Diet and Society in Prehistoric Puerto Rico An Isotopic Approach

William J. Pestle
Anthropology, University of Illinois at Chicago
June, 2016


Some 6,000 years ago, humans first arrived on the island of Puerto Rico. In the millennia between this initial human colonization and the arrival of Europeans in the 15 th century AD, Puerto Rico and the other islands of the Antilles bore witness to the in situ development of a diverse and vibrant complement of human societies. Traditionally, the place and role(s) of food in these societies have received short shrift, an unfortunate oversight given that patterns of food production, distribution, and consumption can both reflect, and actively help to produce, social, economic, and political formations. While the rules and customs that govern food differ by people, place, and time, it is something approaching an anthropological universal that food in human societies is more than a source of energy; food is socially, economically, and politically alive . To remedy this significant lacuna in Caribbean archaeological knowledge, the present study takes as its focus the biocultural dimensions of subsistence among the pre-Columbian, Ceramic Age inhabitants of Puerto Rico. Using a combination of archaeological, osteological, stable isotopic, and radiometric analysis of the skeletal remains of 270 individuals from three ancient Puerto Rican archaeological sites (Paso del Indio, Punta Candelero, and Tibes), I attempt to evaluate some existing hypotheses on the social, economic, and political organization of prehistoric Puerto Rico and, when appropriate, offer new formulations thereof. In the course of this work, I examine dietary variation related to age, gender, biogeography, time, ecological (mis)management, and social inequality, thereby providing previously unobtainable insights into the lifeways of the pre-Columbian inhabitants of Puerto Rico. The earnest intent of this dissertation is to shine a bright light on the diversity and vitality of the societies and peoples of prehistoric Puerto Rico, a task for which bioarchaeology alone is uniquely suited given the island's post-Colonial experience. This multi-disciplinary study of the foodways of these prehistoric Puerto Ricans thereby provides valuable data on the embodied experiences of the island's past peoples and on the social processes that shaped their lives.