Foodways, Life and Archaeology

How ancient people cooked on Providenciales.

Story & Photos By Dr. Andy J. Ciofalo

Food is a social lubricant, which means it brings us together, gets people talking and is a central point of gatherings, holidays and life. Do you remember cooking your last meal? The way you sliced, pounded, boiled or roasted the vegetables damaged small molecules inside them known as carbohydrates (also called starches). These carbohydrates stick to or become ingrained within your pots, pans and other utensils. Hundreds or thousands of years from now, future archaeologists will be able to find some of your leftover food still stuck to your kitchenware: bowls, forks, knives and plates, etc. In essence, this is what is being done now to unfold and retell stories about the daily lives of the people who lived on Providenciales in the Turks & Caicos Islands hundreds of years ago. 

This area in northwest Providenciales likely looks like what the island’s first migrants saw.

Palmetto Junction

Using innovative archaeological methods for reconstructing ancient culinary practices, my research has revealed stories of the original “Belongers” that have never been told. Prior to the arrival of Columbus in 1492, little is known about the daily lives of the Indigenous Peoples who lived in the Turks & Caicos Islands. However, there is some evidence and it is widely believed that the TCI functioned as an interaction sphere and trading hub for Hispaniola (comprised of modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic).

Since 2014, I have been carrying out archaeological fieldwork on Providenciales. Students and team members from the University of Central Florida and Leiden University in the Netherlands have been working on this area now known as Palmetto Junction, which is located along a narrow isthmus on the western end of Providenciales. Radiocarbon dating of several types of cultural remains such as charcoal from fires, animal bones and shell have provided calibrated dates of AD 1391 ± 41 years, which helps suggest that Palmetto Junction was regularly occupied for more than 100 years prior to European invasions. Palmetto Junction is also one of the largest sites discovered in the Bahama archipelago (The Bahamas + the Turks & Caicos Islands), covering nearly 20,000 square meters of activity areas and likely households. 

Students excavate an archaeological unit at “Palmetto Junction.”

Archaeologists clamor over old trash piles because of the vast amount of information able to be recovered about peoples’ daily lives and particularly what they ate. Palmetto Junction is exceptional for the Bahama archipelago because it has more than 20 middens (trash pits). From these remains, it appears reef fish and hutia (a type of rodent) contributed a significant portion of meat prepared for consumption. Typically, plant remains do not preserve well in tropical areas because organic remains decompose quickly in humid and hot soils. However, cutting-edge methods and techniques allow archaeologists to reconstruct and hypothesize how plants were used in the past. This is one of the topics from my PhD dissertation entitled “Starchy Foodways: Surveying Indigenous Peoples’ culinary practices prior to the advent of European invasions in the Greater Caribbean.”

Secrets of starch

Starch is a simple form of a carbohydrate and 98% of plants produce starch. They are small molecules, which average in size at roughly half the width of a human hair follicle (20 microns). Based on their size, shape and a variety of other characteristics, starches can be identified to certain botanical taxonomic (scientific classification) levels and they preserve well in tropical areas.

After recovering artifacts that were possibly used in ancient kitchens, such as ceramic pots, clay griddles (flat cooking plates), shell knives, limestone tools and more, they are delicately scraped with dental picks to dislodge microbotanical (starch) remains. After weeks of excavation and lab work in Providenciales, these samples were brought to the Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University in the Netherlands. I use a high-power microscope to find and identify starches from the samples. Carefully and tediously, each starch is identified, which reveals the types of plants that were prepared. Additionally, ancient cooking methods and other culinary practices such as grating, grinding and pounding leave visible damages to some of the starches. The way the starches were damaged or altered allows me to interpret how people in the Turks & Caicos Islands prepared their vegetables.

Hot off the griddle

When Europeans first invaded the Americas (AD 1492), manioc was referred to by the Arawak name yuca and only the flatbread made from this type of tuber was called cassava (originally cazabi). The name manioc is derived from the South American Tupían word maniot, with the first written record from the 1550s on the coast of Brazil. Because the Spanish chronicles mentioned cassava bread so frequently and described its production using clay griddles, for centuries archaeologists assumed this was the only function of clay griddles. At the beginning of the millennium (AD 2002), starch analysis was first applied in the Caribbean and the researchers discovered that many other plants, such as maize (corn), sweet potato, bean and cocoyam were prepared on clay griddles in the Caribbean. However, manioc was absent from the results of these initial investigations.

