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Who First Made the Caribbean Home?

ocals in the Bahamas will tell you the best time for beachcombing is after a big storm. There’s a rumor, unconfirmed, that on one such beach trip, people found gold coins. And on one such October day in 2015, in the aftermath of Hurricane Joaquin, three Long Island locals found two human skulls.

The skulls were from Lucayans, the first Indigenous people of the Bahamas, who lived in the region from about 800 to the early 1500s. The foreheads were purposely flattened, which was a common practice of this group. Additional bones peeked out from a nearby sand dune. The beach explorers finished their walk, headed home, and contacted the Bahamas National Museum’s Antiquities, Monuments, and Museum Corporation (AMMC), the governmental agency responsible for archaeology.

Eventually, in 2016, I got a call in my office in Florida. “Can you come to the Bahamas next week?” The voice on the other end of the phone belonged to Keith Tinker, the AMMC’s director at the time. He explained that there was a small window of opportunity. This was the first Indigenous sand dune burial ever reported in the Bahamas, and the people who discovered it would only be on the island for another week. We needed their help to relocate the burials.

Hurricane Matthew battered the Bahamian capital of Nassau three days after the call, and I assumed that the trip was off. But at week’s end, I was driving from the airport to the AMMC office in Nassau, past broken trees and palm fronds piled on the sides of flooded streets. Power was still out across much of the island of New Providence. The next morning, I joined my friend and colleague Michael Pateman, then chief archaeologist at the AMMC, to take a flight to Long Island.

Pateman and I excavated two adjacent burial areas. The first held an adult male buried face down with his arms bound behind his skull. The second had a double burial: an adult male buried face down directly on top of a tightly bundled adult female. She may have been wrapped in a hammock, which was not preserved. Her hands and feet had been removed at the time of her death and had been repositioned, with her right hand covering her face.

These were the first Lucayan burials ever excavated from a sand dune. Almost all of the human remains encountered previously were in caves, caverns, or sinkholes. The reasons for different ways of burying the dead, including the choice of different locations and the manner in which they were buried, are a mystery.

There were no cultural remains such as pottery or tools with the burials, so we decided to look more broadly in the vicinity for hints of why these people were buried in the dunes. We devoted the next two field seasons, in 2016 and 2017, to looking for evidence of Lucayan activities.

Through this research, we documented, for the first time, campsites on the Bahamian Atlantic coast; long-term changes in the coastline; the use of earth ovens for preparing meals; the remnants of the first starch grains on tools found in this region, from maize, manioc, and Zamia (a local edible root). Across the island more generally, we found evidence that Lucayans moved around a lot, pursuing what has been called “casual cultivation.” This means the vegetation is cut, allowed to dry, and then burned. Crops are then grown for a few years, after which gardens are abandoned to fallow and new gardens are cleared. This was a different way of life than the more sedentary agricultural economy attributed to the Indigenous Taíno during this same time period on the neighboring Greater Antilles islands.

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