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Earliest settlers in the Caribbean preferred to live on smaller islands

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Courtney Caine
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« on: November 24, 2008, 11:47:00 pm »

The Times
November 25, 2008

Earliest settlers in the Caribbean preferred to live on smaller islands




A beach on the Turks and Caicos Islands

Norman Hammond, Archaeology Correspondent
The assumption that large islands are more important than small ones in the history of human expansion and settlement has been challenged by new evidence from the Caribbean.

Better access to marine resources and fewer disadvantages seem to have made even tiny islets preferable locations, according to Professor William Keegan and his colleagues.

Archaeologists had believed that since the settlement of the Caribbean chain, from Trinidad northwards and then westwards to Cuba, had taken place from the South American mainland, the larger islands would have been preferred because they were more like the continent that the voyagers had left.

The land mass of bigger islands could support a more diverse range of habitats and greater numbers of animal species for humans to subsist on, Keegan’s team write in the journal Human Ecology. In addition, the focus of long-term evolutionary patterns has favoured large islands.

“We’ve written history based on the bigger islands, yet not only are we now seeing people earlier on smaller islands, we’re seeing them move in to territories where we didn’t expect them to at the time that they arrived,” Keegan’s team notes.

Small islands had coastlines rich with fish, and the absence of dense woodlands made them more suited to farming and hunting small prey such as iguanas, tortoises and hutias, a cat-sized rodent.

“In the short term small islands often are superior to larger islands, and for a variety of reasons, they were actually people’s first choice,” the investigators say. “They had better wind flow, fewer mosquitoes and more plentiful marine resources. With sufficient water and a relatively small amount of land to grow certain kinds of crops, they had everything one would need.” As an example, all of the small islands along the windward east coast of St Lucia have substantial ceramic artefacts — evidence of settlement — despite being less than one kilometre long.

To date most archaeological excavations have taken place on bigger islands in such countries as Cuba, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, but because prehistoric people were drawn to these small islands, they may tell scientists more than settlements on larger islands about early patterns of life.

Pottery shows that humans often left large islands for small ones, probably initially to take advantage of the abundant marine resources along the coastline.

Shards recovered from the smaller Turks and Caicos islands, for example, were found to have come from Haiti. “Travelling to the Turks and Caicos gave these people an opportunity to get sources of food that weren’t locally available to them,” the team say.

People were drawn by the large varieties of fish, tortoises, iguanas and sea turtles that were in much greater supply on Grand Turk than the island of Hispaniola at the time. Remains from loggerhead turtles as big as 1,000 pounds were excavated from Grand Turk, although sea turtle sizes eventually declined to 60 pounds with over-exploitation. “The high rates of return from capturing these animals far outweighed the costs of getting to Grand Turk,” the researchers argue.

“Such human migration patterns made good economic sense. It was probably easier to sail to other islands than traverse from one end of an island to the other through the overgrown vegetation of tropical woodlands. Most island archaeologists today recognise that the sea was their ancient highway.”

Similar conclusions are being reached in other regions where numerous small and large islands exist, such as the Pacific Ocean.

Human Ecology 36 635-654

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/court_and_social/article5225464.ece
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