Was Columbus Right About Cannibals in the New World?

Daisy Hernandez
Photo credit: Heritage Images - Getty Images

From Popular Mechanics

  • A new study asks a familiar question: was Christopher Columbus right about cannibalistic marauders in the New World?
  • According to Columbus' journals, the Caniba, a group of murderous pillagers, terrorized the Arawak natives. Supposedly, the Caniba would kill and eat the men they captured and kidnap the women.
  • While there is some evidence that Columbus' accounts could've been true, there is no definitive evidence so the the claims continue to remain a mystery.

In 1492, when Columbus landed in the Bahamas, he recorded his experiences in journals, giving Europe one of its first accounts of the Western hemisphere. In these journals, Columbus refers to an indigenous group as “Caniba,” people who would pillage the Arawak villages, kidnap women, and, surprisingly, kill and eat the men.

An entry dated November 4—in which native peoples are communicating with one of Columbus' Admirals—reads:

“... far from there, there were one-eyed men, and others, with snouts of dogs, who ate men, and that as soon as one was taken they cut his throat and drank his blood...”

In the 500 years since, researchers have been uncertain about this claim “based on the possible confusion of ‘Caribe’ and ‘Caniba’” and the assumption that the Caribs—people from the Lesser Antilles islands—never made it past the island of Guadeloupe.

But a new study examining several skulls, dating between the 800 to 1542 A.D. from the Caribbean, Florida, and Panama, supports evidence that “the Carib people were indeed present in the Bahamas as early as the year A.D. 1,000—meaning Columbus’ descriptions of their raids could have been based in reality,” according to Live Science.

Researchers used facial recognition technology to study the skulls which uncovered “relationships between people groups” and “upended longstanding hypotheses” about who colonized what.

Photo credit: Ann Ross / North Carolina State University

“There were Caribs in the northern Caribbean when he arrived,” says William Keegan, one of the co-authors of the study and a curator of Caribbean archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History. But Keegan also clarifies that while the accounts of cannibalism could be true, there is insufficient evidence to definitively confirm Columbus’ claims.

According to the study, there is some archaeological evidence in the form of pottery that “suggests” the Carib moved within a thousand miles of the southern portion of the Bahamas. This evidence, however, is “scant” and “may not be telling the full story,” say the authors.

The skull analyses coupled with archaeological artifacts—such as stone tools and additional pottery—helped the researchers identify three migrant groups: a group from the Yucatán Peninsula, the Arawaks, and the Caribs.

Once the Caribs reached Hispaniola around 800 A.D., they made efforts to move toward the Bahamas where it’s possible that they engaged in “violent conflict” with the Arawaks, going so far as to cannibalize some of the men to prove how fearsome they were.

Still, no conclusive evidence has been found to confirm Columbus’ cannibalism accounts. For now, those claims remain a mystery.

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