A new explanatory text on the first 6000 years of human development on the island joins the debate about the new name of Cuba’s indigenous groups
By: Flor de Paz
2008-04-29 | 15:25:24 EST
The history of Cuba began at least six millennia ago —or perhaps earlier— when navigators on boats moved by oars arrived on the island from the north or the south of the American continent.
At that time, Cuba probably received the first human beings that would step on its lands. The exploration of new areas looking for other sources of natural resources promoted migration, as happened in all the history of human development.
Scattered material evidence stands as testimony of these early forages, including human and animal remains and some tools. Interpreting them and shedding light on this longer historical stage is the aim of archaeologists engaged in the study of this period of early Cuban history.
This science does not focus only on tangible matter, like that contained in a bone or stone fragment, but also looks at the biological and social entity to which that matter belonged. What’s more, it probes into the process of formation and development of those first communities.
The findings of such research will soon be available to the public, which is meant to be the prime recipient of any scientific advance but is oftentimes kept from them due, among other things, the complex and highly specialized language used to describe them, undecipherable to the most enlightened non-expert receiver.
Such it is the case of the names used to classify the first inhabitants of the island. The diversity of names, only “translatable” by specialists, stands in the way of their understanding. To solve that difficulty, and to also transmit to society the new advances in this discipline in Cuba, researchers with the Cuban Institute of Anthropology are proposing a new periodization and nomenclature for the local indigenous groups.
“The idea is to have a classification that is based on historical stages and not on economic activities, or social or ethnological aspects,” said Ulises González Herrera, head of the Institute’s archaeology department and one of those behind the proposal.
“We have defined two stages: the society of pre-tribal appropriators and that of tribal producers. In the first one we put early human (more than three thousand years before the present, B.P.), middle human (around three thousand five hundred years B.P. until the 16th century of our era) and late human (around two thousand years B.P. until the 16th century of our era). The second stage, which covers only one period, extends from about 1,500 years B.P. until the first colonial centuries.
González explained that the proposal for a new periodization and nomenclature for Cuba’s indigenous people takes into consideration three factors: the philosophical (historical materialist) concept of Socio-Economic Formation, the similarities between the human groups that lived during the two periods, and archaeological records.
“We base ourselves on the social organization, an indicator that describes the essential development of these societies at a given moment,” he added.
According to González, there are community property relations in both periods; but they established the property over the area they live in, in the society of tribal producers. “This determined that social relations were very different in one and the other. The most confusing and less studied period is that of trans-culturation, where the two community societies merged. That’s the image that chroniclers see when they come to Cuba and the Antilles.”
Names generating identity
The study of a science implies classifications, and these must be understandable for the general public, especially when they are related to historical knowledge, due to their social incidence and the fact that they generate identity. Consequently, they are not simply names.
“The denominations that are used at the moment are dissimilar. The non-specialized receiver ignores which indigenous people are classified as Siboney, White Guayabo, Proto-archaic or Archaic. The excess of names results in shunning of the subject,” said José Jiménez Santander, director of the Museum of Natural History of Santiago de Cuba, another of the participants in the new nomenclature project.
“It is not a matter of criticizing the authors that established those classifications; they did what was right then. However, science advances and the concepts change. Our objective is to try to reach a national consensus so that we all use the same nomenclature, thus facilitating understanding on this subject. We have passed on this proposal to all institutions related to archeology in our country,” he stated.
Dr. Enrique Alonso Alonso, researcher of the Cuban Institute of Anthropology and one of the main promoters of the new project, thinks that “it is also important to organize a new denomination because booklets gathering information on excavations, theoretical discussions and written history are based on different classifications.
“I think that all scientists are ready to use a new denomination and that the Cuban society needs this agreement to be established among us,” Alonso said.
First Part of Cuba’s History
To explain how life was for the first inhabitants of Cuba is the most important. “There are many errors in the understanding of this part of our history,” added Alonso.
“It is necessary that people understand the role played by those populations, who inhabited the island for thousands of years before the Spanish conquest, in the development of our nation. From Columbus’ arrival to the Americas till now, a little more than 600 years have passed.”
“We want to promote a step forward in this sense and, in addition, to point out what is not totally proven, for researchers to be focused on solving still-existing problems and questions.
“We have written a version of the history of Cuba’s indigenous people, which has been organized according to the new classification. It covers the first 6,000 years of human presence in the island and explains how the life of the indigenous people who lived in pre-tribal and tribal appropriators societies.
“We talk about their economy, social organization, habits and relations with nature. Our idea is for this to become a reference manual for all teachers, not a textbook,” Alonso said.