Artefact Spotlight! Lucayan Duho (AD 1000–1630)

 

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[Fig. 1] Artist rendition of the arrival of Christopher Columbus – The Gallery Collection / Corbis (source)

Today is Columbus Day—an annual event commemorating the anniversary of Italian explorer Christopher Columbus arriving in America. In the United States, the holiday (observed the second Monday in October) reached federal status in 1937 [1], and many businesses close their doors and schoolchildren rejoice in the three-day weekend.

However, the celebration of Christopher Columbus’ exploits and the implications of his arrival is highly controversial. The holiday has been called “the most divisive of all federal holidays” [2] and today the internet roars with argument and calls for the day to be replaced. Alternative holidays celebrating indigenous culture and life before Columbus have been suggested, the most popular being Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

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[Fig. 2] Screenshot of Apple Calendar for 8 October

Both Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples’ Day appear on the Apple Calendar, each including a caveat that the holiday may not be observed in some regions (fig. ?). What’s the big deal? Here we will briefly discuss the controversy behind Columbus Day before learning a bit about the people whom first came into contact with Columbus and his crew, ending with a description of the fascinating duho.

Columbus Day controversy

As a child, I was taught that Christopher Columbus discovered America. I even remember a catchy song we learned in school that I can’t help but burst into at every mention of Columbus or his three famous ships:

♪ Columbus sailed over the ocean, Columbus sailed over the sea,
Columbus discovered America, but Columbus didn’t see me!
Nina, Pinta, Santa Maria too,
They all sailed over the ocean blue (in 1492)! ♪

Knowing the names of the ships and the year of Columbus’ “discovery”  has come in handy during pub trivia a time or two. However, it isn’t factual—we know that Columbus didn’t “discover” America because it was already inhabited. Moreover, it is now understood that Columbus wasn’t even the first European to sojourn in the New World: A group of Vikings (believed to have been led by Leif Eiriksson) had made the voyage some 500 years prior via Greenland, settling in modern-day Newfoundland [3].

Since it’s obvious that Columbus Day does not (and cannot) celebrate the discovery of America, what we’re actually celebrating is the arrival of Europeans to the continent en masse and the subsequent conquest of land that was already populated. This conquest resulted in the massacre of innumerable indigenous persons, both by physical force and exposure to foreign diseases for which people had no immunity, as well as eradication of culture and invaluable esoteric knowledge. In a word: colonization. Understandably, there are many who feel that this is not appropriate cause for a holiday, and instead choose to spend the day celebrating indigenous culture. So, we thought this would be a good opportunity to learn about the people who first encountered the Europeans and their fascinating duho.

Lucayan people and the Duho

The Lucayan people (a branch of the Taínos, commonly called Arawaks) inhabited all of  the main islands of the Bahamas archipelago [4]. The only known written account of the Lucayans comes from brief mentions in Columbus’ diario [6], in which he describes the natives’ appearance:

Saturday, 13 October. At daybreak great multitudes of men came to the shore, all young and of fine shapes, very handsome; their hair not curled but straight and coarse like horse-hair, and all with foreheads and heads much broader than any people I had hitherto seen; their eyes were large and very beautiful; they were not black, but the color of the inhabitants of the Canaries… They were straight-limbed without exception, and not with prominent bellies but handsomely shaped… [6]

The Lucayans were governed by hereditary caciques, or chiefs, who also held positions of religious importance [5]. The people lived in villages within close proximity to the sea, with populations varying in number from a few to many hundreds [5]. The islands that the Lucayan people inhabited were beautiful, enchanting, and bursting with color and life. Columbus notes:

“…Groves of lofty and flourishing trees are abundant, as also large lakes, surrounded and overhung by the foliage, in a most enchanting manner. Everything looked as green as in April in Andalusia. The melody of the birds was so exquisite that one was never willing to part from the spot, and the flocks of parrots obscured the heavens.” [6]

Their population is estimated to have been 50,000 in 1492, and within a century of the arrival of the Europeans they were nearly completely annihilated [5].

