Subsistence patterns as markers of cultural exchange: European and Taino interactions in the Dominican Republic

James M. VanderVeen
Dept. of Anthropology, Indiana University
July, 2006


Although the stories of Christopher Columbus's voyages to the New World are well known, the daily life of his sailors and the indigenous people they met are not as clearly understood. This research investigates the reciprocal influence of cultures in contact through an analysis of a basic element in the lives of these people: food. Although documentary records and paleoenvironmental studies can explain which plants and animals were gathered, these sources suffer from biases. For instance, at the site of La Isabela in the Dominican Republic, European chroniclers were motivated by specific agendas colored by pride, cultural superiority, and salesmanship. They rarely recorded the activities of any but the elites of either the colonists or the Tainos encountered there. Also, because the faunal and floral remains are often poorly preserved or statistically inconclusive, an archaeological reconstruction of the typical diet is less than accurate.

To learn more about the interactions between the native people and the explorers, comparisons were made of domestic ceramic artifacts and the associated food residue recovered from the La Isabela colony and the surrounding indigenous villages. Further, absorbed organic residue analysis is employed to resolve many questions surrounding the interactions of cultures in such an unprecendented arrangement. The method uses gas chromatography - mass spectrometry to identify the preserved organic molecules extracted from within walls of domestic pottery. By evaluating specific fatty acids and lipid constituents from both native and colonial ceramics, the research distinguishes broad food categories as well as various families of plants and animals that were consumed. Contrary to the established paradigm which holds that the Spanish starved and the indigenous people were completely destroyed, the food residue reflects similar patterns of sustenance and vessel use between the groups, suggesting a more complex pattern of cultural exchange. While this method has its limitations, especially with regards to the reconstruction of cuisines exploiting a wide variety of resources and the recovery of residues from sherds deposited in tropical environments, the research can supply valuable information on the little understood dietary practices of colonists and their hosts.