From the New York Times, January 16, 2007
By JENNIFER PINKOWSKI
Because of its otherworldly brilliance, the 16th-century Taíno Indians of Cuba called it turey, their word for the most luminous part of the sky.
They adored its sweet smell, its reddish hue, its exotic origins and its dazzling iridescence, qualities that elevated it to the category of sacred materials known as guanín. Local chieftains wore it in pendants and medallions to show their wealth, influence and connection to the supernatural realm. Elite women and children were buried with it.
What was this treasured stuff? Humble brass — specifically, the lace tags and fasteners from Spanish explorers’ shoes and clothes, for which the Taíno eagerly traded their local gold.
A team of archaeologists from University College London and the Cuban Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment came to these conclusions by analyzing small brass tubes found in two dozen burial sites in the Taíno village of El Chorro de Maíta in northeastern Cuba, according to a recent paper in The Journal of Archaeological Science. [Local note: not electronically available at MMA]
The graves mostly date to the late 15th and early 16th centuries, when waves of gold-hungry conquistadors landed on Caribbean shores. Within decades, the Taíno, like their neighbors the Carib and the Arawak, were largely wiped out by genocide, slavery and disease.
But the archaeologists say this is not the whole picture. Their research — the first systematic study of metals from a Cuban archaeological site — focuses on one of the few indigenous settlements ever found that date from the period after the arrival of Europeans. The scientists say the finds add important detail and nuance to a history of the Caribbean long dominated by the first-person reportage of the Europeans themselves.
“It’s certainly true that the arrival of the Europeans was in the short term devastating,” said Marcos Martinón-Torres of University College London, the project’s lead researcher. “But instead of lumping the Taíno in all together as ‘the Indians of Cuba who were eliminated by the Spaniards,’ we’re trying to show they were people who made choices. They had their own lives. They decided to incorporate European goods into their value system.”
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