Astrolabe

Lucayan Legacies

Images of the past.

By Joanna Ostapkowicz ~ Images By Merald Clark (copyright)

In 2017 during a visit to the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas, I came across a temporary exhibit filled with children’s paintings focusing on island history, both past and present. At the very start of the exhibition were several paintings showing Columbus laying claim to the islands for the Spanish crown, with the local “Indians” (the Lucayans) looking passively on. There were no images “pre-Columbus,” giving the impression that the islands’ history started with that fateful landfall on Guanahani (San Salvador) on October 12, 1492. But what of the centuries of island life that preceded this event, with indigenous settlement going back to AD 700?

Depictions: past, present, future

The absence of this subject matter on the walls of the gallery told its own story. And while the Columbus focus was only a small part of a highly diverse and engaging reflection on some of the histories as well as the issues facing the islands today (tourism, pollution, etc.), it sowed the seed of a venture that aimed to visually re-engage young audiences with the Lucayans.

As part of project SIBA (Stone Interchanges in the Bahamian Archipelago), in collaboration with the National Museums of both The Bahamas and the Turks & Caicos Islands and in consultation with the Bahamas Ministry of Education, a package of educational resource materials has been brought together for use in primary and secondary schools on the islands. These include a set of 10 large posters, featuring commissioned illustrations by artist Merald Clark, alongside teacher’s guides to the content. The information is entirely flexible to the directions in which current and future teaching modules develop.

In this illustration, “Cacique and Emissary,” a Hispaniolan (Taíno) emissary presents a siba (stone celt) to the Lucayan cacique, who welcomes him to his village.

The aim is to show the Lucayans within the context of their own histories—not as backdrops to European history—and to highlight the rich archaeological heritage of the region. The artworks, which are inspired by the many unique artefacts that have been recovered over the last century, reflect the latest understandings of the archaeology of the archipelago. They focus on various subjects, from the skills needed to carve a canoe or weave a hammock, to food production, to the social dynamics and trade networks that linked the Lucayans to their southern neighbours in Cuba and Hispaniola. These images are intended as windows onto a Lucayan past, to spur imagination and engagement in classrooms. 

The background information to the content of these illustrations took several years to complete. The journey through the archaeology and history of the region, through the many museums that held Lucayan collections, and ultimately to the discussions about how to bring these myriad aspects to “life,” has been enormously rewarding, and for me the highlight of the SIBA project. Working with such a gifted artist—an anthropologist, scientific illustrator and educator rolled into one—has been both a privilege and pleasure. Over the course of 2019, e-mails would fly back and forth, sometimes a dozen each day, as we worked out the themes and content. I would send Merald photos of artefacts, and next thing I knew they were captured within a remarkably realistic scene. His depictions of the Lucayans are meticulous in detail: critically, they are not depicted as placid, timid shadows, but people who lived lives, who had their own histories. That these illustrations are strikingly different to what we might expect is because they debunk some of the stereotypes that still persist about the Lucayans, including the long-held assumption that they were a simple people leading a simple life. Below, the illustrations and some of the concepts behind them are explored in six selected examples. 

Envisioning the Lucayans: a reappraisal

“The Fisherfolk” depicts three divers in the water spearfishing,
while two wait in the canoe at the water’s surface for the catch to come in.

Lucayan histories do not start with Columbus, yet it is his words that have long defined our perceptions of them as a “gentle, peaceful, and very simple people.” (Colón, 1992) On that fateful date of October 12, 1492, after laying claim to the island of Guanahani for the Spanish crown with full pomp and ceremony, Columbus describes his reception by the native inhabitants: 

“ . . . they came swimming to the vessels’ boats . . . [bringing] parrots, spun cotton in little balls, javelins, and many other things; and they traded them to us for . . . small glass beads and bells. In short, they took everything and gave of what they had willingly; but it seemed to me that they were a very poor people in every way. They all go around naked, just as their mothers bore them, the women too, although I saw no more than one very young girl. All those whom I saw were young men—for I saw no one of an age greater than thirty years—very well made, with very beautiful bodies and very pleasant features. They have thick, short hair, almost like the hairs of a horse’s tail. They wear their hair cut above their eye-brows, except for a portion in back which they wear long and never cut. Some of them paint themselves dark, but they are the color of the Canary Islanders, neither black nor white. And some of them paint themselves white, and some red, and some whatever color they find. Some paint their faces and some their bodies, some only their eyes or only their noses . . . They are general of good height and have a fine bearing, and they are well made.” (Lardicci (ed), 1999)

The stereotype of naked, “primitive simplicity” (Colón, 1992) has remained largely unquestioned to this day. Less referenced, perhaps because they were less sensationalistic, are Columbus’ comments on how the Lucayans were “fluent in speech and intelligent” (he enslaved six for use as translators) (Colón, 1992), and that they did actually wear body ornaments, including cotton naguas (women’s skirts) and “capes,” and gold and other ornaments—in addition to the frequent use of body painting. 

