Prehistory of the German-Cuban project “The earliest settlements of Cuba” (2005)

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From 9. February to 30. March 2005 the German-Cuban project “The earliest Settlements of Cuba” startet. 4 German archaeologists directed by Professor Müller-Beck took with their Cuban colleagues the first step of the project, sponsored by the Fritz Thyssen Stiftung (Foundation). In an own homepage the scientific results will be presented:


 When I entered Cuba as a “normal” tourist 5 years ago I wanted only to enjoy the hospitality and tropic scenery of this land - a “jubilado” like many other tourists. But all altered when I came to Baracoa, the quaint colonial town at the far-eastern side of Cuba. How striking! I witnessed in the house of the regional archaeologist Senor Ordunes Fernandes (now in the pretty museum of the town) a collection of lithic artifacts similar to the Magdaléen-period (Upper-Palaeolithic) I collected in open air sites for 30 years in Bavaria, South Germany. The lithic  technology of the superficial site I saw in Baracoa is in the kind of  core reduction sequence (Grundproduktion) for blades, perfectly made blades with fine retouches in secondary working; there are side scrapers, hollow scrapers, elaborate bi-conical “tortuga” cores. These old patinated and weathered. “Tortuga”-cores we call in Germany “Schildkerne” and they represent specific method of flintknapping. The material is like in Bavaria – Fränkische Jura – yellow-brown patinated silices formerly embedded in the lime-stone of the coast. At a glance there could be no doubt about the antique  character of the superficial site, quite different from the  neolithic Indian-Cultures like the popular Taino-Indians, who migrated thousands of years later. The same pattern of flintknapping - 10 000 kilometers distance to my home in Europe? What a shocking experience….


From this time I returned many times to Cuba again as an archaeologist who was engaged since 30 years in Germany as an investigator, a field-researcher, that means an expert of analysing artifacts of  old open air sites where the hunters and gatherers lived without farming, fixed buildings, without ceramic or rests of diet, mostly even without cave-shelters.


From my visit in the Southeast of the USA I knew that there is a “revolution” in the USA-archaeology after the fall of the “Clovis-time-barrier”. Until some years there was a general agreement who was the most ancient Man in the USA and the oldest Man in America: the famous Clovis-flint knapper, 13,000 years B.P. But now there are at least 3 sites in the USA which well-proved strategraphy are older than Clovis: Topper-site, Meadowcroft, Cactus Hill - 14,000 years to 20,000 years B.P. – in the glacial period. And not so far away is Cuba.


In general the Cuban archaeologists considered this new view of American settlement. In the new published “Historia de Cuba” (2001) the first pages describe in short terms that the first Palaeolithic migrants came from Florida to Cuba thousands of years prior than the (mesolithic) migrants from  Middle- and South-America. Cuba has an archaeological complex that is synonymous with the oldest sites: “Los Farallones de Seboruco” in the province of Holguin, the tributary of the Mayari-river. But at this point the difficulties begin. The oldest dating by radiocarbon14 analysis from Levisa, a river running parallel to Mayari is “only” 5100 B.P. And these dating cannot directly be paralleled with Seboruco. Until we do not have exact dating by old radiocarbon14 method or new  optically stimulated luminescence-methods (OSL, Berylium-10) we depend on interpreting stone-reduction-strategies or tools.                            


One unsolved problem is the hint of  core reduction strategies in Levallois technology of Baracoa, Seboruco and other sites. In the Provincial Museum of Holguin the archaeologists of CITMA exhibit Levoillois-points in the first and second series out of the Seboruco collection. “Levallois” is not only flint knapping in Paleolithic but in Neanderthal tradition! Neanderthal Man lived in Eurasia (West-Asia and Europe) until he extinct 32,000 B.P. Of course no Neanderthal Man had been in America. But Levallois technologies could be brought to America by the early modern Man via Beringia or crossing the Atlantic Ocean.  Theoretically Levallois technologies could be reinventions of palaeoindians. My working hypothesis:  the Levallois manner of flint knapping is a very complicated pattern how to make tools. Why should the paleoindians who knew the high effective blade technology like the people of Damajayabo, south of Santiago, reinvent an old fashioned technology? But even if the Levallois technology is a reinvention by Palaeoindians it must be an old one.


