Friday, November 16, 2018

Local practices did not often follow royal orders

Our new article is out, and non-other that in the Cuban traditional journal Islas. This specialized magazine divulges studies in humanities and social sciences and has been in existence since 1958 when it was first edited and coordinated by Samuel Feijoo. Today, its base is located in the Universidad Central “Marta Abreu” of Las Villas, in central Cuba.

Main drawbridge to the Castillo de San Severino, Matanzas city, Cuba

The article deals with the earliest and lest known history of the Castillo de San Severino, the cities’ oldest building and the main reason for the city’s official foundation. Most especially, it drives home the point that many of the ordinances, related to the Castillo’s construction and the city’s foundation, although painstakingly designed and ordained in such manner by the crown, where not fully obeyed by the local officials. This likely mirrors the situation, not just in rural Cuba, but also in its major cities and throughout the New World, far from the Spanish Crown. This was likely the cause of differences in what the crown thought best for its subjects and colonies, and what the inhabitants of those colonies actually needed or felt it was to their best interest.

Here is a brief abstract

Castillo de San Severino in Matanzas had a construction standstill that lasted between 1694 and 1716. The historiography of the fort during these years pointed to the lack of funds to maintain a stable labor and materials for its construction as the main cause of the standstill. However, primary documents, including one by Juan de Síscara, assistant engineer to the viceroy of Mexico in 1696, points to other common factors for such delay of construction. In this way, our study provides new information and a new interpretation on one of the least known years of the construction of San Severino, plus insight into the political dynamics that influenced the construction and maintenance of Cuban military entities during the late 17th Century.

The article can be downloaded for free at Islas or here. On that note, I send out a happy birthday to all my friends from La Habana, a city that turns 499 years today.


Orihuela, J., O. Hernández de Lara & R. Viera Muñoz (2018). Órdenes reales y prácticas locales: el Castillo de San Severino de Matanzas y la dinámica colonial (1683-1698). Islas 60 (191): 39-68.


Friday, October 12, 2018

Matanzas’s City turns 325

For the town of San Carlos de Matanzas, the month of October if full of celebration. It was on that month, in 1693, that the city was officially founded. This year, however, it was more special than ever thanks to the herculean efforts of the Conservator’s Office and its many workers, who have restored the historical part of the city to its colonial splendor and glamour.

Front cover of Revista Matanzas, where our article is featured

In celebration of this historical moment, albeit local and personal, we contributed with a small publication on the local magazine Matanzas. In it, we published a small piece on Matanzas's first coat of arms. Unknown until now was the revelation that the governor Severino de Manzaneda, who founded de city in October 1693, had provided the city with an official coat of arms since 1694, which was approved by the crown in 1698, but unfortunately forgotten by local and crown officials until 1828, when the colonial shield was redesigned.

Colonial Coat of Arms given by the Spanish Crown to the city of Matanzas, 1828,
Courtesy of the Archivo General de Indias.

Although this may seem trivial, the coat of arms of Matanzas has been seen as a unifying symbol, first of its relationship to the Spanish crown and then to the Republic. More interestingly, it was previously unreported or unknown by local and national historians. Thus, this little note added a little piece of history, which was lost amongst the old archive papers in Seville, providing a different hue to our local history's color. Moreover, it adds to the poorly studied Cuban and Novohispanic heraldry.

That article can be accessed for free here. Other posts on Matanzas history can be accessed here.

Stay tuned for more updates on fossils and old documents!

Article can be sited as:

Orihuela León, J., R. A. Viera Muñoz & L. Pérez Orozco (2018). El blasón desconocido: Primer escudo de San Carlos de Matanzas. Revista Matanzas XIX (1/2): 7-11.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Featured article: Clay Tobacco Pipes from a Colonial Refuse Deposit in Fort San Severino, Matanzas Province, Cuba

Hello blog readers, here I provide a link to our article "Clay Tobacco Pipes from a Colonial Refuse Deposit in Fort San Severino, Matanzas Province, Cuba" published on the International Journal of Historical Archaeology, which Spinger Nature has kindly allowed us to share.

