Humble Brass Was Even Better Than Gold to a 16th-Century Tribe in Cuba

Institute of Archaeology, University College London
Huts have been reconstructed near the site as a heritage center.
Published: January 16, 2007
Because of its otherworldly brilliance, the 16th-century Taíno Indians of Cuba called it turey, their word for the most luminous part of the sky.
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Top, Institute of Archaeology, University College London; Bottom, Judith H. Moore/UCL Institute of Archaeology
Top, one of only two gold pieces found in two dozen burial sites in the Taíno village of El Chorro de Maíta, Cuba. Bottom, lace tags found in Cuba.
They adored its sweet smell, its reddish hue, its exotic origins and its dazzling iridescence, qualities that elevated it to the category of sacred materials known as guanín. Local chieftains wore it in pendants and medallions to show their wealth, influence and connection to the supernatural realm. Elite women and children were buried with it.
What was this treasured stuff? Humble brass — specifically, the lace tags and fasteners from Spanish explorers’ shoes and clothes, for which the Taíno eagerly traded their local gold.
A team of archaeologists from University College London and the Cuban Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment came to these conclusions by analyzing small brass tubes found in two dozen burial sites in the Taíno village of El Chorro de Maíta in northeastern Cuba, according to a recent paper in The Journal of Archaeological Science.
The graves mostly date to the late 15th and early 16th centuries, when waves of gold-hungry conquistadors landed on Caribbean shores. Within decades, the Taíno, like their neighbors the Carib and the Arawak, were largely wiped out by genocide, slavery and disease.
But the archaeologists say this is not the whole picture. Their research — the first systematic study of metals from a Cuban archaeological site — focuses on one of the few indigenous settlements ever found that date from the period after the arrival of Europeans. The scientists say the finds add important detail and nuance to a history of the Caribbean long dominated by the first-person reportage of the Europeans themselves.
“It’s certainly true that the arrival of the Europeans was in the short term devastating,” said Marcos Martinón-Torres of University College London, the project’s lead researcher. “But instead of lumping the Taíno in all together as ‘the Indians of Cuba who were eliminated by the Spaniards,’ we’re trying to show they were people who made choices. They had their own lives. They decided to incorporate European goods into their value system.”
Brass first came to the Americas with Europeans. While a few brass artifacts have been found elsewhere in the Caribbean, no one knows when and how they were acquired. In contrast, El Chorro, first excavated in the mid-1980s, is one of the best-preserved sites in Cuba, and its artifacts have a clear archaeological context.
Training X-rays and microscopes on a half-dozen pendants, Dr. Martinón-Torres and a Cuban archaeologist, Roberto Valcárcel Rojas, determined the metals’ bulk chemical composition. It was a mixture of zinc and copper — the elements of brass.
They then used a scanning electron microscope to find the pendants’ unique geochemical signature. All came from Nuremberg, Germany, a center of brass production since the Middle Ages.
The few other metal artifacts from the cemetery — pendants made from a gold-copper-silver alloy — probably came from Colombia, where the Taíno are thought to have originated. Only two tiny gold nuggets, of local origin, were found.
Sixteenth-century portraits in places like the Tate Gallery held further clues. Many subjects wear bootlaces and bodices fastened with objects strikingly like those found in the graves. Similar objects have been excavated from early colonial settlements, including Havana and Jamestown, Va.
European accounts said the Taíno traded 200 pieces of gold for a single piece of guanín, of which brass was the highest form. Yet the residents of El Chorro may not have considered the trade unfair, said Jago Cooper, a field director for the project. In fact, access to European brass may have increased the power of local chieftains, hastening the transition from an egalitarian society to a hierarchical one.
The finds from El Chorro suggest that interaction between the Taíno and the Europeans may have been more varied than once thought.
“Large European materials being incorporated into their culture, and exotic materials being used to reflect Taíno beliefs — it’s new, important evidence for what was happening during contact,” said William F. Keegan, an archaeologist at the University of Florida and the co-editor of The Journal of Caribbean Archaeology, who was not involved in the research. “There’s been a tendency to assume the Taínos quickly disappeared due to European diseases and harsh treatment by the Spanish, but there’s increasing evidence that the culture continued to be vibrant until the middle of the 16th century.”