Caribbean paleoethnobotany: Present status and new horizons (understanding the evolution of an indigenous ethnobotany)

Lee A. Newsom

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

19 Scopus citations


Humanistic botanical knowledge and practices in the Caribbean culminated an ancient and richly textured ethnobotanical tradition' a complex- Adaptive process that was the multidimensional product of centuries of human- plant interactions and that also involved a fusion of earlier botanical traditions transferred from different source regions. At the time of European contact' Caribbean indigenous people exploited a variety of plant taxa for diverse purposes. Many of these were managed in specifically prepared agricultural grounds or in multifunctional home gardens' venues that separately and together incorporated unique combinations of native and exotic cultigens' quasi- domesticates' and other taxa esteemed for their edible fruit or for other products.1 The consumers and gardeners themselves are of central interest' of course' as the people who depended to one degree or another on plant resources for their existence- both managed and wild- And who developed the specialized knowledge and skill to locate' exploit' and maintain particular plant resources for the purposes to which they were put. We can reasonably assume that the native ethnobotany was an integral part of Caribbean Indian cultural and ecological dynamics' and I would argue that we can be fully cognizant of neither one without a thorough understanding of the roles and significance of plant resources in the daily lives' ritual activities' and broader social sphere (e.g.' issues of sustainable resources' economy' trade' and related interactions among groups) of the various indigenous peoples of the region. Archaeobotany is the key to decipher the historical development and specific details of Caribbean Indian ethnobotany. It is the means to discover the deep history of the myriad interactions between particular groups of Caribbean islanders and their local floras' providing an idea of the developmental pathways and processes behind plant- use traditions' as well as some of the elements inherent in human- landscape dynamics at any number of scales. Paleoethnobotany potentially also can reveal key information concerning the significance of plant resources vis- À- vis human social developments in the region' and at minimum can provide some confirmation and ground- Truthing of the human- plant dynamic revealed in early historic documents. The theme of this volume is about explicating new directions in Caribbean archaeology and the study of material culture. I begin my chapter with some musings about Caribbean paleoethnobotany stemming first from ethnohistoric documents and then gleaning from the archaeobotanical record' emphasizing garden or otherwise nonfuelwood economic taxa. I proceed with some ideas for new directions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationCrossing The Borders
Subtitle of host publicationNew Methods and Techniques in The Study of Archaeology Materials from The Caribbean
PublisherThe University of Alabama Press
Number of pages22
ISBN (Print)9780817354534
StatePublished - Dec 1 2008

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Social Sciences
  • General Arts and Humanities


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