Puerto Rico's ancient past unveiled: Oldest human remains date back to 1800 BC

The oldest directly dated human remains from Puerto Rico.
Nergis Firtina
Historical Puerto Rico map.
Historical Puerto Rico map.

Wikimedia Commons 

The early inhabitants of Puerto Rico may have employed standard graveyards and funeral customs for many decades, a new study suggests.

Prior to the Ceramic Age, Puerto Rico was inhabited for several thousand years, but because of a lack of investigation and evidence, including the identification of only 20 ancient people from this era, nothing is known about these first settlers.

Pestle and colleagues offer a significant amount of archaeological knowledge about this period in their study, describing five adults from burials at the Ortiz site in Cabo Rojo, southwest Puerto Rico.

The oldest directly dated human remains from Puerto Rico and up to 1,000 years of burials at the Ortiz site are included in the radiocarbon-dated remains, which showed ages as old as 1800 BC and as young as 800 BC, as said in the release.

The mortuary procedures – such as the placement of the bodies and the grave objects that accompany them – are comparable to those at other early sites, demonstrating common burial customs through many years. Furthermore, a strontium isotope study reveals that those buried were born in several adjacent locations. As a result, the Ortiz site may have had cultural significance as a gathering place for surrounding people to conduct funerals.

Significance of the results

The results suggest a long history of sustained and institutionalized use of a commonplace across millennia, while the authors advise that general inferences should be avoided given the low amount of available data.

Traditional interpretations of Puerto Rico's first occupants have been somewhat basic, but the findings of this study and perhaps subsequent ones shed light on what was probably a more lively and diversified cultural landscape than was previously recognized.

The authors add: “This study assiduously documents the oldest dated burials from the island of Puerto Rico and provides detailed scientific and cultural insights into the lives of some of the earliest people to inhabit that island. We hope that this work contributes to the ongoing re-framing of our understanding of the deep past of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean.”

The study was recently published in PLOS ONE.

Study abstract:

We possess rather little detailed information on the lives of the first inhabitants of Puerto Rico—the so-called “Archaic” or “Pre-Arawak” people—despite more than a century of archeological research. This is particularly true bioarchaeological, as fewer than twenty burials of the several millennia of the Archaic Age have been recovered, let alone analyzed in any detail. Here, we present the results of archeological, osteological, radiometric, and isotopic analysis of five individuals from the Ortiz site in Cabo Rojo, southwestern Puerto Rico. The study of these previously unpublished remains, which represent a 20–25% increase in the sample size of remains attributed to the period, provides many critical insights into earliest Puerto Rican lifeways, including aspects of mortuary practice, paleodiet, and possibly even social organization. A review of their burial treatment finds a mostly standardized set of mortuary practices, a noteworthy finding given the site’s potential millennium-long use as a mortuary space and the possibly distinct place(s) of origin of the individuals interred there. Although the osteological analysis was limited by poor preservation, we were able to reconstruct aspects of the demography that indicate the presence of both male and female adults. Stable isotope analysis revealed dietary differences from later Ceramic Age individuals, while dental pathology indicated heavy masticatory wear attributable to diet and/or non-masticatory function. Perhaps most crucially, direct AMS dating of the remains confirms these as the oldest burials yet recovered from the island, providing us both with a glimpse into the lives of some of the island’s first inhabitants and with tantalizing clues to the existence of a different degree of cultural “complexity” than is often ascribed to these earliest peoples. The existence of what radiocarbon dates suggest may be a persistent formal cemetery space at the Ortiz site has potentially significant implications concerning the territoriality, mobility, and social organization of the earliest peoples of southwestern Puerto Rico.

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