Natural History

They’re Back!

“Talking Taino” authors return with a new take on an old tale.

By Bill Keegan, Betsy Carlson and Michael Pateman


Hopefully the announcement that we’re back won’t cause flashbacks to the Steven Spielberg film “Poltergeist” (Fox/MGM, 1982). We are back, and this time we packed a suitcase. Between 2003 and 2007, Bill and Betsy wrote 20 essays under the banner “Talking Taíno” for Times of the Islands, focusing on the indigenous inhabitants of the Lucayan islands. The Lucayans were the first inhabitants of the Bahama archipelago (living there from 1,400 to 500 years ago). Because the archipelago is today comprised of two countries—The Commonwealth of the Bahamas and Turks & Caicos Islands—we follow the suggestion of Commodore Tellis Bethel (Bahamas Defense Force) and refer to the Islands with an anglicized version of their Spanish name, “Las Islas de Los Lucayos.” 

After conducting archaeological research here for more than 40 years, we have a lot of stories to share.We wrote the first set of essays knowing that many of you share our passion for the Islands and the often-fascinating stories of the natural world. Our trope was using Taíno words recorded by the Spanish to view the Islands, and all of their inhabitants, from a historic perspective. The problem is that surprisingly few Taíno words survive, and we eventually ran out of clever ideas for combining language and history.

This Theodore Morris painting depicts the innocence of the native peoples of the Caribbean.

This time we have decided not to limit ourselves to the Taíno lexicon. Sometimes what you don’t say is more important than what you do say. For centuries, the native Caribbean was viewed only through the writings of the Spanish invaders. Yet archaeologists soon realized that the material evidence often did not match those depictions. In related studies of the enslaved Africans who were brought to the Americas, the field of Historical Archaeology seeks to give voice to those who left no written records—those described by historian Michael Craton as the “invisible man.”

Language, biology and comparisons with living peoples provide important clues. However, it is the objects, features, stains, chemical signatures and the ways these are arranged in time and space that informs our detective work. These are the tools that allow archaeologists to write the past.

We hope to make this an interactive column. We will not just report on research findings, but rather encourage you to become active participants in the research process. We have a number of new ideas. We want to know what you think, so please send us your thoughts by contacting Times of the Islands at

As so often happens in the Islands, our latest project began in the aftermath of Hurricane Joaquin, a Category 4 storm with sustained winds of 150 MPH, which parked itself over Long Island (central Bahamas) for three days at the beginning of October 2015. The results were devastating. Surveying the damage to Lowe’s Beach, local residents Nick Constantakis with Nick and Anthony Maillis found two skulls on the beach and evidence of human bones protruding from the dune face. The human remains were Lucayans, and the discovery was reported to the Bahamas National Museum.

A year later Michael and Bill were sent to investigate. The burial excavation that began in 2016 created its own whirlwind. The absence of artifacts in association with the burials led to new surveys, new sites, new excavations and new questions. Much of what we found is unlike anything we expected. We will share these results in future issues.

The project had unanticipated consequences. Dr. Keith Tinker, then Director of The Bahamas Antiquities, Monuments and Museum Corporation, arranged several public lectures for us. He involved us in planning “The Lucayan Experience,” an outdoor exhibit at the Clifton National Heritage Park in Nassau. We also created an exhibit about the burial excavations for the Long Island Museum. But these were just events. The Bahamas Ministry of Education (and the social sciences teachers) had bigger plans.

Ms. Perelene Baker, Social Sciences Education Officer for the Bahamas Ministry of Education (BME) invited us to teacher workshops and asked us to update the curriculum for the Lucayan component of the history curriculum. The history component of the Bahamas Junior Certificate Examination (BJCE) lists eight topics concerning “Arawak Lifestyle” on which students are tested. The exams are written and graded in England, and have received limited local input. Thus, the long-held belief that the indigenous Lucayans were socially and culturally identical to the “Arawaks” (renamed Taínos in the 1980s) in the Greater Antilles resulted in a very biased representation. Early Spanish depictions of the indigenous inhabitants of Cuba and Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic) came to represent life for the Lucayans, even if couched as a more rural expression. Yet beginning with Shaun Sullivan’s pioneering archaeological research in the TCI almost 50 years ago, a portrait has emerged of the distinctive character of Lucayan lifeways. The Lucayans were unique. Our essays will highlight their uniqueness. But first, back to school.


The contents of a James B. Rowan Discovery Box includes about 50 different ancient artifacts and modern replicas.

