Team finds fatal flaws in Caribbean cannibalism theory

The research on cannibalism "got a lot of people in our circle of scholars pretty interested and agitated," Scott Fitzpatrick says.(Credit: Edward Dick/Flickr)

A new paper undercuts renewed claims of cannibalism in the Caribbean.

In January 2020, a prestigious scientific journal published a paper that revived a long-discredited theory, first suggested by the explorer Christopher Columbus: A group of marauding cannibals from South America descended on islands of the Caribbean circa CE 800, terrorizing local populations.

The report immediately caught the attention of other archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians, including Scott Fitzpatrick, a professor of archaeology at the University of Oregon and associate director of the Museum of Natural and Cultural History.

“It got a lot of people in our circle of scholars pretty interested and agitated,” Fitzpatrick says. “We were disconcerted about the revitalization of the cannibalistic narrative, which is disingenuous and hurtful to Indigenous groups.”

Led by Christina Giovas at Simon Fraser University, Fitzpatrick, and Tom Leppard at Florida State University, a group of 10 scholars set out to rebut the paper’s findings, which they found used flawed methods and analyses to draw its astonishing conclusions. Their response now also appears in the journal Scientific Reports.

The paper by Fitzpatrick and colleagues, known as a rejoinder, finds the methods and findings in the original study were faulty to a fatal degree. The two lines of evidence cited by the original authors have “no basis in scientific fact,” Fitzpatrick says.

“To use tenuous lines of evidence to bring back the idea of cannibalism is pretty ridiculous,” he says.

Faulty evidence from skulls

Rigorous give-and-take is not uncommon in the academic world, where a controversial paper will draw a response from other scholars who use their own data to compare and contrast the original findings. But only rarely, Fitzpatrick says, are scientists given the opportunity to write a rejoinder that effectively refutes an earlier paper.

The original study suggested people known as Caribs, marauders and rumored cannibals from South America, invaded Jamaica, Hispaniola, and the Bahamas circa CE 800, representing a previously unknown third wave of migration to the Caribbean. Previously, scholars had believed that Caribs never made it farther north than Guadeloupe.

To buttress their findings, the researchers used two lines of evidence. They examined cranial specimens to show similarities between Caribs from Venezuela and the people of Hispaniola, Jamaica, and the Bahamas, and they compared samples of pottery from the different regions, again to show that Caribs migrated to the Caribbean.

In their rejoinder, Fitzpatrick and colleagues say the main weaknesses of the original paper have to do with the number, chronology, and archaeological contexts of the examined skulls. To support the argument of a third wave of migration, the Caribbean skulls and the Venezuela skulls would need to be close in time and space.

But the four skulls from Venezuela in the first study are of unknown age, location, and cultural affiliation, and they are unlikely to represent the biological diversity of the region. Overall, 85% of the cranial specimens that the original authors examined lack direct radiocarbon dates and can be assigned only to a 500- to 700-year range.

Further, the original paper uses statistical analysis that cannot reliably represent biological relationships between the series.

Trouble with pottery

The original authors also argued that pottery from Hispaniola, Jamaica, and the Bahamas is identical to pottery associated to the Carib expansion in the Amazon and Orinoco basins, but provide no archaeological evidence to support the assertion.

Despite an archaeological record in the Caribbean that includes “quite a bit of skeletal remains,” there is no evidence of any kind of cannibalism, Fitzpatrick says. Indigenous groups may have told Columbus their rivals were war-like and cannibalistic to curry favor with the Europeans, Fitzpatrick says.

Europeans used the cannibalism trope to legitimize their abuse of Indigenous peoples, Fitzpatrick says. Scholars have worked to debunk the theory, he says, which is why he was surprised to see the new study revive the idea that “Indigenous people were running rampant through the islands eating each other.”

“These old tales have no basis in scientific fact, the tools they’re using to explain this have no merit, and their erroneous suggestion of cannibalism is harmful to populations living today who are of Carib descent,” Fitzpatrick says.

Source: Tim Christie for University of Oregon