Indeed, Columbus’ accounts of “naked” people continue to blind perceptions of what constituted native dress in the tropics. Seen through the prism of the European gaze, long accustomed to shielding the body along conservative religious and socially prescribed ways, it is not hard to understand their initial shock to this different aesthetic. To the Europeans, drenched (quite literally) in their heavy, layered clothing, the contrast could not have been starker.

A seismic shift was needed to comprehend that the Lucayans followed their own set of socially prescribed ways of dressing, less about modestly covering everything over in order to shield the gaze, more about enhancing and emphasising certain aspects of the body—the head, neck, waist, arms and legs—that collectively made up the social being once adorned. Here, when occasions warranted it, cotton ornaments would wrap the upper arms and waist in geometric weaves, multiple strands of shell or stone beads—occasionally adorned with bone and stone pendants—would interplay against body painting in red, black or white, the ears may have been weighed down with heavy flares, and the hair adorned with feathers or cotton cords enhancing the high-domed shape of the head, itself the product of cultural modification during infancy.

The amount of body ornament used by the inhabitants of the Lucayan archipelago has long been underestimated and underappreciated. Adorning the body is a universal, deep time practice—whether through physical alteration, paint, beautifully crafted textiles, valuable stones or gold, people have re-interpreted their bodies and their identities; no less so the Lucayans. It is time to stop thinking of them simply as “naked.”

The illusion of a tropical idyll

Like Columbus, many modern visitors perceive life on these islands as idyllic. But popular perceptions of a tranquil paradise, with turquoise waters and pink sands, quickly disappear during hurricane season. The wet summer months bring intolerable levels of mosquitos and other biting insects, while the waters have their own share of dangers, including sharks and stingrays. Despite being surrounded by water, many islands completely lack easy access to drinking water—and life cannot be sustained without this, particularly in such a hot, sub-tropical climate.

These limestone islands typically have very shallow, impoverished soils making agriculture a challenge; they do not have hard stone such as basalt, flint or jadeite, materials relied upon in the past to create axes and other tools in order to cut down trees to make canoes, house posts and food vessels, among other essentials. There is nothing simple about dealing with such conditions. The illustrations thus underscore the ways in which the Lucayans adapted to these challenges, from seafaring and fishing, to the production of root crops, to the connections they maintained to their distant “homelands.” 

Realities

“Cassava and Mischief” shows the laborious process of making the Lucayan staple, cassava bread—made from bitter manioc (Manihot esculenta). In the right foreground, large basketry containers hold manioc tubers, scraped clean and ready for the grater board, which the kneeling woman is working with. The resulting pulp is passed to the standing woman, who packs it into a long woven tube before hanging it from the wooden frame beside her. She will pass the Y-shaped pole (currently tied to the framework) through the tube’s bottom loop; when she presses down upon it, the tube tightens around the manioc pulp, squeezing its poisonous juices out into the ceramic bowls at her feet.

What is left is raw flour, which is ground and sifted before being passed to the women cooking in the nearby shelter. The flour is spread thinly over a griddle and toasted on both sides before being put onto the thatched rooftop to cool. A pair of parrots (guacamayas) and dogs (aon) keep the women company as they work—both were kept as pets by the Lucayans.

The “mischief” in the title refers to the two mischievous boys who pester the women at their work until their aunt gently admonishes them to behave. This scene would have been a regular, potentially daily, occurrence, from processing the manioc roots to making the fresh, toasted bread, to the pleasant social interactions and distractions that made light the work. Other crops would have also been important—including maize, yams, sweet potato, chili peppers, beans and gourds. Working the gardens, gathering plants and hunting would have been daily activities that absorbed much time. 