We were shocked by how outdated and often inaccurate the educational resources available to teachers are. For example, it is well known that the Lucayans flattened their foreheads; perhaps to enhance their beauty but certainly as a permanent marker of their identity. One book illustrates this as an infant with their skull being pressed flat on a wood fulcrum that looks like some kind of medieval torture device. Yet, cranial modification is usually accomplished by tightly binding an infant’s head to a flat board on the back of the skull with the equivalent of a bandana. About six months of binding is sufficient to reshape the arrangement of the six main cranial bones before the skull bones fuse. And with regard to “Arawak recreation,” no information, nothing, was discussed in any of the classroom materials. (We’ll correct that in a future essay.)

Michael and Bill prepared a Teacher’s Guide describing Lucayan lifeways which the BME distributed to every teacher, and which we carried into classrooms. Local interest and enthusiasm was inspiring. We did classroom visits and took students on Long Island to an archaeological dig; four schoolteachers from S. C. Bootle Secondary School in Coopers Town joined our team during fieldwork on Abaco and 250 middle and high school students attended a program on Grand Bahama. Additionally, PowerPoint was used to assist with the redevelopment of the Turks & Caicos history curriculum through the Department of Education and integrated into the Turks & Caicos National Museum’s Heritage Quiz sponsored by FortisTCI. We do these programs when we can, but the goal is to build local capacity and expertise.

The piece de resistance came at the request of teachers during a workshop in Nassau. A variety of Lucayan artifacts were brought to the workshop to give the teachers a hands-on experience. Not surprisingly, the teachers wanted these for their classrooms. So, we assembled a collection of about 50 Lucayan artifacts and modern replicas and packed them in suitcases so they could be transported safely and easily to schools across the Islands. The untimely death of James Rowan, an archaeology enthusiast with a house on Long Island, provided the funding. His wife Susan adopted the project as her husband’s memorial fund, with which four “James B. Rowan Lucayan Discovery Boxes” were produced. Currently, three are in The Bahamas and one in the Turks & Caicos. More are planned.

Artifacts recovered from archaeological excavations in the Lucayan Islands and Greater Antilles were included because they do more good in the schools than they do in museum drawers. Shell tools, coral tools, stone axes and clay pots help to illustrate what life was like without metal tools. Replica cemís (representations of the spirits, also spelled zemi) offer the starting point for discussing beliefs in the spirit world. A bow drill, which is used to make fire through friction, represents a “Lucayan fire box” found in a cave on Crooked Island. (When one enthusiastic student generated a thick plume of smoke at the library on Grand Bahama, the librarian threatened to kick us out.) Face paint can be made by grinding red bixa seeds (a.k.a., annatto) in a wooden mortar.

But perhaps the most popular item is a stuffed animal. Encountering live hutia in the wilds of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba made us realize that the common description for these indigenous rats—“cat-size rodent”—did not do them justice. It turns out they sell a life-size stuffed animal hutia at Guantanamo because they are so common on the Navy base. Elsewhere in Cuba they are hunted and eaten. Still, learning that Bahamian hutia (Geocapromys ingrahami), which are now nearly extinct, were raised to be eaten is often a shock. We’ll spend some quality hutia time in a future essay.

Maize (maíz in Taíno) and manioc (Manihot esculenta) were staple crops, and the tools used to process them stimulate discussion of gardens, recipes and food.  Cassava (casaba in Taíno) is the bread baked from manioc after transforming the tubers into flour. Special preparation techniques are required to make manioc edible—the “bitter” tubers contain toxic cyanide. Manioc tubers were peeled, grated and squeezed to remove the cyanide. Our suitcase contains clamshell scrapers to peel the tubers and a modern cheese grater to create the pulp. Each suitcase also has an authentic “cassava squeezer” (called metapi in the Guianas), although these were included more for show than use. The squeezer is a basket tube that is woven to constrict when pulled from both ends. The poisonous juices are extracted by squeezing the pulp. Authentic cassava squeezers like the ones in the suitcases are rare and today are often made of plastic, but their use can be demonstrated with children’s “Chinese finger traps.” The diagonal weave pulls the ends closed such that fingers are stuck until the tension is released.

It is far too easy to get squeezed into our own world and focus only on personal projects. Fortunately, teachers and students brought us back to reality. A lot has happened since we last wrote “Talking Taíno.” The time for a sequel has arrived. In coming issues we’ll explore new topics and revisit some from the past. The Lucayans share with you the same fragile islands. Learning from them is a path that leads “Back to the Future” (Universal, 1985).

Dr. Bill Keegan is Curator of Caribbean Archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History (University of Florida); Dr. Betsy Carlson is Senior Archaeologist at Southeastern Archaeological Research (SEARCH, Inc.) in Jonesville, FL; and Dr. Michael Pateman is former Director of the Turks & Caicos National Museum and currently Curator/Lab Director of the AEX Maritime Museum on Grand Bahama.

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