Rethinking Puerto Rican Precolonial History

By Lenik, Stephan | Caribbean Quarterly, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Rethinking Puerto Rican Precolonial History


Lenik, Stephan, Caribbean Quarterly


Reniel Rodríguez Ramos, Rethinking Puerto Rican Precolonial History. Caribbean Archaeology and Ethnohistory Series. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2010. 267 pp.

REVIEWED BY STEPHAN LENIK

Rethinking Puerto Rican Precolonial History by Reniel Rodriguez Ramos is an essential step forward in the ongoing re-evaluation of how archaeologists reconstruct the prehistory of the Caribbean islands. As a specialist in lithic, or stone, artefacts, Rodriguez Ramos is able to critique and to refashion how the pre-Columbian past is defined through his analysis of lithic artefacts and a database of radiocarbon dates from archaeological sites in Puerto Rico. From the perspective of the lithics, the author forms a critical counterpoint to the framework for Caribbean prehistory that was pioneered by Yale University archaeologist Irving Rouse during a career spanning more than sixty years. Essentially, Rouse devised a normative, unilineal model in which successive waves of relatively homogeneous cultural groups migrated into the islands. For Rouse, both these migrations and in situ changes are tracked using decorated ceramic fragments, and particularly the modes, or the most frequently occurring attributes. Though there were critics over the years, until the past couple decades Rouse's model dominated work in Caribbean prehistory. Rodriguez Ramos's book joins a growing body of scholarship which is engaged in a critical reappraisal of the Rousian framework, including a number of other books which are also part of the Caribbean Archaeology and Ethnohistory Series at the University of Alabama Press.

As the title clearly states, Rodriguez Ramos's book is concerned with archaeological data, radiocarbon dates, and literature from sites in Puerto Rico as well as Vieques. In fact, it was during Rouse's early work in Puerto Rico that he made important strides toward developing his model which would be extended across the Caribbean islands and into northeastern South America. Rethinking Puerto Rican Precolonial History uses data from the same island to assemble an extensive critique of Rouse. Rodriguez Ramos offers a more fluid and malleable approach as his ideas about interaction, movement and plurality during the pre-colonial period escape the more rigid time-space limitations of Rouse's framework. Many of the same criticisms which Rodriguez Ramos directs at how Puerto Rico's precolonial history has been constructed also relate to other Caribbean islands. At the same time, the book engages with a wider audience by conversing with current ideas in the fields of anthropology and archaeology.

The eight chapters in Rethinking Puerto Rican Precolonial History are rich with data and methods which will provide fodder for debate and discussion for years to come. Even though Rodriguez Ramos builds upon the work of other archaeologists who study stone tools in the Caribbean, his book brings together a range of data to articulate a strong set of arguments regarding the contributions of lithic objects to precolonial history as he provides ample material for more work in this area. Among the more intriguing prospects for future research is the author's finding that lithic artefacts found in Puerto Rican assemblages contain pieces which originate from sources in the IsthmoColombian region. Likewise, upon examining museum collections from regions in Central and South America which border on the Caribbean Basin, Rodriguez Ramos finds artefacts on the mainland which match lithics from the islands. This finding clashes with Rouse's theory that migrations of ceramic-based cultures originated from northeastern South America near the Orinoco River. While Caribbean archaeologists have considered possible links with Central America for some time, and it is accepted that the initial wave of pre-ceramic migrants to the Greater Antilles came from Central America, the documentation of a more sustained period of exchange with IsthmoColombian contexts deserves renewed exploration.

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