06 August 2007

UA digs into Cuban American Indian history

The Tuscaloosa News

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — What might Cuba's native culture looked like before the Spanish conquest in the early 1500s?

It might have looked a lot like Moundville.

University of Alabama students will have a chance to find out as part of a two-year, joint U.S.-Cuban archaeological expedition.

The expedition, led by UA's anthropology department and the Central-Eastern Department of Archaeology in Cuba's science ministry, focuses on Chorro de Maita, a former native village in eastern Cuba.

The village was populated by Arawakan Indians, contemporaries of the Mississippian Indians, during the time Christopher Columbus visited Cuba in 1492.

Jim Knight, a professor of anthropology at UA, is overseeing the expedition, which came about through his work with Cuban archaeologists. He and his Cuban counterparts came up with the joint expedition, which got under way with the arrival of two UA graduate students in Cuba on July 10.

"This year, we're going to concentrate on trying to map the place and make a map of where the archaeological deposits are located," Knight said. "It's not well documented yet."

The group will first map out the parameters of potential dig sites. They are looking mainly for places that were likely occupied at the time of the Spanish conquest.

"We can use the artifacts from native houses to help us determine what the American Indian response was to Spanish contact," Knight said. "Did they adopt Spanish food ways once they were introduced to Old World animals? Did they adopt European goods like brass, copper, iron?"

Among the questions archaeologists will try to answer is just what type of people the Arawak were. The dig will focus on finding clues to their domestic life.

The Arawakan and Mississippian Indians who lived near Moundville maintained similar hierarchies. Both were also agricultural societies.

The natives of El Chorro, however, fell prey to the Spanish conquest of the New World, beginning around 1512.

"Within decades, there were no Cuban Indians left," Knight said. "The site we're working on dates back to that time, so we want to find out what factors were in play as the Indians tried to cope with the Spanish." [Please note: The Caribbean Amerindian Centrelink roundly rejects this mythical rendition of Cuban history]

Knight said Chorro de Maita now is the site of a museum that is a Cuban tourist destination, not unlike Moundville.

"They completely excavated the cemeteries in the 1970s and 1980s," he said. "It's a well-known place. They've even built a replica of a native village.

"But in all of that, there's still a lot left to do, so we're trying to find the domestic areas where people lived."

The expedition is part of an initiative at UA to engage in more educational exchanges between academic institutions in Cuba and the university.

UA has, since 2002, received academic travel licenses for graduate students and faculty to go to Cuba to conduct research.

"Obviously, our focus has been to provide educational opportunities for our graduate students to a country that, in their lifetimes, has been closed to them," said Carmen Taylor, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences who is involved in the Cuba Initiative. The initiative has already facilitated trips to Cuba by faculty and grad students in library sciences and theater.

"This is an exciting opportunity for the University of Alabama, to expose students to the creative activity research of the different educational venues in Cuba," she said.

Taylor said that by next year, UA plans to expand travel opportunities to undergraduate students who wish to study in Cuba.

She noted that historically, ties between Cuba and Alabama have always existed. Havana is Mobile's sister city.

"It makes sense for the state to have ties with Cuba," she said. "People think of Cuba's relationship with Florida, but if you look at the proximity between the two, it's just as natural for us to have a relationship with them too."

The U.S. maintains few relations with its island neighbor, against which it has had a decades-long embargo.

The U.S. government's official relationship with Cuba is limited to providing humanitarian assistance. The State Department restricts travel to allow only limited visits by journalists, academics and businesspeople.

The embargo has made funding for the project a little harder to find.

The first part of the trip is being funded by a $25,000 grant from the National Geographic Society. Knight said the group is trying to secure funding for the remainder of the expedition.

"It's a little difficult, because there are a number of institutions that, because of the embargo, are not allowed to give money to do business with Cuba," he said.

Taylor said the exchanges are non-political, and the exchanges function solely within the restrictions imposed by the federal government.

"Our goal is strictly to maintain an academic exchange," she said.

Knight said he has been impressed, in the course of his previous trips to Cuba, to find how active that country's researchers are.

"We just don't know much about what they're doing," he said. "But they're using the same software, the same mapping; they have the same research interests. Despite the embargo, we've developed a great collaboration."

He said such exchanges are key to academic research.

"Archaeologists like me can't keep our heads in one area too much," he said. "You need to compare your research to other things and learn from the comparison.

"That's where we can learn the most, by broadening our horizons a bit."

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