Food from the land was complemented by that from the sea. The Lucayans were skilled swimmers and divers, and much of their food came from the surrounding waters. The “Fisherfolk” illustration depicts three divers in the water spearfishing in the sun-dappled shallows, while two wait in the canoe at the water’s surface for the catch to come in. One diver has speared a parrotfish, while another holds a conch aloft as he swims closer to the canoe. The diver on the right faces out to the viewer, reaching for the conch spotted among the turtle grass. He holds in his hand a fishing harpoon, tipped with a stingray spine. In the distance a curious turtle surveys the scene, and a variety of fish, including grouper, snapper and grunts, circle cautiously in the periphery. 

Remains of these mammals, fish and shellfish have been recovered from Lucayan archaeological sites and were consumed as part of the local diet as grouper, snapper and conch still are today. The scene, however, is not as innocent as it first appears. It touches upon two themes for students to explore further—the sensitivity of natural resources to over-predation, then and now (e.g., overharvesting of conch is depleting stocks at an alarming rate), and the fate of the Lucayans.

The Spanish enslaved the Lucayans specifically for their diving skills, which were in high demand for the pearl fisheries off the coast of Venezuela during the early colonial period. They were forced to dive for pearls to unsafe depths, with little rest and under dangerous conditions; many died as a result. The underwater scene therefore links two threads —showing traditional life and hunting skills, and touching upon how these skills were taken advantage of by the colonisers. 

Artistry and craft: ceramics, cotton 

“Palmetto Potters” shows some of the steps in making Palmetto Ware, as Lucayan ceramics are known.

When it came time to process the food—whether from land or sea—containers would have been important for storage and cooking, including basketry and ceramics. While baskets do not survive in the archaeological record, ceramic fragments (sherds) are commonly found, and they provide a unique perspective on people’s adaptation to the Lucayan archipelago.

The early settlers initially brought with them ceramics from their homelands, but once permanently settled on the islands they had to create ceramics using the resources to hand, as shown in the illustration “Palmetto Potters.” Unlike the volcanic islands to the south, the Lucayan archipelago had relatively poor clay sources: the red local loams or clays found in swales, mangrove swamps, inland lakes and ponds were used, together with a burnt shell temper for added strength.

Palmetto Ware, as Lucayan ceramics are known, are one of the key markers of native adaptation to the islands. These ceramics first started appearing ca. AD 800 and were still in use when Columbus arrived in the region. Some of the steps of manufacture are set out in the illustration, showing, at left, the young girl kneading together the shell temper and clay, while one woman smooths a large coiled vessel and the other decorates the rim of a semi-hardened vessel with the end of a reed, creating what archaeologists call a “punctate” design. In front of them is a series of characteristic vessel shapes, including a flat griddle used to toast cassava. They will all be imprinted on their bases by the woven pattern from the mat they are resting on—another common element to Lucayan pottery. In the background is a pile of firewood ready for the next stage in the manufacturing process: the firing of the ceramics in open, shallow pits requiring a temperature of ca. 900ºC to harden the clay and make the vessels useable. 

Cotton was a trade commodity among the Lucayans —they readily offered it to Columbus and his crew, which means they had it in excess and viewed it as a valuable, with the expectation that it was valued by others. This should not be surprising: it was on Long Island, The Bahamas that the Spaniards first saw woven cotton hammocks and people wearing cotton ornaments; clearly, cotton was ubiquitous, and in regular use in the region. 

When Columbus travelled on to Cuba and Hispaniola, he found hammocks and other woven goods were brought out for exchange, and heavily beaded, ornate belts were given to him as gifts (Ostapkowicz, 2013). It is likely that cotton had a standard value across the region—recognised by all indigenous groups as something useful and esteemed. And while the Spanish recorded cotton goods, they unfortunately did not record how they were made. Given the size of hammocks, some type of loom was likely used, and as no complete looms survive from the pre-Columbian Caribbean, we must rely on evidence from the surrounding regions, where looms have been used for millennia, and continue to be used today.

The loom featured in “The Weavers” illustration is a back-strap style common among the Arawak-speaking groups of South America, and is often called the “Arawak loom.” Given that the Lucayans were Arawak speakers, it seems appropriate (there is a different type of Caribbean loom more commonly seen among the Carib-speakers, such as the Kalinago of the Lesser Antilles), but whether this was the version the Lucayans used is, at best, a guess. The benefit of this style of loom is that it could be used for a variety of weave sizes—from small cotton naguas to hammocks—simply by adjusting the sizes of the warp and wefts and/or the wooden framework. In this scene, an elder sits by the side of the bohio (house) weaving a hammock in the company of her granddaughter, who is spinning new cotton twine, while the pet pup and parrot are enjoying a bit of play with an unravelling spindle whorl. 

