VENEZUELA: Treasure Island

By Humberto Márquez

CARACAS, Apr 14 (IPS) - Cubagua, a 24-square-kilometre island off of Venezuela’s northern Caribbean coast, is uninhabited but guards the archaeological testimony of three stages of human history and prehistory in the Americas.

"The oldest archaeological findings date back 3,000 to 3,500 years. They reflect the passage through the area of paleo-indigenous groups -- nomads, explorers and harvesters of shellfish -- perhaps on their way to populating other parts of South America or the Caribbean," anthropologist Carlos Martín told IPS..

On his desk in the Central University of Venezuela’s School of Anthropology, Martín spreads out shells collected in Cubagua. Only at closer inspection would a lay person notice that they have been cut or carved to serve as tools.

"What looks like archaeological garbage is actually gouges and tools used to open shellfish, obtain food and carry out rudimentary woodwork" on rafts or primitive boats used to explore the Caribbean region.

Cubagua, some 300 km northeast of Caracas, is halfway between Venezuela’s northeastern shoreline and the resort island of Margarita. There are no surface sources of fresh water, and the landscape is sand and rock, with a few scattered thickets.

It is the smallest of the three islands making up the Venezuelan state of Nueva Esparta, along with Margarita and Coche islands, and is located 16 km north of Araya Peninsula, the closest mainland area. It is home to only a few itinerant fishing camps, which shrink and grow depending on the season.

"A second group of carved objects were left by indigenous peoples of the Carib or Arawak languages, who passed through Cubagua as nomads since at least 1,500 or 2,000 years ago," said Martín. "They are the artifacts of people who already used knives or other tools made of stone, shells or wood on the mainland or on Margarita Island."

German-Spanish Historian Enrique Otte found remnants of pottery and cooking hearths, as well as signs of what may have been religious rituals.

These were the indigenous people encountered by the Spaniards who arrived at these shores in the late 15th century. On his third voyage, in August 1498, Christopher Columbus reached Cubagua, where he discovered riches that whetted Europe’s appetite: pearls.

Thus began the third population wave in Cubagua: the Spaniards, who brought Guaiquerí Indians over from Margarita Island and made them dive for oysters. Forced to dive for up to 16 hours a day, many of them died of overwork. The rich pearl fisheries led to the establishment in 1500 of the first Spanish settlement in what is now South America: Nueva Cádiz.

The settlement on the northeastern shore of the island gained the formal status of a town in 1528, when it was home to 1,000 European inhabitants along with an unknown number of indigenous people and, later, groups of black slaves. Fresh water was brought in from the mouth of the Manzanares river, on the nearby mainland.

But by 1537, the oyster beds were basically wiped out, as was the native population as a result of European diseases and brutal exploitation. The town was abandoned as a permanent settlement in 1539 and destroyed by a tidal wave in 1541. The ruins were burnt by French pirates in 1543.

Nueva Cádiz "was an L-shaped city that was walled in to protect itself from pirates. It had streets, houses, two churches, a city hall, a convent and a cemetery. Outside the walls lived the Indians and blacks, in rudimentary huts and shacks," archaeologist Jorge Armand, who is carrying out work in the ruins, told IPS.

Armand and his team found and cleared the ruins of one of the churches, the Ermita de Nuestra Señora, which measured 30 by eight metres and had outside walls one metre thick and a flagstone floor. "The ruins coincide with Otte’s research and an old French map," said the archaeologist.

The Ermita "was the first Catholic church in South America, the first where the Virgin of the Valley -- the patron saint of fishermen and sailors in Venezuela -- was venerated, and it shows the importance that the Spaniards placed on Nueva Cádiz," said Armand.

The Venezuelan Institute of Cultural Patrimony is studying the possibility of building a museum in Cubagua, for students of archaeology and history, as well as tourists.

"The essential thing is conservation," said Martín. "An on-site museum is a wonderful idea, but tourism must be accompanied by education and controls, in order for it to be responsible, because we are not only talking about archaeological treasures, but also an island with a fragile environment."

Cubagua "represents three key phases of human development in the Americas. First, the passage of primitive (in the archaeological sense) groups, who could have been ancestors of the Carib Indians. Second, the organised indigenous peoples who lived on the mainland and visited Cubagua seasonally for fishing and possibly for holding rituals," said the anthropologist.

And, finally, "the Spaniards, who founded the first colonial city built on an island, over 500 years ago," until the town was wiped out "by the forces of nature and greed," he said.

"At times there is a tendency to look down on Venezuela’s prehispanic history and patrimony, because it is compared to the monumental history of Mexico, Peru or Central America. But the roots could have begun to take shape here, on this island, millennia ago, in something as basic and marvellous as the first inhabitants of the new world carving a rock that was used to pry open a clam or cut wood," said Martín. (END/2008)

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