New Research Suggests Columbus' Tales of Raiders and Cannibals May Have Been True After All

The explorer Christopher Columbus' tales of ferocious raiders and cannibals may have had more than a grain of truth to them, according to new research.

Using facial recognition, researchers who set out to prove Columbus wrong instead found evidence suggesting he could have been right.

"I've spent years trying to prove Columbus wrong when he was right: There were Caribs in the northern Caribbean when he arrived," William Keegan, curator of Caribbean archeology at the Museum of Natural History, University of Florida, said in a statement. Keegan co-authored the paper published in Scientific Reports.

"We're going to have to reinterpret everything we thought we knew."

Columbus' diaries contain passages of brutal interlopers who attacked the local, peace-loving Arawaks living in what is now the Bahamas—taking the local women as their slave-wives, while cannibalizing the men.

In one section recounting his first voyage to the Americas in 1492-3, he writes: "I saw some who had marks of wounds on their bodies and I made signs to them asking what they were; and they showed me how people from other islands nearby came there and tried to take them, and how they defended themselves; and I believed and believe that they come here from tierra firme to take them captive."

Columbus (mistakenly) called these people "Caniba," the soldiers of the Grand Khan in Asia. This was corrected to "Caribe" sometime later by Columbus' successors.

The Caribe were community plunderers from the northwest Amazon in South America—and were rumored to be cannibals. However, historians did not believe they ventured quite so far north. Archeological evidence suggests their closest outpost was somewhere almost 1,000 miles to the south of the Bahamas, which puts something of a dampener on Columbus' reports.

But now new evidence could change that, or at least raises the possibility that there is some truth to Columbus' stories, say researchers. Keegan and colleagues used facial recognition technology to analyze similarities and differences in the anatomy of 103 skulls collected from 10 localities as a genetic proxy to measure their relation to one another. This includes facial "landmarks," such as the length of the nose.

Columbus statue
New evidence suggests the Caribs were living in the Caribbean when Columbus arrived. bdsklo/iStock

By examining skulls from 800 to 1542 C.E., the team was able to dig into the colonization history of the area, finding not only different groups of people but their migration patterns.

They found there were three groups in total—the initial colonizers, the expanding Arawaks and surprisingly, the invading Caribs. The results suggest the Caribs started pushing north and making roots in the Bahamas and Hispaniola from around 800 C.E.—and by the time Columbus landed in the Americas, the Caribs were an already established presence.

The very fact that the Caribs were in the Caribbean when Columbus arrived lends more support to his claims, even if it does not go so far as to prove they were true, they say.

But whether or not the Caribs were cannibals, the narrative—propagated by the likes of Columbus—influenced the way indigenous people were treated by European colonizers.

The flesh-eating reputation caused the Spanish monarchy to go back on their previous intentions to pay locals for work, says Keegan.

"The crown said, 'Well, if they're going to behave that way, they can be enslaved,'" said Keegan. "All of a sudden, every native person in the entire Caribbean became a Carib as far as the colonists were concerned."

Researchers analyzed the skulls of early Caribbean inhabitants, using 3D facial "landmarks" as a genetic proxy for determining how closely groups were related to one another. Ann Ross/North Carolina State University

"This will change the perspective on the people and peopling of the Caribbean," said lead author Ann Ross, a professor of biological sciences at North Carolina State University.

The research adds a new component to an area that has previously relied on artifacts such as pottery. According to Ross, the biological component brings the history into sharper focus.