My dissertation discovered that many of the clay griddles recovered from Providenciales were used to cook manioc as well as maize and Zamia (also known as coontie, a poisonous but nutritious plant not currently found in the Turks & Caicos Islands). The use of zamia, yam, manioc, sweet potato and the prevalence of recovered maize offers a narrative that there was consistent and unrestricted use of maize as well as a diversity of root crops used by Indigenous Caribbean Peoples.

This bowl may have been used to make a fermented chocolate beverage by indigenous Caribbean Peoples.

Shells involved

Another significant finding from this work was based on a comparison of shell artifact samples from two sites in the Dominican Republic and Palmetto Junction. This case study provides additional evidence for the use of exogenous (originating from outside the research area) plants in the northern Caribbean and recognizes culinary practices according to which certain plants were pre-cooked before being processed further using bivalve shells. From the data, it appears that processing heated plants with shells was a successful and reinforced culinary practice spanning these two islands and three sites.

Humanizing with food

This does not imply that all three sites were connected or interacting, but perhaps they were situated within a constellation of practice. Interpretations from this data offer explanations regarding which ways of making food offered modes of stability in dynamic environments. Manioc, sweet potato, beans, certain types of yams and maize were exogenous to the Greater Antilles and the Bahama archipelago. In addition, they require human assistance for cultivation. Accordingly, recoveries of remains of these plants imply mobility and exchange or ultimately transported landscapes from different areas to these islands.

The comparison of results has exposed particular human niche constructions, several exogenous plants that were mobilized for trade and/or human-adaptation to these islands. This is a story of people who were constantly moving around and traveling from island to island with products for trade and plants to help settle new locations, in effect humanizing the new environments creating familiar and consistent forms of food. 

Bowls, baskets and Red Bull

One technique used in pottery making was placing unfired ceramics in baskets. Either this was done because the clay in the Bahama archipelago is low quality or because the potters liked the weaving impressions left on the clay from the baskets. In 2017, a fragment of one of these pots with two different weaving patterns visible on the exterior was recovered. From the interior, I took a sample back to the lab and discovered this bowl was special. Based on the numerous starches recovered, I interpreted that this ceramic bowl was used to make a fermented (possibly alcoholic) chocolate beverage that was sweetened with maize (corn) and spiced with chili pepper.

Another stunning discovery and new mystery was a limestone bowl artifact. When I analyzed the sample recovered from this artifact, the diversity of plant remains was shocking. There was maize, cocoyam, another type of yam and bean starches. The diversity of plants that was processed in this bowl led to the suggestion that this bowl was used to prepare an energizing drink. Today, many commercial energy drinks use caffeine, sugarcane or taurine for their sources of vitality. However, this ancient energy drink used the carbohydrates of local plants to provide power to those who consumed it while living at Palmetto Junction.

Ancestry discovery

Based on collated information, the inhabitants of Palmetto Junction were likely descendants of migrants who arrived to the Greater Antilles centuries or millennia before, eventually inhabiting the Turks & Caicos Islands. They mastered the production of maize, manioc, sweet potato, chili pepper, bean, palm, zamia and yam for food and combined them with other culinary practices rooted in Antillean traditions of human-plant interrelationships.

Because a majority of the plants identified did not originate in the Greater Antilles or the Bahama archipelago and they require human assistance for cultivation, these plants were likely a significant part of trade and transported landscapes when brought to Providenciales.

Looking through the window of time

Before beginning this quest, I never imagined the beauty of looking through the microscope at ancient plant remains and the ensuing interpretations of human behaviors. The foodways approach for archaeobotanical investigations is knowledge I am now able to share with the world and take an immense pleasure with this responsibility. 

Archaeologists reconstruct and tell stories of life-ways that have been forgotten or never told. The way plants were modified at Palmetto Junction provides a glimpse through a window in time into their daily lives. From what was discovered, these lives were vibrant, dynamic and highly diverse. The people investigated here were seldom written about by early Europeans. Thus, to reconstruct how Indigenous Caribbean Peoples lived was an effort to valorize their heritage. The more refined descriptions of past life-ways offer more of the story on how Caribbean lives were and are culturally diverse, intensive and thriving.

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