Dating Prehispanic Caribbean Wooden Sculptures: Wood Anatomist at Work

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Left to right: a) Pelican cohoba stand, Guaiacum sp., AD 978–1021 (modeled date for outer edge), Aboukir, Jamaica. Musée Barrois reliquary, Guaiacum sp., AD 1054–1181 (modeled dates), Dominican Republic/Haiti (?),Robsjohn-Gibbings duho, Guaiacum sp., AD 1451–1517. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Jamaica, Kingston, Musée Barrois, Bar-le-Duc, France, and modeled dates), the Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History, New York, respectively.

Look at those wooden sculptures! Some FPL research could even be called exotic. Research Botanist Alex Wiedenhoeft  of the Engineering Properties of Wood, Wood based Materials and Structures research unit has worked with the Pre-Hispanic Caribbean Sculptural Arts in Wood project, which studied 66 wooden artifacts attributed to the pre-colonial Taíno, the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean’s Greater Antilles.

The Taíno inhabited Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Cuba, the Bahamas, and the Turks and Caicos Islands at the time of first European contact in the late 15th century. The Taíno created visually striking wood sculptures made of single boles and decorated with inlays of guanin (a gold-copper alloy) or shell: there are no extant examples featuring multiple wood components. By the time of Columbus’ arrival in 1492, wooden sculpture is documented as being central to Taíno religious and social practices.

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2 Transverse section of Guaiacum officinale showing a lack of distinct growth rings (image size: 2059 ?m wide by 1544 ?m tall).
Photo: A Wiedenhoeft.

Paired Dating of Pith and Outer Edge (Terminus) Samples from Prehispanic Caribbean Wooden Sculptures by FPL’s Alex Wiedenhoeft and others report paired or multiple dates from 11 wooden sculptures from the Taíno peoples. Dating of wood can be problematic because of the potential reuse of wood and differences in age across a tree from the pith to the sapwood’s outer rings. The nature of Taíno wooden sculpture—carved of dense tropical hardwoods that are still poorly known—makes it even more challenging to sample and date.

The calibrated ages of the pieces published here range from ~AD 700–1500, indicating that the Taíno were producing elaborate sculptures much earlier than previously thought. The results can also be used to generate a growth rate model for species that do not have distinct growth rings, and the models can be used to refine the calibrated ages of pieces. The paired or multiple dates from these carvings confirmed the accuracy of the results, and were also used to construct a growth rate model of what was expected to be a slow-growing species (Guaiacum sp.). This model demonstrates that the boles used to create the sculptures grew on average 1 cm every 6–13 years.