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Finding the first natives

MARINA SALANDY BROWN Thursday, December 23 2010

Since the 1980s the accepted version of our history — that Caribs and Arawaks, the two groups Christopher Columbus found in the Caribbean region were the main settlers — has been challenged. In future, unlike in my day, children will not just be taught that the Caribs were bellicose, marauding man-eaters, while the Arawaks were settled and peace loving, because there is much more to our history than that.

Following the Eurocentric view of history, local historians had, until recently, taken 1492 as the beginning of the history of the Caribbean part of the new world, with only a cursory glance back at pre-Colonial times. The reason for this was simply that there was so little tangible evidence of that past, unlike in Mexico or Peru where great civilisations existed and great monuments to power and wealth and culture were undeniable. Writing began in the “new world” with the coming of Europeans, and written records are the basis of conventional history. Only now is the oral tradition being more respected and promulgated and the archaeological proof emerging to produce a broader interpretation and recording of the Caribbean’s long history.

Contributing to this larger discussion are two fascinating films that have been made this year. Buried Treasure, by award-winning veteran documentary-maker Alex de Verteuil, shows and tells us why archaeologists specialising in the Americas consider TT one of the most important locations for the study of the past. These islands, so very close to the South American mainland, were the stepping-stones for different waves of indigenous peoples for 7000 years as they made their way up the island chain, getting as far as Puerto Rico.

There is an abundance of artefacts hidden in the ground in ancient sites throughout TT that reveal what these original natives ate, how they grew and caught food and cooked, and traded. These cultural relics allow the writing of a new history.

Buried Treasure is also a polemic about the state of archaeology in this country. I was surprised to learn that most of the experts are not Trinidadian or Tobagonian in origin. At UWI, archaeology comes under the history department and Dr Basil Reid, who is the resident expert, is from Jamaica. All the other archaeologists, except for one from Trinidad, Archibald Chauharjasingh, who is a layman, are from Europe and the USA. It seems that archaeology as an academic discipline was established very late on here and now there is no indigenous archaeologist or professor of archaeology at UWI, and no government archaeologist to ensure the preservation of ancient relics.

From what I understand, circa 1960s or ‘70s the then government set up the Archaeological Society of Trinidad and Tobago, essentially to monitor the work of Canadian archaeologists on a dig in Tobago, but the Society outlived the Canadians and was only disbanded latterly by Mr Manning’s government. It is unclear whether it has been reconstituted under the present government, but if it does exist it most probably comes under the National Heritage Trust, a government body with a broad remit, too broad, in fact, to be effective with regard to archaeological conservation.

The result is that as we build, we destroy the past. The very places we choose to live in now are the same ones the original natives preferred, so as we develop, we lose treasures of huge significance. With no proper policing of whatever statutes may exist with regard to finding ancient relics, contractors take the easy way out and carry on regardless, as they did when constructing the Twin Towers in PoS. There they simply concreted up the pottery fragments. Mr Chauharjasingh believes there are many more sites to be discovered. This is exciting because locating the past would be a boon for the Caribs and other native communities. The other recent film, The Amerindians, by Tracey Assing deals more with the cultural and spiritual aspects of the Arima Caribs and it is clear that real knowledge of their past is needed.

If I were asked what should be done, I would suggest that an Archaeological Research Institute be founded to give focus to the work going on, to encourage new students, and to reflect the important role TT played in pre-Columbian history. The Institute should have an archaeological/anthropological museum as part of it. The displays at the Carib Cultural Centre in Arima need revitalising, similarly with the ones at the National Museum, while other exhibits are inaccessible at UWI. The time may have come to bring everything together and create a valuable resource, attractive to tourists, that is sustained by the only international academic centre for the study of early Caribbean history. If we do not do something along those lines we will squander yet another unique advantage we have. Maybe there is an opportunity for the private sector to dig deep into its pocket and partner the government in this. Happy Christmas to everyone.

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