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Representation of cannibalism in the Caribbean

Scientists Suggest Columbus' Caribbean Cannibals Might Be True


A new study of ancient Caribbean skulls suggests Christopher Columbus' accounts of fierce raiders abducting women and cannibalizing men ‘might’ be true.

In 1492, under orders from King Ferdinand of Spain, famed Italian explorer Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ the New World of the Americas while trying to find a new route to India and has been both credited and blamed for having opened up the Americas for European colonization.

Columbus' accounts of the Caribbean include gory descriptions of fierce cannibals abducting and abusing women and eating men, and while most historians have regarded these stories as figments of Columbus’ imagination, a new study suggests the famous navigator might have been telling the truth.

Upending Longstanding Assumptions

A new paper titled Faces Divulge the Origins of Caribbean Prehistoric Inhabitants published yesterday (January 10th) on Scientific Reports, presents 3D imagery from the cranial version of facial recognition technology. The researchers analyzed the skulls of early Caribbean inhabitants revealing not only the relationships between different groups of people but they claim to have “upended longstanding assumptions” about how the islands were first colonized.

Sixteen homologous anatomical landmarks used in the study

Sixteen homologous anatomical landmarks used in the study. (Keegan)

“I've spent years trying to prove Columbus wrong when he was right”, said co-author Dr. William Keegan, curator of Caribbean archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History, and he said one of the more surprising finds was that the Caribs, ‘fierce’ seaborne marauders from South America and rumored cannibals, invaded Jamaica, Hispaniola, and the Bahamas. And this, according to the scientist, challenges over half a century of assumptions that they never made it farther north than Guadeloupe.

Really Stunning Results

Michael Pateman of the Turks and Caicos National Museum and Colleen Young of the University of Missouri co-authored the study and said the research proves Caribs were established in the northern Caribbean “when Columbus arrived”. And in an article on Science Daily the scientists said “everything we thought we knew is wrong”.

Carib Indians were cannibals in the Caribbean

Carib Indians were cannibals in the Caribbean. (Jan Arkesteijn / Public Domain)

Columbus had recounted how raiders, that he mistakenly described as ‘Caniba’, terrorized peaceful Arawak people in modern-day Bahamas and the skulls now determine the Carib presence in the Caribbean was ‘far more prominent than previously thought’ - which adds credence to Columbus' claims.

All previous archaeological studies on the origins of Caribbean cultures tested tools, pottery, and weapons and a relatively two-dimensional geographical understanding was held about the arrival and movement of people. Dr. Kegan, however, analyzed more than 100 skulls dating from about 800 AD to 1542 and used 3D facial landmarks such as the size of an eye socket or length of a nose, which revealed the migration routes of three distinct Caribbean people groups, which was “really stunning”, Ross said.

Proposed new three migration routes for the peopling of the Caribbean

Proposed new three migration routes for the peopling of the Caribbean. (naturalearth / Public Domain)

Invaders On The Move

Why does Meillacoid pottery appear in Hispaniola by 800 AD, Jamaica around 900 AD, and the Bahamas around 1,000 AD? This is the question that had haunted Dr. Kegan and he said he has been stumped for years because he didn't have this Bahamian component.

But this will change the perspective on the people and peopling of the Caribbean, said the doctor. And the sudden appearance of Meillacoid pottery also corresponds with a reshuffling of Caribbean peoples after a 1,000 year period of peace at a time “Carib invaders were on the move”, Keegan said.

Keegan stumped for years by the appearance of a distinct type of pottery now believes it is the cultural fingerprint of a Carib invasion

Keegan stumped for years by the appearance of a distinct type of pottery now believes it is the cultural fingerprint of a Carib invasion. (William Keegan)

Previous studies of ancient faces on pottery showed the Caribbean's earliest settlers came from the Yucatan and moved to Cuba and the Northern Antilles between 800 and 200 BC. The earliest inhabitants of the Bahamas and Hispaniola, the Caribs, however, were not from Cuba as commonly thought, but they came from the Northwest Amazon region and pushed northwards into Hispaniola and Jamaica around 800 AD, and then inhabited the Bahamas long before Columbus arrived.

Scientists Cannot Agree On Caribbean Cannibalism

Regarding Columbus’ tales of cannibalism, Dr. Kegan said, “it was possible” as Arawaks and Caribs were enemies but they often lived side by side with occasional intermarriage before blood feuds erupted, and he suggested that maybe there was some cannibalism involved, because if you needed to terrify your enemies “eating them is a really good way to do it”.

This claim contrasts starkly with the findings presented in an April 2018 Yale paper, which concluded ideas that the Caribbean s earliest inhabitants were peaceful farmers who were wiped out by the ferocious man-eating Carib people were “speculative and erroneous” accounts passed down from early colonists. Dr. Reg Murphy, who led a team of researchers from Syracuse University, Farmingdale State College, and Brooklyn College, told The Guardian that their analysis of Carib diets found “no evidence that they ever ate humans”.

Top image: Representation of cannibalism in the Caribbean. Source: Xijky / Public Domain.

By Ashley Cowie



That video was hilarious. Yea, there were cannibal tribes. I think the Aztecs were cannibals. Also, plenty of cannibals in Brazil, especially along the Amazon. Probably still some there today.

ashley cowie's picture


Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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