For many years, scholars and interested lay people alike have been awaiting the definitive book that would both summarize and elaborate on the history of the Taino Indians and their predecessors in the island Caribbean. This is that book. It provides the first all-encompassing revision of the region’s archaeology and prehistory since Sven Loven’s work on the origins of the Taino culture, written in 1935. Using a lifetime’s experience in this complex field, Irving Rouse has untangled an intricate web of evidence from assorted sources, including not only lithic and ceramic remains but also ethnohistory, physical anthropology, linguistics, and early Spanish chronicles. He presents the successive phases of human expansion into these islands, interspersed with in situ cultural development, over a six-thousand-year period.
It is interesting that Classic Taino mythology suggests an island origin for the immediate pre-Columbian culture, and this book tends to confirm that view. Throughout, the biological and environmental resources available to the developing cultures, and their use of them, are carefully noted. There is some evidence that certain large mammals, for example, the giant sloth, were rendered extinct through overhunting in prehistory, but by and large the text reiterates the conservative nature of pre-Columbian food-producing systems.
In brief, Rouse’s thesis is that during the Lithic Age, the earliest island Caribbean settlers arrived from two directions: from the Yucatán peninsula into Cuba and Hispaniola, commencing circa 4000 b.c., and from South America along the chain of the Lesser Antilles and into Puerto Rico, beginning circa 2000 b.c. A boundary between the two groups was established on the latter island, and it lasted until circa 400 b.c.
What is termed “the first repeopling” of Saladoid Indians then commenced during the latter half of the first millennium b.c. This group pushed northward again through the Lesser Antilles into the Greater Antilles, breaking down the preexisting cultural barriers in the latter. It is argued that Classic Taino culture emerged in Hispaniola during the five hundred years before the arrival of Columbus, with a blossoming of art, artifact, and society. A “second repeopling” refers to Spanish settlement itself. The culture clash between Spanish and Indian populations is well covered. In an epilogue, the Taino contribution to the cultural exchange is reviewed.
This book is well illustrated, and the writing style makes it easy to read. It is a tour de force, essential for anyone interested in the prehistory of the island Caribbean.