Doctor of Hitorical Sciences Armando Rangel Rivero next to the Idol of Bayamo, archaeological piece kept at the Montané Anthropological Museum. Photo: Silvia Diéguez

Haven to the works of outstanding men of sciences of Cuba like Luis Montané Darde, Carlos de la Torre, René Herrera Fritot, Ramón Dacal Moure and Manuel Rivero de La Calle, the Montané Anthropological Museum at the School of Biology of the University of Havana reopened its doors in December 2019 after the completion of repair works in the building.

Founded on June 29, 1903, the museum is named after Luis Montané Darde – considered the father of Cuban scientific anthropology-, and has pieces that are unique in the region of the Caribbean.

One of the most outstanding pieces is the idol of Tobacco, a figure carved in Guayacán wood, Guayacum sp, dated around 1,110 years ago that belongs to the Taino culture and whose shape remind that on a Cuban cigar.

The carving has been studied by specialists of multiple disciplines in different moments in history. One study made in 1996 by Dr. Roberto Rodríguez and Dr. Alexis Vidal showed that the interior and the bottom of the idol contained rests of hallucinogenic substances and diverse fatty acids present in seeds, which made them presume it was probably used in religious ceremonies.

A curious fact about this carving is that on January 6, 1906, it was given to the President of the Republic Tomás Estrada Palma, and 26 days later he donated it to the Montané Anthropological Museum.

Another emblematic piece treasured in this place is the Idol of Bayamo, one of the biggest stone sculptures found in a state in Bayamo, in the Western region, in 1843.

Doctor in Historical Sciences Armando Rangel Rivero, director of the museum since 2012, told Granma newspapers that this piece has a high scientific, artistic and historic value and it was submitted by Spanish geographer Miguel Rodríguez to the then Felipe Poey Museum of Natural History. It remained there until the University Anthropological Museum opened in 1899, renamed Montané four years later.

From that moment on, the museum became the first and flagship facility within the school.

Built with greenish grey sandstone, there is a figure that is a mix of human and animal thought to be associated to a deity of the rivers and the seas, worshipped by the indigenous community it belonged to.

According to professor Rangel Rivero, the wide spectrum of archaeological pieces kept and displayed in the Montané Antrhopolical Museum is the result of over 115 years of fieldwork by several generations of Cuban and foreign anthropologists and archaeologists, making it the best exhibition on pre-Hispanic heritage available in the country.

The museum also has valuable collections of petaloid axes used by the indigenous people, rests of Taino pottery, stone mortars, percutidores and necklaces beads. Special mention to the Dujo de Santa Fe, a striking and curious carving made of well carved and sanded Guayacán wood, presumably used as a seat by the cacique (chief) and the behique (wizard) in religious ceremonies.

In addition to all the pieces collected in Cuba, the museum also has pre-Hispanic objects brought from Central and South America, Europe and other parts of the world such as shrunk heads and vases with a prodigious complexity in their design, just to mention a few.

SCIENTIFIC CONTRIBUTIONS

Scientific research has been inherently linked to the Montané Anthropological Museum, which has become the longest-running and uninterrupted archaeological exhibition in Cuba.

Doctor Armando Rangel explained that specialists of the institution took part in the restoration of the age and diet of the fisher-harvester indigenous populations of the East and the center of Cuba, through the use of isotopes and Carbon 14 analysis, and in the description of the different sizes and shapes of the skull in indigenous communities by using geometrical morphometry.

Likewise, while the only Archaeometry Laboratory in Cuba was in operation during the 1980s, several studies on collagen and starch were carried out on different archaeological pieces existing in the country. These studies were later presented in degree thesis in higher education centers countrywide contributing with novel knowledge.

In 2004, researchers at the Montané Anthropological Museum, together with experts in Speleology and Archaeology at the Provincial Heritage Division in Matanzas and of the now Cuban Institute of Anthropology of the Ministry of Sciences, Technology and Environment (CITMA for the Spanish language), resume the studies in the area of Canímar Abajo, site of one of the most interesting precolombine settlements in Cuba.

After a decade of work, the researchers have been able to identify ways of life among those indigenous inhabitants that have never been described before such as the fact that they have small-scale crops and the presence of corn in their diet earlier than what has been previously estimated.

One of the recent discoveries includes the finding, through the use of advanced methods of molecular biology, including mytochondrial DNA test, that the embalmed body kept in the Montané Museum since 1975, has genes characteristic of the Guanche mummies from Canary Islands, ruling out its possible South American or ancient Peru origin.  

Although the institution maintains its main functions of teaching, research and preservation of its collections, it has been assigned in the last few years with the task of giving priority to the outreach work of the university, which significantly increases the visibility of the museum beyond the limist of the University of Havana.

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