This article deals with the identification of clay tobacco pipes used for smocking by prisoners and soldiers of the fort's garrison between the late XVIII and through the middle XIX century. This small collection of smocking pipes, as personal portable objects, speak volumes to the pastime activities available at the fort. More so, it provides a small window into the origin and circulation of pipes.

Visit the link below to read more!

Stay tuned!

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Updated list of Cuba’s extinct birds

Cuba had a former, richly diverse bird fauna, most of which is today extinct. In the recent years, the known species have seen revisions, additions, and deletions that have changed the topography of the species' roster. For the benefit of all those interested, here I provide an actualized list of Cuba’s extinct birds reflecting those changes.

This has been the recent topic of an article I have now submitted to an ornithological journal with the hopes that it may aid my peers in understanding the diversity of long-gone Cuban birds. But most especially, my intent has been to divulge in a single compendium an actualized list that reflects those recent changes.

Much work it is jet to be done, and with the interesting new deposits being explored and researched in the Greater Antillean island of Hispaniola and The Bahamas, it would not surprise me to see Cuban species, even some of those we today consider endemics, appear in those contexts.

With that said, here is the list:
Supercohort: Dinosauria

Class: Aves

Order: Pelecaniformes

Family: Ardeidae Leach, 1820

(Herons and egrets)

Tigrisoma mexicanum Swaison 1834, reported by Olson & Suarez (2008). This is a Tiger-heron.


Order: Ciconiiformes

Family: Ciconiidae J. E. Gray, 1840

Ciconia lydekkeri (Ameghino 1891), is considered a senior synonym of C. maltha (L. Miller 1910:440) by Agnolin (2009).
Ciconia sp. This species was mentioned by Suárez & Olson (2003a: 151) .

Mycteria wetmorei Howard 1935: 253. (See Iturralde et al. 2000; Suárez & Olson 2003a).


Order: Incertae Sedis or Accipitriformes

Family: Teratornithidae L. Miller, 1909
(large, near flightless terrestrial raptor birds)

Oscaravis olsoni (Arredondo & Arredondo 1999:16) (=Teratornis olsoni) amended and redescribed by Suárez & Olson (2009:106).

Order: Accipitriformes or Cathartiformes

Family: Cathartidae Lafresnaye, 1839
(vultures and condors)

Gymnogyps varonai (Arredondo 1971:310) (=Antillovultur varonai). Amended by Suárez (2000a).

Cathartes sp. 1 or 2. mentioned in Suárez (2001c:110).


Family: Accipitridae Vieillot, 1816
(hawks and falcons)

Amplibuteo woodwardi (L. Miller 1911:312), reported in Suárez (2004).

Buteo lineatus (Gmelin 1788:268), reported in Suárez & Olson (2003b).

Buteogallus borrasi (Arredondo 1970) =Aquila borrasi Arredondo (1970) amended by Suárez & Olson 2007.

Black-Chested Buzzard Eagle Geranoaetus melanoleucus Swan, 1922:67. Reported by Alexander Wetmore (1928).

Gigantohierax suarezi Arredondo & Arredondo 1999: 10. Now includes specimens previously identified as Aguila borrasi (=Buteogallus borrasi).

Caracara creightoni Brodkorb 1959:353, reported by Suárez & Olson (2003c:306).

Milvago carbo Suárez & Olson 2003:302.

Milvago sp. from Suárez & Arrendondo (1997).

Falco femoralis Temminck 1922:121. This Aplomado falcon was reported by Suárez & Olson (2003b).
Aplomado Falcon (Falco femoralis) near the town of Tinke, at the foot of the majestic Ausangate Mountain, Peru.

Falco kurochkini Suárez & Olson 2001a:35.


Order: Gruiformes

Family: Gruidae Vigors, 1825

Grus cubensis (Fischer & Stephan 1971a:565).


