A recent study published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE suggests that the earliest inhabitants of Puerto Rico may have practiced common mortuary traditions and used communal burial sites for centuries. The research, led by William J. Pestle of the University of Miami, sheds new light on the little-known history of the island’s ancient people, who inhabited the region for thousands of years before the Ceramic Age.
The study focuses on five adult individuals from the Ortiz site in Cabo Rojo, southwestern Puerto Rico, which is a significant addition to the limited archaeological information available about this period. Radiocarbon dating of the remains indicates that they date back as far as 1800 BC and as recent as 800 BC, providing the oldest direct evidence of human presence in Puerto Rico and spanning up to 1,000 years of burials at the Ortiz site.
The mortuary practices and the positioning of the bodies, as well as the associated grave goods, were consistent with those found at other early sites, suggesting standardized burial practices over an extended period. Strontium isotope analysis also revealed that the individuals buried at the Ortiz site were born in different nearby locations, suggesting that it held cultural significance as a communal mortuary space for several local communities.
Although the authors acknowledge that drawing broad conclusions from limited evidence can be challenging, these findings provide insights into a long and formalized use of a shared site over centuries. The study challenges the simplistic interpretations of the early inhabitants of Puerto Rico and highlights the diverse and dynamic cultural landscape that existed in the region.
According to the authors, “This study meticulously documents the oldest dated burials on the island of Puerto Rico and provides detailed scientific and cultural insights into the lives of some of the earliest people to inhabit the area. We hope that our work contributes to the ongoing reframing of our understanding of the deep past of Puerto Rico and the wider Caribbean.”
Source: Public Library of Science