Hispaniola: Caribbean Chiefdoms in the Age of Columbus

Hispaniola: Caribbean Chiefdoms in the Age of Columbus

Hispaniola: Caribbean Chiefdoms in the Age of Columbus

Hispaniola: Caribbean Chiefdoms in the Age of Columbus

Synopsis

In 1492 the island of Hispaniola was inhabited by the Taíno, an Indian group whose ancestors had moved into the Caribbean archipelago from lowland South America more than 1,500 years before. They were organized politically into large cacicazgos, or chiefdoms, comprising 70 or more villages under the authority of a paramount cacique, or chief. From the first voyage on, Columbus made Hispaniola his primary base for operations in the New World. Over the subsequent decades, disease, warfare, famine, and enslavement brought about the destruction of the Taíno chiefdoms and almost completely annihilated the aboriginal population of the island. This book examines the early years of the contact period in the Caribbean and in narrative form reconstructs the social and political organization of the Taíno. Wilson describes in detail the interactions between the Taíno and the Spaniards, with special attention paid to the structure and functioning of the Taíno chiefdoms. By providing additional information from archaeology and recent ethnography, he builds a rich context within which to understand the Taíno and their responses to the Europeans. The Taíno are especially important in a New World context because they represent a society undergoing rapid sociopolitical change and becoming more complex through time. The early contact period on Hispaniola gives us a rich ethnohistorical glimpse of the political processes of a complex New World society before (and during) its destruction brought about by the arrival of the Europeans. Samuel M. Wilson is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin.

Excerpt

Five hundred years ago, the island of Hispaniola was the setting for one of the most dramatic encounters in human history. After tens of millennia of virtually total separation, the peoples of the New World and Old World began the process of mutual rediscovery. In the Caribbean, the newly expansionist European nation‐ states encountered the Indians of the New World. The encounter was cataclysmic for the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean, and for those of the island of Hispaniola especially. Ten years after Columbus's arrival all of the indigenous political institutions on Hispaniola had collapsed: twenty-five years after contact more than 90 percent of the population had died.

I undertook this study in part because I was interested in the ways in which complex societies emerged and flourished in human history. I was interested in the appearance and operation of enduring systems of social stratification, and especially in the appearance of political entities in which many villages allied under one leader. Many areas have seen such social and political developments, in many different periods: in Mesopotamia it occurred more than five millennia B. C.; in China complex societies emerged more than 2000 years B. C.; similar developments occurred in Olmec Mesoamerica a millennium later. The complex chiefdoms of the Caribbean emerged in the last few centuries before European contact—between A. D. 800 and 1492.

What circumstances surrounded the emergence of complex societies in the Caribbean? Archaeological data tell us of the migrations of people, the changes in pottery manufacture, artifact typol-

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