Taino and Shoelaces: Value is Relative

Columbus Traded Shoelace Tags for Gold*

Christopher Columbus and his men traded cheap brass shoelace tags for gold when they first arrived in Cuba, according to new research.

While Columbus and his crew knew they were getting the better end of the deal, the indigenous Caribbean people, called the Taino, valued the small brass tags more than gold, which was then relatively abundant in Cuba.

"Brass was new, exotic and required liaising with the Europeans, and on top of that it had a special smell and iridescence," lead researcher Marcos Martinón-Torres told Discovery News. "All of these factors probably contributed to its appeal."

The research will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science. Martinón-Torres, a lecturer at the University College London Institute of Archaeology, explained that the Taino called brass "turey," meaning "heaven," because they thought sniffing brass allowed them to smell heaven. Written sources also suggest brass was thought to imbue wearers with supernatural powers.

The tags, which the Europeans used to prevent shoe and clothing laces from fraying, weren’t even very useful in this way for the native Cubans, who instead chose to make jewelry out of them, sometimes with the shoelace still attached.

The UCL archaeologists, in collaboration with the Ministry of Science and Technology in Cuba, found many examples of such jewelry at burial sites in northeast Cuba. The sites date to the late 15th and early 16th centuries, in the decades just following the arrival of Columbus’s 1492 Spanish fleet.

Gold was notably missing in the graves, which had not been looted.

"Columbus himself records in his diaries the trade of gold for shoelace tags," said Martinón-Torres. "Much of the gold plundered from Latin America is still circulating around Europe nowadays (remelted into new objects), as recent provenance studies have shown."

The researchers believe the European arrivals, seeing the local Cuban gold and other desirable items, traded anything they had on hand, including what were to them cheap and dispensable tags.

The technology to make brass, an alloy of copper and zinc, was unknown to the Taino. Martinón-Torres and his team further explored the source of the brass using scanning electron microscopy and X-ray microanalysis.

They found trace elements that gave the brass a unique compositional signature, which they traced to Germany. The scientists think the metal arrived in Spain via commercial routes before it wound up in the tags excavated in Cuba.

Roy Stephenson, archaeological archive manager of the Museum of London, commented, "This is fascinating work carried out by UCL, which will shed light on what appears to be quite dreary and repetitive finds, but in reality tells a compelling story about international trade."

UCL archaeology professor Thilo Rehren, who worked on the project with Martinón-Torres, also thinks Columbus' "shoelace tags for gold" trades contributed to the current economic status of both Europe and Cuba.

"The relationship between Europeans and Americans, in which metals seem to have played a very significant role, dramatically affected the later history of both peoples," said Rehren. "The removal of noble metals had a significant impact on the later economy and goes some way to explaining why Europe is rich today compared with Cuba."

*Source: Discovery News

UCTP Taino News Moderator's Note: The above information is presented for educational purposes only. The views and opinions expressed within "Columbus Traded Shoelace Tags for Gold" are not necessarily those of The Voice of the Taino People News Journal or the United Confederation of Taino People. The article also fails to mention an important factor in the Taino attraction to brass, which was their familiarity with another "brass-like" alloy our ancestors called Guanin. In ancient times this rare metal was traded and prized throughout the region in ancient times, and was valued for its "exoticness" but rather for the important spiritual significance Guanin represented.

No comments: