Columbus May Have Actually Come Across Caribbean Cannibals After All, Study Claims

A 16th-century depiction of cannibalism in Brazil in 1557 as described by Hans Staden. Gravure de Théodore de Bry/Wikimedia Commons

In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue. But some of the explorer’s accounts of what he experienced throughout his journeys have long been contested, including descriptions of “fierce raiders” in the Caribbean who abducted women and cannibalized their enemies.

Now, new research claims those myths may be truths.

When Columbus first landed on the Bahamian island of Guanahani, he wrote of people with “marks of wounds on their bodies” who showed how “people from other islands nearby came… and tried to take them” away. To determine whether waring groups were, in fact, invading The Bahamas, researchers at North Carolina State University and the University of Florida set out to determine which group the native Lucayans more closely resembled by analyzing morphological traits of more than 100 skulls, an admittedly small sample size, dating back to between 800 CE and 1542.

In particular, researchers determined three-dimensional facial “landmarks,” such as the size of an eye socket or the length of a nose, and compared these factors against the skulls of inhabitants of pre-Columbian Cuba and Hispaniola, the shared island of modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The Lucayan were the first inhabitants of the Bahamas that Columbus first encountered in 1492, according to Britannica.

"It’s like facial recognition software," study author William Keegan, Florida Museum of Natural History curator of Caribbean archaeology, told IFLScience. "When digital measurements are made, it is possible to draw a 3D image of the face, and by comparing the points it is possible to distinguish different faces." 

Caribs, a group of raiders and rumored cannibals from South America, were shown to have invaded Jamaica, Hispaniola, and the Bahamas – a migration that had been believed nonexistent for the last five decades.

Researchers analyzed the skulls of early Caribbean inhabitants, using 3D facial "landmarks" as a genetic proxy for determining how closely people groups were related to one another. Ann Ross/North Carolina State University

"I've spent years trying to prove Columbus wrong when he was right: There were Caribs in the northern Caribbean when he arrived," said Keegan. "We're going to have to reinterpret everything we thought we knew."

The earliest indigenous settlers of the Caribbean came from the Yucatan while the first to inhabit the Bahamas and Hispaniola were not from Cuba, as was commonly believed, but from the northwest Amazon – the Caribs. Though the Caribs may have exhibited some cannibalistic tendencies, Keegan tells IFLScience that a 1984 review of available chronicles for the Caribbean failed to find any confirmed eyewitness accounts for the practice anywhere in the Antilles. 

"It's almost a 'Hatfields and McCoys' kind of situation," Keegan said. "Maybe there was some cannibalism involved. If you need to frighten your enemies, that's a really good way to do it."

These accounts influenced how Europeans saw indigenous people of the Caribbean, and it is believed that the Spanish government may have changed its stance on inhabitants after hearing that they would not convert to Christianity and ate human flesh. 

"The crown said, 'Well, if they're going to behave that way, they can be enslaved,'" Keegan said. "All of a sudden, every native person in the entire Caribbean became a Carib as far as the colonists were concerned."

However, there are contestations to recent findings. Keegan notes that the current identification of indigenous communities in the Caribbean is based on pottery styles, which holds that Meillacoid-style pottery developed from Ostionoid-style pottery that originated in Puerto Rico – a separate migration that Keegan agrees for the first time is associated with the Carib expansion in South America.

 

Map of the first voyage of Christopher Columbus, 1492-1493. Modern place names are in black, Columbus's place names are in blue. Wikimedia Commons
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