market.

Even though the sloth was literally “eaten off” of these islands over 4,000 years ago, this animal reminds us of what many of us love about life in the islands, particular the ritual of slowing down, turning to face the eastern tradewinds, and slowly digesting your evening meal. The animal may be gone, but they remain emblematic. The modern attraction to the Caribbean islands can at times be pretty well summed up by the seven deadly sins.  Sloth, while on vacation, is the least objectionable.

(We would be remiss if we did not also mention the seven heavenly virtues:  chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility. We will leave the Boy Scout law out of this for the time being.)

1Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, Natural History of the West Indies (translated and edited by Sterling A. Stoudemire), Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959 [original 1526].

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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