Paleoethnobotanical research at Tibes

Lee A. Newsom

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

1 Scopus citations


Paleoethnobotanical research at Tibes, a relatively early Caribbean civic-ceremonial center in southwestern Puerto Rico, was initiated in 1995 and is ongoing. The central focus of this research is to clarify the indigenous ethnobotany and contribute to a better understanding of the evolution of social organization at the site. The intrinsic dynamics of coupled human-natural systems, with shifting baselines and flux in resource abundance and availability, both natural and culturally mediated, are another focal point of this research. Tibes represents one of the earliest communities in the region to demonstrate a level of social complexity approximating a chiefdom. The site contains early and later components, specifically late Saladoid to early Ostionoid (ca. a.d. 600-1000) deposits, that encompass the period of transition from a more egalitarian form of social organization to one with some degree of social differentiation. Thus successive deposits at Tibes potentially contain evidence of key details associated with the emergence of a local Caribbean chiefdom, affording an opportunity to examine this development, including such examination from the perspective of the subsistence enterprise. This would encompass ethnobotanical aspects of subsistence and how they parlayed into wider trends in household and political economy, the latter perhaps including the control of subsistence goods (Hirth 1996; Johnson and Earle 1987). The paleoethnobotany thus may serve to illuminate these dynamics through the specification and understanding of the particular types, roles, and presence or availability of plant resources at the different levels of analysis and complexity ranging from individual households to the community at large, i.e., the corporate arena, and at particular points in time. One example would be evidence of plants involved with the appearance of feasting, as an activity potentially tied to emerging elites (Hayden 1995) and indicative of plant use transcending common household consumption. More broadly, could the development of occupational specialization in the region, including perhaps at Tibes, have involved biotic resources (e.g., someone in the role of a specialist using medicinal herbs) and could their control have been a potential stimulus to chiefdom development? Did emerging elite assume roles as entrepreneurs, undertaking responsibility for management of environmental risk through economic (in this case, food collection and storage) or other methods? The realities of biotic resource concentration, especially in view of social or geographic circumscription, as a coercive force in the aggregation of polities also remain to be explored. Considering these ideas and others relevant to the Tibes paleoethnobotanical research, I began by simply asking what plants were present and whether there was evidence to suggest cultivation, i.e., management. What were the basic elements of household economies, especially in view of the assumed trends in sociopolitical status over time? What were the relative contributions of wild vs. domesticated plants; of native vs. introduced taxa? What role did maize (Zea mays) play, if any at all, given its low profile archaeologically in the region (Newsom 2006)? Did any plants serve as staples, and if so, was staple-crop production focused or diffuse? To what extent were subsistence practices of all types sustainable and how might this bear on social organization? Is there any evidence, in fact, for feasting or control and manipulation of crops or other significant plant resources by elites? If so, did crop production parlay into some form of staple finance (Hirth 1996; Johnson and Earle 1987; Rountree and Turner 1998)? Could living in a relatively forgiving, i.e., productive, resource-rich subtropical environment allow for sufficient population sizes to encourage the growth of chiefdoms without a primary emphasis on agriculture, i.e., staple-crop production? Is there any evidence for food or other resource intensification practices, especially if they may have served as a means to support or justify an emerging elite? And just as guinea pigs (deFrance et al., this volume) were evidently bred and maintained in captivity, were special-use plants (e.g., narcotics, condiments) specially cultivated, and if so, for what reasons (e.g., foods reserved for feasting, foods reflective of social relations, plants used in ritual)? Was access to particular plant resources restricted to social segments within the community, i.e., exclusionary? Considering these questions, among others, the paleoethnobotanical research was initiated with select samples recovered during a series of systematic excavations briefly overviewed below. This effort emphasized samples intended for analysis of plant macroremains and pollen from a variety of discrete features, activity floors, middens, and bracketing deposits. At this juncture my interpretations are focused at the household or, perhaps more correctly, suprahousehold level ( Curet et al. 2006), a necessary initial step in data collection and pattern recognition as a baseline toward addressing change and answering some of the broader questions and details of social dynamics posed above. Indeed, distinctive plants and patterns of use at Tibes, as shall be seen below, suggest considerable potential to clarify trends in social evolution at the site. These data also illuminate local habitats and forest communities, which helps to conceptualize the ancient landscape and allows initial consideration of the types of biotic resources potentially available to the site's inhabitants. This chapter provides a synopsis of the research thus far. Because of space limitations the presentation and discussion of the results are scaled to a minimum. For any who may have an interest, the original full-length chapter (Newsom 2009) is available as a pdf file directly from the author.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationTibes
Subtitle of host publicationPeople, Power, and Ritual at the Center of the Cosmos
PublisherThe University of Alabama Press
Number of pages35
ISBN (Print)9780817355791
StatePublished - Dec 1 2010

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Social Sciences
  • General Arts and Humanities


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