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On Land and Sea

Native American Uses of Biological Resources in the West Indies

Written by Lee A. Newsom and Elizabeth S. Wing

Publication Year: 2004

During the vast stretches of early geologic time, the islands of the Caribbean archipelago separated from continental land masses, rose and sank many times, merged with and broke from other land masses, and then by the mid-Cenozoic period settled into the current pattern known today. By the time Native Americans arrived, the islands had developed complex, stable ecosystems. The actions these first colonists took on the landscape—timber clearing, cultivation, animal hunting and domestication, fishing and exploitation of reef species—affected fragile land and sea biotic communities in both beneficial and harmful ways.

On Land and Sea examines the condition of biosystems on Caribbean islands at the time of colonization, human interactions with those systems through time, and the current state of biological resources in the West Indies. Drawing on a massive data set collected from long-term archaeological research, the study reconstructs past lifeways on these small tropical islands. The work presents a wide range of information, including types of fuel and construction timber used by inhabitants, cooking techniques for various shellfish, availability and use of medicinal and ritual plants, the effects on native plants and animals of cultivation and domestication, and diet and nutrition of native populations.

The islands of the Caribbean basin continue to be actively excavated and studied in the quest to understand the earliest human inhabitants of the New World. This comprehensive work will ground current and future studies and will be valuable to archaeologists, anthropologists, botanists, ecologists, Caribbeanists, Latin American historians, and anyone studying similar island environments.



Published by: The University of Alabama Press


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p. vii

List of Figures

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p. ix

List of Tables

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pp. xi-xiii

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pp. xv-xvi

Our aim in writing this book is to present data derived from studies of plant and animal remains from archaeological sites in the West Indies and to use these data to better understand life on these islands in the past. The data that form the basis of this study come from an array of archaeological sites that span the times of occupation from the Archaic to the arrival of Europeans in the Caribbean.

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pp. xvii-xviii

This research could not have been possible without the help of many people and support from a number of organizations. The work was initiated with the support of the National Science Foundation BNS 8903377. The NSF grant grew out of a paper written with the intention of summarizing the status of zooarchaeological work in the Caribbean by 1989 [Wing 1989]. This paper was published in the Biogeography of the West Indies: Past, Present, and Future, edited by Charles A. Woods.

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1. An Introduction to Native American Uses of Biological Resources in the West Indies

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pp. 1-9

Native Americans have a long history in the Caribbean Islands, one spanning more than six millennia. They eventually occupied nearly every island of the archipelago and developed very complex and varied cultures. They quickly adapted to living in the West Indies and became adept at exploiting the natural resources of the island environment. Subsistence, in its broadest sense, is defined as the means of providing the necessities of life, including food and other ...

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2. Environmental Setting

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pp. 10-25

The West Indian archipelago forms a sweeping arc from the coast of Venezuela counterclockwise across the Caribbean basin. The region is part of the Neotropics, though considerable portions of the archipelago are classified climatically as subtropical (Murphy and Lugo 1995; Nieuwolt 1977). The various islands of the Caribbean lie in a closely spaced chain surrounded by warm ocean waters. They can be divided into separate subregions based on their size, ...

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3. Human Colonization of the West Indies

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pp. 26-34

It is important to ask whether biogeographic principles as originally described by MacArthur and Wilson (1967) apply to human colonization of islands (Fitzhugh and Hunt 1997). They apply in two very important ways: (1) humans, like other organisms, have basic biological needs, and (2) islands have limited resources and clear constraints with which human cultures must cope. For colonization to be successful, an island must be large enough and have ...

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4. Sources of Plant and Animal Samples and Methods Used to Study Them

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pp. 35-57

Our objective in undertaking this study is to base it on a good representation of samples that were carefully excavated from sites throughout the Caribbean. We use the word sample to mean an assemblage of plant or animal remains excavated from an archaeological site and associated with a specific context at that site. When sites are small or biological materials are poorly preserved, a sample may encompass the entire group of organisms recovered from the site.

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5. Southern Caribbean Region

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pp. 58-74

The southern region encompasses the islands that lie off the coast of Venezuela. These include the Netherlands Antilles of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao (“ABC” islands), Margarita Island to the east, and the small islands in between. We have not analyzed nor do we have references to comparable studies of faunal or botanical remains excavated from Margarita Island. Therefore, this ...

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6. Lesser Antilles

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pp. 75-113

The Lesser Antilles is an arc of more than 20 small islands forming stepping stones between northeastern South America and the Greater Antilles and Virgin Islands (Figure 6.1). The islands of the Lesser Antilles are relatively close together. Most are close enough for the cloud cover over neighboring islands to be visible. The distances between islands, approximately 50 km, made exploration of the island chain relatively easy.

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7. Greater Antilles and the Virgin Islands

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pp. 114-171

The four islands o f the Greater Antilles—Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico—represent 88% of the landmass of the West Indies (Watts 1987: 4). Associated with the Greater Antilles and to their east are the islands of Vieques, nearby Culebra, and the group of islands known collectively as the Virgin Islands (Figure 7.1). The Virgin Islands and Vieques are situated on the relatively shallow island shelf contiguous with Puerto Rico.

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8. Bahamas Archipelago

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pp. 172-188

The focus of much of the archaeological research on the Bahamas archipelago centers on the timing of the first human colonization of these islands, the source or sources of colonists, and the first sighting of these islands by Europeans. The Bahamas archipelago is composed of two modern nations, the Commonwealth of the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands (Figure 8.1). The Bahamian landscape and natural resources contrast markedly with those ....

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9. Toward a Synthetic Caribbean Paleoethnobiology

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pp. 189-215

The information presented in this volume represents basic data on plant and animal remains from an array of archaeological sites in the West Indies. This crucial biological information from archaeological sites and the ecology of the settled islands is fundamental to interpretations of human colonization and adaptations for life on tropical island archipelagoes. In this chapter we examine some of the constraints and opportunities involved in resource extraction and food production in island ecosystems.

Appendix A

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pp. 217-223

Appendix B

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pp. 224-242

Appendix C

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pp. 243-256

Appendix D

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pp. 257-270

References Cited

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pp. 271-301


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pp. 303-323

E-ISBN-13: 9780817382124
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817313159

Publication Year: 2004

OCLC Number: 320323778
MUSE Marc Record: Download for On Land and Sea

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Plant remains (Archaeology) -- West Indies.
  • Indigenous peoples -- Ecology -- West Indies.
  • Human-animal relationships -- West Indies.
  • Animal remains (Archaeology) -- West Indies.
  • Human-plant relationships -- West Indies.
  • Indians of the West Indies -- Ethnobotany.
  • Indians of the West Indies -- Ethnozoology.
  • West Indies -- Antiquities.
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