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Dmitri Prieto-Samsonov: I define myself as being either Cuban-Russian or Russian-Cuban, indiscriminately. I was born in Moscow in 1972 of a Russian mother and a Cuban father. I lived in the USSR until I was 13, although I was already familiar with Cuba– where we would take our vacation almost every year. I currently live on the fifth floor of an apartment building in Santa Cruz del Norte, near the sea. I’ve studied biochemistry and law in Havana and anthropology in London. I’ve written about molecular biology, philosophy and anarchism, although I enjoy reading more than writing. I am currently teaching in the Agrarian University of Havana. I believe in God and in the possibility of a free society. Together with other people, that’s what we’re into: breaking down walls and routines.

The Myth of a “Sustainable Primitive Community” in Cuba

November 3, 2014 |

Dmitri Prieto

Ornimegalonyx, a species of giant own now extinct.

HAVANA TIMES — I attended a thesis defense on Cuba’s first inhabitants. It was a very interesting paper that compiled a lot of archeological data and studies conducted with advanced technologies.

I won’t be writing about the thesis, however.

I will comment on a small debate that took place during the discussion of the paper.

Participants were reflecting on hunter-gatherer communities (there are those who insist on gender distinctions and point out the men did the hunting while the women were responsible for the gathering), that is to say, human groups who lived in Cuba well before Arauco societies of farmers and ceramic-makers were “discovered” by Christopher Columbus’ people and taught the ancestors of the current inhabitants of Cuba’s east how to make cassava cakes.

(Tongue-in-cheek, I would add that what the Spaniards were actually taught to cook at the time was yuquilla¬. Toda’s yuca, or cassava, arrived later from Africa, with the slave trade.)

In short, these people went around hunting animals and gathering fruits and edible roots.

Then, someone mentioned that these populations had a truly balanced relationship with their surroundings, that is to say, did not engage in predatory practices like the ones that characterize “modern” society.

From this perspective, these indigenous communities were true “experts” in sustainable environmental management – something that ties in to the issue of the so-called “primitive opulent society,” but that is another story.

The sustainability of pre-Colombian communities in the Americas and their environmentally-friendly practices has been one of the strategic banners wielded by many movements that call for the rights of indigenous or First Nations people, as they are referred to today.

According to some of those who participated in this discussion, it turns out that Cuba’s first inhabitants shared this ecological approach with their cousins across Abya-Yala, or the American continent.

Hearing this brought to mind the Megalocnus rodens¬, an extinct species of giant sloth native to the Americas that existed in Cuba during the quaternary (Pleistocene). I recalled the species because there is a Megalocnus skull in a museum in Santa Cruz del Norte.

I don’t know whether its common name, “sloth” (the name also given to its current and “lesser” relatives), has anything to do with the work ethic that prevails in Cuba today.

This herbivorous creature was anywhere from 1.3 to 1.7 meters long and from 0.8 to 1.2 meters high.

It was found across the island and a basic element of the food chain, where it was hunted by birds of prey such as the Ornimegalonyx, a species of giant owl that is also extinct. It is believed this is the largest owl that has ever existed. It was at least 1 meter tall and probably weighed over 9 kilograms. The legs and claws of this giant owl appear to have been large and powerful. It’s likely this owl flew only when it was pressured to do so, and that it preferred to run, as a modern turkey does.

Since I’ve never seen a Megalocnus walking around anywhere, let alone a 9-kilogram running owl, I can only surmise that these were all eaten.

According to Wikipedia, they became extinct “only 6 thousand years ago, when aboriginals arrived in their habitat. (…) It is believed that (….) they hunted the sloths because of the remains (…) discovered in their settlements.”

Let us say goodbye, then, to the myth of a “sustainable primitive community.”

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  • Griffin

    An interesting and well argued article, Dmitri. We often hear about how the pre-Colombian civilizations of the Americas lived in harmony with their environment and at peace with each other. Lost in that rosy picture of the past are the many animals hunted into extinction, the occasional bouts of starvation and cannibalism, and the frequent wars between tribes.

    The natural environment has always been a constantly changing interconnected web of systems. The only thing that is sustainable in the long run, is change.