Offbeat

Exotic Stone Relics Tell Tales of Pre-Hispanic Cuba

Stone idols discovered late last year depict the Indian civilization that met Christopher Columbus on his first voyage to the New World in 1492. Some of these relics/idols, which were collected over the last two years at an archaeological site in Cuba, reveal that the materials used to create them were actually imported for an elite class of Indians rather than the general populace.

The idols and other relics, which comprised a find of several thousand pottery and stone artifacts along with translations of Spanish colony “newspapers” from the 1500s, tell an important story about the Arawakan Indian population and how they were affected by the early Spanish conquests. According to Jim Knight, a University of Alabama archaeologist who supervised work at the site:

“The stone idols are status symbols. They took exotic, fine-grain metamorphic rocks and gradually reduced them into forms that look very crude, but you can tell that the intended product was an idol. We know now that the society had an elite class and that the crude idols were meant for them. The idols were human-shaped figures representing gods and were likely worn on necklaces.”

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Knight, whose work is funded in part by the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration, believes that although the exact origin of the unusual stone remains a mystery, it was probably imported. Knight is also certain that the Arawakan Indians who occupied the region in all probability met Columbus and his fleet when they first set foot on the soil of the New World, were an agrarian culture relied on root crops rather than corn. Information on the names of tribes and their specific locations is not known.

Historical documents, including handwritten materials such as inventories and accounts by Spanish colonizers of Cuba, although written in an archaic Spanish few understand today, are rich in heretofore-unknown information. John Worth, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of West Florida, is analyzing the documents and had this to say:

“I’m trying to sort through the details of how this all took place. The sources are excellent with respect to the broad generalities of what happened during the 1500s and 1600s and later, but they are generally not specific enough to be able to zero in on the site in particular. Right now there is a lot we don’t know, such as the exact names of the people who lived near the Chorro site. We want to know if there were pure indigenous populations versus pure Spanish or if there was a mixing ground during this early period.”

There are, as is always the case with historical discoveries, many more questions than answers. These stone relics will no doubt shed new light on the earlier Spanish civilizations of the New World and in due time, take their proper place in the historical scheme of things.

Photo Credit National Geographic

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