Family: Rallidae Rafinesque, 1815

Nesotrochis picapicensis (Fischer & Stephan 1971b:595), revised and amended by Olson (1974). This is an endemic near-flightless Cuban rail. Puerto Rico had a similar species.


Order: Charadriiformes

Family: Burhinidae Mathews, 1912

Burhinus sp. reported by Oscar Arredondo (1984). This is another form of water bird called the Double-striped Thick-knee that lives in Central and South America.


Family: Scolopacidae Rafinesque, 1815

Gallinago kakuki by Steadman & Takano (2016: 348). Formerly Capella sp. (Suárez 2004a). This is a type of sandpiper or snipe.

Order: Psittaciformes

Family:  Psittacidae Rafinesque, 1815

Ara tricolor Bechstein 1811:64 (= A. cubensis of Wetherbee, 1985). The Cuban macaw:  see my previous post on this species here.


Family: Tytonidae Ridgway, 1914

Tyto noeli Arredondo 1972a: 416. This species new included Tyto neddi of Steadman & Hilgartner (1999) from Barbuda. This is a large barn owl, like the other species listed below.

Tyto pollens Wetmore 1937:436. This taxon now includes Tyto riveroi Arredondo 1972b: 131.

Tyto cravesae Suárez & Olson 2015: 544.

Tyto sp. A small species reported by Suárez & Díaz-Franco (2003: 375).


Family: Strigidae Leach, 1820

Bubo osvaldoi Arredondo & Olson 1994:438.

Pulsatrix arredondoi Brodkorb, 1969: 112.

Ornimegalonyx oteroi Arredondo 1958: 11.

Ornimegalonyx acevedoi Arredondo, 1982: 95.

Ornimegalonyx minor Arredondo, 1982: 46.

Ornimegalonyx gigas Arredondo, 1982: 47.

It is likely that all Ornimegalonyx represent a single species. Their size disparity could be due to sexual dimorphism, chrono-temporal or/and individual variation (Alegre 2002).


Order: Caprimulgiformes

Family: Caprimulgidae Vigors, 1825

Siphonorhis daiquiri Olson, 1985:528. This is the endemic pauraque or Cuban Poorwill, a species of nightjar.


Order: Passeriformes

Family: Rhinocryptidae Wetmore, 1930

Scytalopus sp. reported by Olson and Kurochkin (1987). This is a small passerine bird commonly known as "tapaculo".


Family: Icteridae

Dolichonyx kruegeri Fischer & Stephan (1971: 597). This is likely a misidentified specimen of Bobolink (D. oryzivorus), an uncommon transient species in Cuba (Garrido & Kirkconnell 2000: 218).

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Ara tricolor: Cuba's extinct endemic macaw

Up to 150 years ago Cuba possessed three parrots in its avifauna-one of them a large and beautifully colored macaw.

Watercolor of the Cuban macaw Ara tricolor circa 1800 by Jacques Barraband,
a French zoological illustrator. From the Cuban macaw Wikipedia.
Parrots belong to the bird family Psittacidae, of which Cuba has two representative genera and species: the endangered Cuban conure Psittacara eups (=Aratinga), and the better widespread Cuban parrot Amazona leucocephala. Up to the mid-XIX, Cuba also had a large macaw, Ara tricolor. The last known pair was shot in 1864 at La Vega, in the Cienaga de Zapata-the largest wetland swamp of the Caribbean archipelago. The ornithologists Johannes Gundlach and C. B. Cory believed that this species survived up until the later XIX century. In Spanish, these large parrots are known as guacamayos, which is the Arawak indian name, or papagayos, the Castilian.

Oil on canvas: "A moorhen, a gull, and a Scarlet Macaw by a stream in a landscape" by Philip Reinagle
circa early XIX century.

Scientist recognize that other large Ara macaws existed in other islands of the Caribbean, but the Cuban macaw is the only one known from complete specimens, preserved as stuffed, mounted, or skins, and several skeletal parts found in paleontological and archaeological deposits.

