Headlines, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population, TerraViva Europe, TerraViva United Nations

Unearthing Trinidad’s Carib Ancestry

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad, Apr 30 2013 (IPS) - Ricardo Bharath-Hernandez, like most citizens of Trinidad and Tobago, has probably lost count of the millions of dollars being spent to renovate the Greek revival style “Red House” that serves as the parliament building in the oil-rich twin island republic.

In fact, renovation work began more than a decade ago on the building, constructed in 1907 to replace the one destroyed in the 1903 water riots. Recent government estimates put the cost of restoring the original architectural design at 100 million dollars by the time the work is completed in 2015.

"We have for too long paid only lip service to our multiculturalism." -- Dr. Kris Rampersad

But a few weeks ago, Bharath-Hernandez, who is the head of the Santa Rosa First Peoples Community and can trace his ancestry to the first inhabitants of the Caribbean – the Caribs and the Arawaks – took a renewed interest when workers discovered pottery artefacts and bone fragments possibly linked to the Amerindian heritage dating back to AD 0-350.

Bharath-Hernandez, whose community is 600 strong, has already visited the renovation site in the heart of the capital, Port of Spain, and told IPS he is “prepared to perform the necessary ancestral rituals once it is confirmed that the fragments are indeed Amerindian”.

The discovery has come at a time when the Carib community here is moving to construct a modern indigenous Amerindian Village at Santa Rosa, east of the capital, on the 25 acres of land provided by the government.

“We want to keep the village as authentic and traditional as possible but with all modern day amenities,” Bharath-Hernandez said.

“It will comprise a main centre to be used as a meeting and cultural space which will be located in the centre of the village. Spiritual rituals will also be conducted there. There will also be an official residence for the Carib Queen, Jennifer Cassar,” he added.

Arrangements are now being made to send the bones to France for further analysis.

Last week, the Carib chief and representatives from other indigenous groups here met with officials from Parliament and the Urban Development Corporation of Trinidad and Tobago (UdeCOTT), which is carrying out the renovation work.

“We were told that as soon as the results are in we would be called back for another meeting and they will wait on our proposal on how to proceed,” Barath-Hernandez told IPS following the meeting that was also attended by archaeologist Dr. Peter Harris, who had earlier told a local newspaper that the receptacles found in the pits are similar to those used by the Amerindians.

Heritage consultant Dr. Kris Rampersad said the recent finds of skeletal remains and artefacts point to the need for a comprehensive archaeological survey of Trinidad and Tobago.

She is hoping that universities here take the lead to establish an “all-encompassing programme in heritage studies that incorporate research, scientific, conservation, restoration, curatorial and forensic study among other fields that would advance the knowledge and understanding of Trinidad and Tobago’s prehistory and multicultural heritage.

“This also has value to the region and the world. We have for too long paid only lip service to our multiculturalism. The find under the Red House of bones potentially dating to the beginning of this epoch points to the significant need for a proper survey and actions to secure and protect zones that are of significant historical and prehistoric importance,” she told IPS.

Rampersad referred to the neglect by the authorities of another famed Banwari historical site south of here, and hoped that in the case of the discovery at the Red House, history does not repeat itself.

The Banwari Site is said to have been the home of the Banwari man, whose remains date back 7,000 years and which is considered one of the most significant and well-known archaeological treasures of the region.

Discovered some 40 years ago, little has been done to preserve and promote the site.

The Archaeology Centre at the University of the West Indies (UWI) said that in November 1969, the Trinidad and Tobago Historical Society discovered the remains of a human skeleton at Banwari Trace.

“Lying on its left-hand side, in a typical Amerindian ‘crouched’ burial position along a northwest axis Banwari Man was found 20-cm below the surface. Only two items were associated with the burial, a round pebble by the skull and needlepoint by the hip. Banwari Man was apparently interred in a shell midden and subsequently covered by shell refuse.

“Based on its stratigraphic location in the site’s archaeological deposits, the burial can be dated to the period shortly before the end of occupation, approximately 3,400 BC or 5,400 years old,” the UWI noted.

In 1978, Harris hailed the Banwari man as the oldest resident of Trinidad and an important icon of the country’s early antiquity.

“Why, 40 years later, as one of the richest countries in the region, must we be looking to other universities from which to draw expertise when by now we should have full-fledged – not only archaeological, but also conservation, restoration and other related programmes that explore the significance of our heritage beyond the current focus on song and dance mode?” Rampersad asked.

“While scholarly collaborations are important, certainly we could be more advanced, and a leader rather than a follower in these fields in which several other less-resourced Caribbean countries are significantly more advanced,” said Rampersad, who has been conducting trainings across the Caribbean on available mechanisms for safeguarding its heritage.

The discovery at the Red House coincides with recent findings by the U.S.-based National Geographic Genographic Project that the indigenous people may have had strong ancestral links to Africa and to Native American Indians.

Utilising DNA, the U.S.-based organisation tested 25 members of the community in July last year. Bharath-Hernandez says the results will hopefully put to rest questions that have been raised regarding the community’s identity in the past.

The results of the project were released to Bharath-Hernandez late last month by Dr.Jada BennTorres from the University of Pennsylvania.

“We have completed preliminary analysis of the mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosome (NRY markers). These analyses will tell us about the maternal and paternal lineages of the community members,” wrote BennTorres in her letter thanking the Santa Rosa Karina community for its participation.

She said the findings of the genetic ancestry of community “indicate a complex ancestry that includes Africans, in addition to a very strong Native American ancestral component” and that all of the 25 individuals tested would receive their information at a later date.

 
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