Caribbean Natural History
From a Native Perspective

William F. Keegan
Lisabeth A. Carlson

(University of Alabama)

    Lo, the poor Indian! whose untutor'd mind
    Sees God in clouds, or hears him in the wind;
    His soul proud Science never taught to stray
    Far as the solar walk or milky way;
    Yet simple Nature to his hope has giv'n,
    Behind the cloud-topp'd hill, a humbler heav'n;
    Some safer world in depth of woods embrac'd,
    Some happier island in the wat'ry waste,
    Where slaves once more their native land behold,
    No fiends torment, no Christians thirst for gold!
    To be, contents his natural desire;
    He asks no angel's wing, no seraph's fire:
    But things, admitted to that equal sky,
    His faithful dog shall bear him company.
--- "Essay on Man"
Alexander Pope

The Taínos were devastated by Columbus and his hungry band. Think on it ... a population living in paradise: the warm waters, the sun, the great lagoons and the surf, a rich sea on the Bahamas, Hispanola, Puerto Rico. And one day these guys appear on the horizon, coming in on the wings --- if we may --- of death.

At the time of the arrival of Columbus, the population of all the Caribbean islands was estimated to be over 80,000. By 1520, it was zilch. The big killer: syphilis. The Christian explorers were not only hungry for gold, they were vicious in their lust.

Keegan and Carlson's book studies the language, the culture and the archeology of the Taínos before their disappearance. And, lo, they weren't all that poor. The authors call them "the original affluent society:"

    Marshall Sahlins was one of the first to actually calculate the amount of time hunter-gatherer spent obtaining food. He found that although these people had a paucity of material goods ... they actually worked less hard to meet their needs than most of us do today.

The authors offer the thought that the Taínos were also far from being ecologically friendly. They used slash-and-burn of native vegetation so they could plant their manioc and sweet potatoes. Moreover, they may have driven some creatures to extinction. David Steadman of the Florida Museum of Natural History has sorted through the skeletons found in a cave on the Caicos. He has "identified the bones of fifty species of birds from Indian Cave, including twenty-seven that are no longer found on Middle Caicos or, in most cases, anywhere else in the Turks and Caicos Islands."

    They include such diverse types of birds as petrels, geese, hawks (guaraguao), eagles, falcons (guincho), rails (yegua), pigeons, parrots, owls, hummingbirds and swallows.

§     §     §

The focus of Talking Taíno is the language, what little of it that can be reconstructed from the diaries and notes made by the Spanish before the Indians died out. Spanish words such as maraca, guayaba, tuna (prickly pear), pargo (snapper), jejen (mosquito) and the omnipresent cacique all come from Taíno. In addition, several words have slipped over into English: huracan, hamaca, barbacoa.

Talking Taíno is not without its faults: apparently as scientists, the authors have to labor to lighten up their message. After an extended chapter refuting the charge that the Indians cooked up their captives into little pot-pies, they prove that charge was justification for their enslavement by the Spanish. They point out that cannibalism was prevalent back home. In 16th Century Europe, "it is reported that spectators would arrive at public executions carrying cups with which to collect and drink the still warm blood of the person who was executed," and that human flesh and bone were part of the pharmacopoeia of early Renaissance Europe. After convincing us that these canards about the Taínos are false, they tell us, "during your visit to the Cannibal (oops, Caribbean) islands it is best to play it safe."

    Have a long talk with your waiter before you order the souse or steak-and-kidney pie!

The chapter on Columbus ("Hero or Heel?") confirms that he was probably dotty, at least towards the end there, as he proposed the unique theory that "the earth was shaped like a pear with a rise like a woman's breast, on which rested the Terrestrial Paradise (The Garden of Eden) to which no man could sail without the permission of God." They conclude the chapter:

    Who was Columbus? That answer is another question. Who do you want him to be?

§     §     §

Still, this reviewer was entertained mightily by a chapter on Donax, tiny clams that live in and on the sands of the southern and Caribbean beaches. They have pointed, tiny shells --- about as big as your fingernail --- and have the magic ability to emerge from the sand just as a new wave is coming in. As the water departs, they rebury themselves.

Fascinating behavior (how do they know to emerge all at the same moment?) --- especially for someone like me, age ten or so, on that brilliant warm day, back in 1943, sauntering with a brother or sister, on Neptune Beach. Would you believe such a fresh day, the smell of the virgin sea, us not so far from a large city?

We are the only ones about. The two of us, and a tiny army of Donax performing their magic wave rise and fall act, timed perfectly, all in synch.

"Each clam contains less than a gram of meat," the authors tell us. "It must be thoroughly washed after it is removed from the shell." Preparing them is a "wearying task."

    The meat is then grated, which given its small size can be hard on the fingertips.

Bosh. When we spotted Donax, we'd run home for a shovel and a wooden box with the bottom knocked out, replaced by mesh screening. After shoveling in a few dozen of them, we'd plunge box and mollusks up and down in the surf to wash out the sand, then take our prey back home. Did I tell you about their lying pearly and beautiful on the wire mesh, the colors of their shells a gorgeous lining of white mixed with pale blue, pale mauve and dusk?

Father would dump them in fresh water and cornmeal to get them to yield up their sand. Then he'd set them in a big boiler with water and wine and celery and parsley, boil it all up for a half-hour or so to make Donax soup (he called it "zoup!")

It tasted strongly of ocean, but we loved it.

--- L. W. Milam
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