Agricultural Societies in the Continental Caribbean
Prehistoric man’s transition from gathering to food production was a multifaceted process, an evolutionary continuum which took place only gradually over an extended period of time. Both in the Old World and the Americas the full-scale cultivation of food crops by selectively aiding plant growth or reproduction obviously followed several thousand years of wild plant food procurement and an incipient agricultural stage of food production with minimal tillage. In South America a major threshold was passed when during the Early Holocene the Amerindian peoples of the tropical lowlands developed a mixed subsistence strategy, combining horticulture with small game hunting, fishing and the unspecialized collecting of wild plant foods and shellfish. Cultivation now involved land clearance of ‘swidden’ plots, systematic tillage and the propagation of genotypic and phenotypic variants of a large number of food plants. Under this system, known as ‘shifting cultivation’, the clearing of fields in the forest took and still takes place by simple slash-and-burn techniques while fields are cropped for fewer years than they are fallowed. The combination of horticulture, hunting, fishing and collecting has remained the major mode of subsistence in large parts of the South and Central American tropical lowlands until at present while, according to calibrated radiocarbon dates, it was introduced to the West Indies during the last few centuries BC.1
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