Trade

Trade linked the many islands in the archipelago to each other and to communities on Hispaniola and/or Cuba and beyond. Evidence for the circulation of goods is recovered at archaeological sites in the region—from imported ceramics to exotic stone artefacts (celts, pendants and beads). The Lucayans would trade their own goods in return, including cotton and parrots, as mentioned in Columbus’ accounts, and quite possibly other perishables, such as baskets, salt and salted fish or conch. 

The small, perfectly made shell beads that are commonly found at sites were likely made for export. The site of Governor’s Beach (GT-2), Grand Turk, for example, was a shell bead production site, where thousands of beads and bead-making scrap were recovered (Carlson, 1993). People would likely barter in small exchanges between neighbouring communities, but caciques (chiefs) or “big men” may have controlled longer distance trade for desirable objects such as gold and stone ornaments.

In the “Cacique and Emissary” illustration, a Hispaniolan (Taíno) emissary presents a siba (stone celt) to the Lucayan cacique, who welcomes him to his village with an entourage of family members ceremonially painted and attired in a rich variety of stone and shell ornaments (including belts, naguas, necklaces and ear flares). The emissary has come to offer in trade the stone artefacts from his village, which are not available in the Lucayan archipelago, for the small shell beads so expertly made in the region. The ceremonial nature of this exchange underscores that these inter-island connections were not simply about accessing materials and artefacts, but about the social connections that bound people together in these long-distance networks. 

Legends, stories, histories

“Beyond the Everyday” is perhaps the most immersive and evocative of the illustrations, encouraging a consideration of aspects of Lucayan culture that were an integral part of their lives: their histories and beliefs. In the background, a seated group listens to the cacique recount a myth, while in the foreground, two young girls contemplate the night sky. They can hear the story even where they sit, and reflect on its meaning. Through the skillful words of the orator, their familiar world—the village, gardens, beach and forest—expands to fill with ancestors, heroes, spirits and supernatural creatures. Whether an origin story, recounting the first people’s migration to these islands, or a myth relating how the hawksbill turtle acquired its beautiful shell patterns, the stories are told and retold, and so remembered by the following generations. There is much wisdom to these tales, useful in teaching values and morals to each new generation, while also keeping the elders, who heard (and recounted) versions of each story innumerable times, involved and entertained. Through listening to these stories, the girls grow in awareness of their place within the community, and in respect for the wider world—both physical and supernatural—around them. 

No Lucayan myths or histories were recorded in early Spanish accounts, or otherwise passed down to us, so we can never know the details of their stories. But it is important to engage with these unknowns; it helps to acknowledge the undoubtedly rich tapestry of their traditions. They, like us, enjoyed a good story. But stories and legends were not simply a pleasant distraction. They reflected social mores and guided on correct conduct. They built a community’s identity and marked their place in the world. 

Prehistory as history

The unifying theme running throughout the illustrations is that prehistory should also be viewed as history. In the Lucayan archipelago, history does not start in 1492 with Columbus simply because this is the first time a European wrote about these islands; histories exist without being written. Long before the arrival of Europeans, the people who made the islands their home had their own sagas —recounted and inherited by each subsequent generation. These were not silent communities. Their histories were their lived experiences—and those of the ancestors before them—and the sites and artefacts that survive are testimony to their skills in adapting to the unique environment of the Lucayan archipelago.

For more information about project SIBA, visit https://siba.web.ox.ac.uk. The project is funded by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Sources

Colón, Fernando 1992. The Life of the Admiral Christopher Columbus by His Son Ferdinand, Translated by Benjamin Keen, pp 59–60, 64, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick. 

Lardicci, Francesca (ed), 1999. Repertorium Columbianum: Volume VI: A Synoptic Edition of the Log of Columbus’s First Voyage, p 48, Geoffrey Symcox, General Editor, Brepols, Turnhout, Belgium.

Ostapkowicz, J., 2013. “Made….with admirable artistry”: the context, manufacture and history of a Taíno belt, The Antiquairies Journal, 93:287-317.

Carlson, L. A., 1993. Strings of command: manufacture and utilization of shell beads among the Taíno, MA thesis, University of Florida, Gainesville.



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