New study reveals surprising diversity of ethnic groups in the US virgin islands before columbus

In 1493, when Christopher Columbus arrived at what is now known as the US Virgin Islands during his second voyage across the Atlantic, the islands were already inhabited. However, the origins of the population on St. Croix, St. John, and St. Thomas remain uncertain.

A research team comprising members from the United States, Argentina, the United Kingdom, and Denmark has recently presented a chemically-based solution to this puzzle. They were granted permission to conduct the first thermoluminescence dating of pottery shards excavated from the islands. The results of their study, published in the journal Heritage Science, can now be compared with previous archaeological datings based on stylistic analysis, site location, and radiocarbon dating.

The leader of the chemical analyses was Kaare Lund Rasmussen, a professor at the Department of Physics, Chemistry, and Pharmacy. As an expert in archaeometry, he has conducted chemical analyses on various significant artifacts, including the tomb of Renaissance astronomer Tycho Brahe, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the coffin of King Canute the Holy, and the skeletons of Jesus’ apostles.

The pottery shards used in the study were provided by the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen. The museum granted the researchers permission to collect samples from ceramic pieces brought to the museum in 1924 from the former Danish colonies in the West Indies. The samples consisted of 128 pottery shards from seven different locations on St. John, St. Thomas, and St. Croix.

These new datings using thermoluminescence analysis contribute to a more detailed understanding of the timeline of human habitation on the islands and shed light on the various ethnic groups that lived there or engaged in trade simultaneously. However, much remains unknown about the early residents and their culture, as few artifacts apart from pottery shards have been discovered during archaeological investigations on the islands.

Selection of the 128 pottery shards, analyzed by Professor Kaare Lund Rasmussen, University of Southern Denmark. Credit: Kaare Lund Rasmussen/University of Southern Denmark

The recent thermoluminescence datings conducted by Lund Rasmussen and his team challenge the prevailing theory put forward by Professor Irwin Rouse of Yale University in 1960 regarding the early inhabitants of the islands. Rouse’s theory suggested that immigrants arrived in three successive waves from the south, originating from the mouth of the Orinoco River in Venezuela.

The new data suggests a different narrative. Lund Rasmussen’s findings indicate that multiple cultures with distinct styles coexisted on the islands at the same time, contradicting the idea of three major waves of immigration from south to north. The presence of various pottery styles, such as Ostiones, Monserrate, Santa Elena, La Hueca, and Cuevas, within a specific timeframe (600 to 1200 AD) across different locations on the islands suggests the simultaneous presence of different ethnic groups.

These findings indicate that these ethnic groups may have inhabited the islands intermittently, engaging in trade and traveling in multiple directions, both north and south. It challenges the notion of a linear migration pattern and suggests a more complex and interconnected cultural landscape.

Previous datings in the U.S. Virgin Islands relied on radiocarbon dating of materials found alongside pottery shards, such as seashells. However, the lack of well-defined stratigraphy on the islands made it challenging to accurately date the pottery shards using this method. Lund Rasmussen highlights the importance of thermoluminescence dating in providing a more precise understanding of the timeline and cultural dynamics of the islands’ early inhabitants.

The research team is currently exploring the chemical composition of the clay used in pottery vessels to determine if it can provide insights into the origins of the different pottery styles. This analysis may help identify whether the vessels were locally produced or brought from other islands via canoes.

Overall, these recent findings challenge existing theories, emphasizing the complexity of the cultural landscape and interactions among different ethnic groups in the early history of the US Virgin Islands.

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