The Earliest Inhabitants: The Dynamics of the Jamaican Taíno

By Rampersad, Sabrina R. | Caribbean Quarterly, June 2009 | Go to article overview

The Earliest Inhabitants: The Dynamics of the Jamaican Taíno


Rampersad, Sabrina R., Caribbean Quarterly


Lesley-Gail Atkinson (Ed.). The Earliest Inhabitants: The Dynamics of the Jamaican Taino. Kingston: The University of the West Indies Press, 2006. 215 pp.

This collection of essays serves as an excellent introduction for both the student and the scholar in the field of Jamaican prehistoric archaeology. For the student it provides a good overview of the approaches taken thus far to Jamaican prehistory and the subject matters chosen for study. For the scholar it is a fine synthesis of key concepts studied in the field, which allows for an assessment of those aspects of Taíno culture that require further academic investigation. For instance, it will become evident to the knowledgeable reader that although a number of important investigations have been conducted in Jamaican pre-Columbian archaeology, knowledge of the island's prehistory is still in its infancy, since many of the larger questions about Jamaican indigenous populations have not yet been addressed in any formal research strategy. Some of these questions include: (1) the study of Taíno settlement patterns across the island of Jamaica, (2) land-use patterns of the Taíno such as burial and settlement distributions, (3) demographic studies that might offer statistics about Taíno numbers and concentrations on the island, (4) large-scale study of Taíno trade networks, and (5) the systematic study of the origins of the Jamaican Taíno, to name but a few significant problems. This book allows for the proper assessment of the state of development of the discipline through its careful selection of essays written by a wide range of individuals from both academic and government spheres.

The book's introduction provided by the editor does not address the essays presented in the text (this is done by section throughout the book), but rather, identifies some basic and essential issues in Jamaican archaeology and prehistory. One notes, for example, the difference between the terms 'Arawak' and 'Taíno,' where the term 'Taíno' has now become the accepted name for the pre-Columbian peoples of Jamaica. Some of the problems in Jamaican archaeology are itemized by the editor, such as the shortage of funding for archaeological work on the island, the general lack of proper field conservation practices, the inadequacy of legislation pertaining to private collections of archaeological materials, and the limited interdisciplinary approach amongst professionals in the field. It should be pointed out, however, that these problems are not unique to Jamaican archaeology. Many countries still lack effective legislation for private collections, for example, and in many ways the problems of Jamaican archaeology are the problems of world archaeology today.

Atkinson also clarifies the erroneous notion that Jamaica's prehistory has not been long studied or adequately addressed, but this is brought out more succinctly in the first chapter co-written by Atkinson and Keegan on the evolution of studies on Jamaican prehistory. In this article Atkinson and Keegan emphasize that the problem, rather, is the general lack of widespread dissemination of the known information on Jamaica's early past. This is a problem that scholars, including senior research students, should seek to address by finding international outlets for the dissemination of their research on Jamaica's prehistory. This first chapter also offers considerable clarity concerning the antiquity of interest in Jamaican prehistory (going back to at least 1774), which comes as a pleasant surprise if one is a newcomer to the discipline. The application of Irving Rouse's developmental archaeological scheme to the story of Jamaican prehistory is effective, for we see from this strategy that Jamaica has just begun to approach its prehistory within the broader context of Caribbean research. Furthermore, it is not until the present stage of our researches that we begin to see specialists' reports such as faunal and ceramic analyses appearing in Jamaican archaeology.

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