Painting of Ara tricolor by Francois-Nicolas Martinet, in 1765.

Colonists that came to the island after Columbus’s rediscovery of the New World, documented the massive killings of these birds by amerindians, but mostly by conquistadors, who used them for food, plumage, or kept them as pets. In one occasion, Father Bartolome de las Casas records a mass killing of macaws at the indian town of Casaharta in 1513 by the natives for the sake of the colonists:

“[my translation] …the many things marvelous and abundance of food from many sources, bread and game, and fish, but above all of macaws, which if I have not forgotten, during the 15 days that we were there, at least 10,000 macaws were eaten. These were of the most beautiful in the world, which was a real shame to see them killed. Even the little native kids would climb trees to catch them…”
Las Casas also recorded the presence of a “different” macaw, with a white, not red, forehead on the island of Hispaniola. He mentions that when Columbus reached the island of Cuba, “nice, green macaws” were gifted to him by the natives (Las Casas, 1875:296, vol. 1). The colonists accepted these gifts, and many macaws were sacrificed for their beautiful feathers, which were to be sent to Spain as exotic souvenirs. 
Mounted specimen of the Cuban macaw from the RMNH.
Naturalis Biodiversity Center.
It seems, by these accounts, that the Caribbean amerindians were also fond of keeping parrot pets. Yet still, during these early years of the conquest, “there were so many flocks of parrots, that they covered the sun”. This was not to last past the colonial era.
Illustration by the Cuban zoological illustrator Otton A. Suarez (1974) from
Las Aves de Cuba: Especies Endemicas (1980) by Orlando A. Garrido.
This is the same specimen from the Institute of Ecology and Systematics, in Havana, below.

The causes of its final extinction are closely tied to human pressure: overhunting at first, and later, deforestation for agricultural development, most intensified during the XVIII and early XIX. During this time, the king’s preserves of forests were maintained and untouched until then by Real decree and accessed only illegally or under special grant by the king. But with the massive onset of agriculture deforestation for tobacco and sugar cane plantations likely drove these large birds to the few remaining forests of the island, Cienaga de Zapata being one of them, and one of the most protected even now. It was at these locations that a few naturalists secured the last specimens, treasures of American and European museums. Sadly, the only surviving mounted skin of Ara tricolor in Cuba was recently stolen from the Institute of Ecology and Systematics (IES) in the outskirts of the city of Havana. This was a gorgeous well-preserved specimen collected by Johannes Gundlach, and one of the most treasured specimens of the old Academy of Sciences, which are now housed at the Institute.
Cuban macaw Ara tricolor from the National Museum
of IES in Havana, Cuba.
This specimen has been recently lost or stolen.
Courtesy of A. Tejedor.
These rare representatives of Cuban macaws belong in museums, were they are taken care by specialists, people who have studied their whole lives to preserve specimens such as these, and where they are kept under special conditions, and where they can be studied by those that are interested. They do not belong in some collector’s cabinet. It is only hoped that the final itinerary of this specimen is secured, and that the collector protects the beautiful mounted specimen with the dignity it deserves-for the rarity it represents, and as a reminder of the vulnerability of the Earth’s fauna before human destructiveness.



De Las Casas, Bartolomé (1560/1875). Historia de las Indias. Vol. 1-4. Imprenta de Miguel Ginesta (Press), Madrid.

Gundlach, J. C. 1876. Contribución a la ornitología cubana. Imprenta La Antilla, La Habana, 364 pp.

Gundlach, J. C. 1893. Ornitología cubana. Imprenta La Moderna, La Habana, 357 pp.

Wetmore, A. (1928). Bones of birds from the Ciego Montero deposit of Cuba. American Museum Novitates 301: 1-5.

Wiley, James W. and G. M. Kirwan (2013). The extinct macaws of the West Indies, with special reference to Cuban macaw Ara tricolor. Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club 132 (2):125-156.