Fusion diets in the early colonial Caribbean

Analysis of pottery from the Caribbean island of Isla de Mona, part of the Puerto Rican archipelago, is shedding new light on food and drink practices on the island at the time of its early colonisation, including what may be the earliest evidence of wine-drinking in the Americas.

Archaeological material from Isla de Mona is shedding new light on the food and drink consumed by the island’s inhabitants in the early colonial period.

Isla de Mona is currently uninhabited, but has been home to many different peoples throughout its history, including indigenous populations across the archipelago, whose lifeways were violently disrupted by Spanish colonists who arrived in the region in the early 1500s. To find out more about the colonial encounter, researchers analysed 40 ceramic sherds excavated from the early 16th-century settlement on the island using gas chromatography and mass spectrometry to identify organic residues. The ceramics sampled included a combination of indigenous and European pottery, and encompassed several different types of vessel used for food storage, preparation, and serving. Among the objects studied were several olive jars, a type of Spanish vessel that, despite its name, was used for transporting many different goods to the Americas. Inside one of these jars, researchers identified residue that indicated the vessel once contained wine. The style of the jar is consistent with a type produced between 1490 and 1520, which potentially makes this the oldest wine currently known in the Americas. The find location, a cave where previous archaeologists recovered a church bell, suggests the wine may have been consumed as part of new Christian practices brought to the Americas.

Analysis of pottery sherds from the island has revealed possibly the earliest evidence of wine-drinking in the Caribbean, as well as proof that European colonists were adopting indigenous methods of food preparation.

The study also uncovered new information about the fusion taking place in this period between European eating and drinking practices and the traditions of the Taino people indigenous to the island. Faunal remains excavated on Isla de Mona confirm that fish was being eaten in large quantities, as were iguana and a large rodent-like animal called a hutia, as well as imported animals such as cow, pig, and goat. However, analysis of the ceramics found no evidence of the residues that would have been left behind by the cooking of meat, dairy, or fish. Researchers conclude this was probably because, while vegetables do appear to have been cooked in the pots, meat and fish were prepared using different techniques such as spit-roasting, pit-roasting, or using a barbacoa (a Taino word meaning a raised wooden grate over a fire on which food could be smoked, believed to have given rise to the modern ‘barbecue’). Food security was a major concern in the early colonial period, when disease, climatic events such as hurricanes, and Spanish exploitation threatened supplies. After the invasion, European colonists soon switched to a dependence on indigenous foods and practices, including cassava bread, which may have been prepared in the ceramics. The study provides further evidence that the first generation of Spanish arrivals may have abandoned the meat stews and soups popular in Europe at the time, instead adopting the indigenous culinary practice of barbecuing their meat.

These findings, published in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences (https://doi.org/10.1007/s12520-023-01771-y), answer several questions about cultural exchange and dietary changes around the time of European colonisation in the Caribbean. The study will also inform possible future, larger-scale studies into organic residues in Caribbean ceramics, which remain an underexplored resource.

Images: Felix Lopez; Briggs et al., Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, 2023