Unearthing the Story of Tibes

Unearthing the Story of Tibes: New Looks at an Ancient Society

Keeping this purpose in mind, our field efforts were directed toward discovering houses. This is not an easy task in the tropics, since the structures were built of perishable materials. Most of the time the only observable remains are the hard, compacted dirt floors and the post-holes. Thus, to ensure some degree of success in finding the households I decided to conduct a number of “probing” strategies that included using different techniques and methods. These were successful in the discovery of at least three structures that, at that time, we thought might have been houses, a cooking area and its trash midden, with burnt shells, bones, cooking pottery, charcoal and ashes. Further, we were able to find one of the earliest deposits of the site belonging to the early Saladoid period (around A.D. 490), as well as a possible area near the entrance of the main plaza where ritual paraphernalia was disposed of and also boulders buried at the entrance of a ball court as possible offerings (cache).

After identifying these areas, we began expanding our excavations. It was in this stage that the project began producing results that are groundbreaking in Caribbean archaeology. For example, the radiocarbon or C-14 techniques are producing dates indicating that the site may have been turned into the ceremonial center as we see it today more likely around A.D. 1000–1100, not necessarily around A.D. 600–900. Thus, the changes involved in the process of shifting from a farming village to a civic-ceremonial center may have occurred later than we thought.

Also, archaeobotanical analyses of the charcoal obtained from different units have detected the presence of the cohoba tree (Peptedina peregrina, a hallucinogen used in ceremonies), the first positive archaeological identification of this species in the Caribbean. Faunal analysis has also indicated the presence of guinea pigs (Cavia porcellus), a rodent species not endemic from the Caribbean, but originally domesticated in South America. The small number of guinea pigs in our samples suggests they were a high-status food, used in rituals, or both. Both the guinea pigs and the cohoba come from deposits that are predominantly Elenoid, supporting the evidence from the structures that ceremonialism intensified during this period. We also found clear evidence of a major flood event some time between A.D. 900 and 1000 that impacted the western side of the site in a catastrophic way.

As mentioned above, however, most of the new evidence discredited some of our expectations and debunked the premises of our hypothesis. First, the project has not been able to find any clear evidence of social stratification or the accumulation of wealth and sumptuary objects by any segment of society. Although some valued objects were found, such as exotic food (guinea pigs) and shell and stone ornaments, they are scarce and do not seem to have been concentrated in any particular sector of the site. And, second, the results of the excavation of the structures and the cooking area suggest that they are not necessarily domestic in nature. Most possibly they were related to the ceremonial role of the site, where the structures seem to have been used more during festivals and gatherings and the cooking area was possibly used in the preparation of food during feastings.

Nevertheless, the information obtained from this project and the 1970s excavation is helping us to reconstruct a new, unexpected and more accurate view of the history of the Ceremonial Center of Tibes. Instead of the traditional perspective that equated ceremonial centers and monumental architecture with social stratification and centralization of power, we now believe that these centers represent more the development of communal, ritual space built under egalitarian conditions. In this scenario, groups of different backgrounds or interests could meet to solidify their social bonds through communal rituals or performances represented by the plazas. At the same time, these groups could reinforce their different identities in the face-offs represented by the ball courts and the ball game.

L. Antonio Curet is an archaeologist who specializes in Caribbean and Mesoamerican ancient history. He is currently the Curator of Archaeology at the National Museum of the American Indian - Smithsonian Institution. This project has been conducted in collaboration with the City of Ponce and it includes specialists from several American universities and colleagues and students from Puerto Rico, the U.S., the Netherlands and Colombia. Funds for the project have been provided throughout the years by the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society, the Heinz Foundation and more recently by the 2015 Smithsonian Scholarly Studies Awards Programs in the Arts and Humanities. For more information on Tibes and the archaeological project, see: Luis A. Curet and Lisa M. Stringer. Tibes: People, Power, and Ritual at the Center of the Cosmos. (University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa: 2010.)