This was my point of view until March 2004 when I came back to Cuba with a group of German archaeologists, directed by Professor Müller-Beck. From this time on I got a different opinion. It is true that there are similarities to Levallois techniques. But the tortuga cores can be simple scrapers unless they have no significant negatives of  instruments flintknapped from the surface of the cores. And there are no typical debitage  flakes as the result of  the process of  Levallois-technique. Within the typical Levallois-core reduction process the relation between core-preparing flakes and endproduct may be 20 : 1. And since now I did not see such debitage.


Since 1998 the archaeological group CITMA, Santa Clara, living in the small town Sagua La Grande, 50 km north of the capital Santa Clara in the middle of Cuba, detected more than hundred open-sites in Palaeolithic tradition. In the scientific conference of the Universidad de Oriente in Santiago  in May 2003 they presented their results. After-wards the Cuban colleagues  showed me in the environment of their home town two of the big open-air sites with estimated  thousands of artifacts. Big chopper-cores of silicified chalk mark the origin of many flakes which were separated in hard-hammer-percussion from the rocks.


The material consists not only of siliceous chalk but of glassy brown chalcedony (Calcedonia). Among the flakes we picked up are: cordate chalcedony-scrapers, pseudo-points, small epi-Levallois-flakes, one with a "Chapeau le Gendarm" platform – in France a sign of Mousterian technology -  conical uni- and bipolar cores, flat deep-brown Levallois-cores.

The flintknapping is in the manner of Seboruco culture, in "Clactonian percussion" with prominent bulbs. This does not mean the  English Old Stone Age Clactonian but the method of flint knapping: to separate flakes  with hard hammer percussion and power from unstandardised chopper-cores. Despite the apparent crudity of the first stages of reduction a wide range of final functions was obviously possible.


Very interesting: The archaeological group of Sagua la Grande find flakes in pits eroded in the karst ground linked with extinct  pleistocene animals. More studies within the German-Cuban  project “the earliest settlements of Cuba” are necessary to see whether the pleistocene fauna and the flakes had been deposited at the same time and how old the extinct animals are .

Other important sites which are discovered in the last years are the “Mayari-complex” some kilometres distant from the famous Seboruco complex.  The small collection has  a significant variety of  epi-levallois-flakes,  unfinished bifacials,  3-edged "hand-axe", a "classical" blade-scraper,  bi-conical chopper-core, some bifacial side-scrapers  and flake-debitage.   Regarding the thick patination and weathered condition of the artifacts they are transported by the waters of the river.


But where are the open air sites  in North America, where the first people of Cuba came from?  My round-trip through the Southeast of the USA in June 2002 was without clear result. The few artifacts of the 3 pre-Clovis-sites have no significant similarity with the Cuban artifacts.  But in the last year I got the information that  the archaeologist Blaine Ensor of the Alabama Association of Professional Archaeologists discovered two open air sites named after small towns in South-eastern Alabama: Capps and Shelley. What he describes and publishes  we can certify with Cuban sites: The sites are on an eroded, flat landform that produces high quality chert (like Sagua); the artifacts are heavily patinated and weathered (Mayari-sites, artifacts of silicified chalk at Sagua); the site collections are devoid of projectile points (all Cuban sites); production of a wide range of end-products ranging from thick, medium to large, unifacial core scrapers, biface/uniface gouges, chisels, cleavers, choppers, and “hand axes” are present (in the Cuban sites Sagia, Mayari, Seboruco, Baracoa with different components). The percussion technology used to produce these tools may be interpreted as “crude” what we can affirm for Seboruco, Mayari, Sagua. There are hints of core reduction strategies of  Levallois techniques. With care Blaine Ensor uses the term “epi-Levallois” that does not necessarily imply a cultural or historical relationship with the Old World. The technology of the Capps site, however, does resemble Levallois technology in important respects. Since now the  artifacts lack direct dating but there is a high probability that they are far older than the Clovis- and Archaic period in the USA.                           


From the archaeological point of view Cuba is an ideal field-research-country. The bulk of the evidence for Palaeolithic Pleistocene open-site occupation lies in the karst area 1000 km long but narrow following the north coast of Cuba (and a part in the South). The carbonat-silicium-rich karst soil offered abundant raw material for the tools of ancient man. He had water, a sufficient  flora and fauna. For a long time archaeology in Cuba  explored the caves, the periods of protoagrarian, Canimar, the Neolithic of paleoindians, with their pottery, carvings, pictograms, funerals. Now we have to focus the energies on  sites with Paleolithic tradition which are of a scientific importance not only for the Caribian but for the whole of America.


The German-Cuban project” The earliest settlements of  Cuba” can give some more evidence about the past of Cuba. Their scientific results are published in the next text.