Blood is thicker than water

Dr Alistair Bright's dissertation is a contribution to the archaeology of island societies. His analysis of hundreds of sites on the Windward Islands and their ceramic assemblages gives insight into the pre-colonial archaeology of the Caribbean.

"Blood is thicker than water: Amerindian intra- and inter-insular relationships and social organization in the pre-Colonial Windward Islands" represents a contribution to the pre-Colonial archaeology of the Windward Islands in the Caribbean. The research aimed to determine how the Ceramic Age (ca. 400 BC – AD 1492) Amerindian inhabitants of the region related to one another and others at various geographic scales, with a view to better understanding social interaction and organization within the Windward Islands as well the integration of this region within the macro-region.

Recognition of the maritime orientation of pre- and proto-Colonial Windward Island communities led to the necessity of abandoning the island as unit of analysis, or rather, as the only unit of analysis. In this dissertation, sites and the archipelago form additional units of analysis within a multi-scalar approach. Also, an explicit inter-unit approach has been taken, entailing the comparison of sites, islands and even regions. As such, this research approached the study of intra- and inter-island interaction and social development through an island-by-island study of some 640 archaeological sites and their ceramic assemblages. This data-set was collated from a variety of sources, ranging from archaeological and anthropological literature and (museum) collections to archaeological survey and excavation.

The overview of ceramic (decorative) trait distribution during the Late Ceramic Age proved a crucial first step towards elucidating intra- and inter-island community interaction in the pre-Colonial Windward Islands. By implementing the multi-scalar approach, local ceramic innovations could be distinguished from traits shared within the micro-region or even throughout the Lesser Antilles. Furthermore, by expanding the comparative scope to the Greater Antilles and the South American mainland, possible stylistic influences more distant regions could be suggested. Examination of these ceramic data also highlighted various configurations of sites spread across different islands that were united by shared ceramic (decorative) traits. These configurations were more closely examined by taking recourse to graph-theory, in order to arrive at quantifiable, hard inferences about distribution frequencies of ceramic decorative traits and - somewhat less hard - degrees of connectivity between islands and, significantly, individual communities.

Concerning settlement of the region, reconsideration of  site periodisation yielded the insight that Windward Island occupation was remarkably stable over time. While very early dates remain frustratingly rare, the Late Ceramic Age dates are more satisfying in the sense that they provide firm evidence of continual occupation throughout the later pre-Colonial period, with numerous dates extending into Colonial times, raising expectations of a tangible (i.e. archaeological) link with the (ethno)historically documented Island Carib. Furthermore, by defining a settlement system for the region by drawing on archaeology, ethnography and (ethno)history, enigmatic pottery scatters or individual lithic finds discovered away from settlement sites were interpreted as possible hamlets, activity areas related to wood clearing or canoe-building and subsistence-related activities such as planting fields, hunting and foraging. The pattern of settlement pairs and clustered settlements was interpreted as multi-generational shifting occupation or community fissioning and specific patterns in cultural components present across neighbouring settlements were interpreted as representing various instances of settlement or community mobility, such as fissioning, fusing and oscillating between proximate settlement locations. Finally, it was ascertained that islets or isles played a much greater role in Windward Island society than previously considered.

While pre-Colonial Windward Island communities certainly developed a localized (material cultural) identity, they remained open to a host of wide-ranging contacts, either having an influence on or being influenced by developments outside the micro-region. In particular, the Windward Islanders appear to have consciously realigned themselves with their erstwhile South American homelands, albeit in an ever more “cosmopolitan” and wide-ranging manner. Distribution patterns of ceramic (decorative) traits suggest that certain islands may have functioned as prime nodes for the introduction and further dissemination of particular ideas or material cultural traits, but the patterning does not carry over to multiple traits. This would appear to be the hallmark of incipient differentiation amidst a high degree of autonomy. The multiple and varied outcomes of the graph-theory analysis of ceramic traits merely underscored the dynamic character of relationships between various Windward Island communities. The combination of the ceramic trait distribution analysis with the hypothesized instances of settlement mobility yielded the insight that in many cases, there is a very weak correlation between geographical proximity and specific material culture homogeneity. This would appear to provide yet another independent line of evidence against the study of islands as the only analytical units. Instead, an archipelagic archaeology is called for, to do justice to the ever-increasing likelihood that in this Amerindian island realm, blood was indeed thicker than water.

by Alistair J. Bright 

Year: 2011
Type of publication: PhD Thesis
Institute: University of Leiden
Online resources: to download
ISBN: 978-90-8890-071-6

Number of pages:


Sidestone Press

Last Modified: 29-04-2011