Among the artefacts left behind, the duho, or ceremonial seat, is recognized as an important feature of Lucayan culture, with 26 known and 15 surviving examples from the Lucayan archipelago [7; Fig. 4]. The duhos vary in form and design: the two main forms are high-back and low-back seats, featuring anthropomorphic carvings ranging from faceless heads to naturalistic animals, suggesting a complex iconographic diversity [7].  The woods they are made from are Guaiacum sp. and Cordia sp., the latter being unique to Lucayan duho [7]. The duho range in size with some reaching impressive lengths, for example the ‘TCNM’ duho (L: 1105mm; W: 208mm; H: 550mm) [7]. The widespread distribution of the duho demonstrate extensive trade networks among the Taíno territories and Lucayan fluorescence (fig. ?). The European invasions broke down the trade connections and killed much of the population, so production and use of the duho ceased by the mid-16th century [7].

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[Fig. 3] Three duhos from the Blue Hills vicinity. American Museum of Natural History, New York (25/234). Right: ‘Frith duho’, high-back, Carapa sp., AD 1407-1445 [7]. L: 825mm; W: 186mm; H:380mm. Courtesy, Department of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington (A030053). Source: Ostapkowicz 2015 [7]

What were they used for?

The exact function of the duho and their value to those who created and owned them is unknown, but the effort that went into constructing them and the level of detail they exhibit suggests that that these were items denoting elite status and a hierarchical society. They may have served to strengthen links between trading partners, display the wealth and prestige of the chief, and/or honour some ideological faction. It is likely that upon these seats sat the bums of important, highly-regarded individuals in Lucayan society, maybe even those same individuals who first contacted Christopher Columbus on that fateful day in 1492.

 

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[Fig. 4] Distribution map of the Lucayan archipelago illustrating the 26 known Duho. Image by J. Ostapkowicz [7]. The white images indicate those that have been lost since discovery.

Where can I see a duho?

Here are some museums with exquisite examples of duho that you can visit. This list is by no means exhaustive, so check your local museum!

Manchester Museum 
The University of Manchester,
Oxford Road, Manchester
M13 9PL
Website

Admission: Free

Monday – Wednesday 8am – 5pm
Thursday 8am – 9pm
Friday 8am – 5pm
Saturday & Sunday 9am – 5pm
24-26 Dec, 1 Jan: closed

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Featured image – The two duhos from Cat Island. Note the striking difference in detail. Manchester Museum, The University of Manchester (0.9323/468). Source: Ostapkowicz 2015 [7]

The British Museum
Great Russell Street
London WC1B 3DG
Website

Admission: Free

Open daily
10.00–17.30
Fridays until 20.30*

 

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Stool/duho. The British Museum (Am1949,22.118) Source: The British Museum. More details

 

The National Museum of the American Indian
Fourth Street & Independence Ave., S.W.
Washington, DC 20560
Website

Admission: Free

Open daily
10.00–17.30

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Lucayan duho (seat), high-back style. The National Museum of the American Indian. Lady Edith Blake Collection (5/9385). (Source)

 



Sources cited

[1] Columbus Day 2018. History.
Accessed 7 October 2018.
[2] Morris, Chris. 2017. It’s Columbus Day. Here’s Why So Many People Hate It.
Accessed 7 October 2018.
[3] Wallace, Brigitta. Leif Erikssen the Lucky. Encyclopedia Britannica.
[4] Eight hundred years before Columbus arrived in the Bahamian archipelago, Native American peoples thrived on these islands. The Museum.
[5] Aarons, G.A. 1990. The Lucayans: The People Whom Columbus Discovered in the Bahamas. Five Hundred Magazine 2(1), 6-7.
[6Excerpts from Christopher Columbus‘ Log, 1492 A.D.
[7] Ostapkowicz, J. 2015. …either a piece of domestic furniture of the Indians or one of their Gods: The Study of Lucayan Duhos. Journal of Caribbean Archaeology 15, 62-101.

 

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Contributor
Deputy Editor, Adelle Bricking
Adelle is a postgraduate research student at Cardiff University. She studies Iron Age burial practices in southwest Britain.

@adelle_bricking

Edited by Michael Legge.

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