It was not much: two simple hearths, three small postholes, and a fragment of pointed bronze. But it was found on Robinson Crusoe Island. And it was almost certainly the hut of the world-famous castaway. Excavators Daisuke Takahashi and David Caldwell report.
As Europeans pushed out from their homelands to other parts of the world, they found human cultures almost everywhere they went. One of the rare exceptions was the tiny Juan Fernandez Archipelago in the Pacific Ocean, the main island of which, now called Robinson Crusoe Island, was first sighted by a Spanish pilot, Juan Fernandez, in the late 16th century. Its climate is mild, and there are abundant supplies of water and food, including berries, fish, seals, and lobsters. Admittedly, access to this rock-girt speck of land, 15 miles by 5, is difficult, and much of it is mountainous, but humans have readily colonised much worse.
Investigations on the island by Chilean and New Zealand archaeologists failed to find any evidence for a human presence before the 16th century, whether Polynesians or people from mainland South America, some 400 miles to the east. The second largest of the three islands in the archipelago, now called Alexander Selkirk Island, lies about 100 miles west of Robinson Crusoe Island. A sediment core from here provides evidence for the impact on local vegetation since the late 16th century of goats abandoned by the Spaniards, the burning of forests, and the spread of introduced species — but nothing of earlier date that could be interpreted as human intervention. This picture parallels what we know about Robinson Crusoe Island.
Alexander Selkirk Island has remained unsettled, with only seasonal occupation by fishermen. Robinson Crusoe Island, on the other hand, today has a population of about 500 Chileans, whose ancestors first arrived in the mid 19th century to fish for lobsters. They are concentrated in the village of San Juan Bautista on the edge of Cumberland Bay, the only relatively safe anchorage for ships.
Alexander Selkirk: the real Robinson Crusoe
So what could there be of archaeological interest on the island? The answer is possible evidence for a phase during the 17th and early 18th centuries when it was an occasional haunt for pirates and privateers from Europe — including, most famously, the man commemorated in the island’s name.
Robinson Crusoe is, of course, a figure invented in 1719 by the English writer Daniel Defoe, but it is clear that Defoe based his novel on the adventures of a Scottish sailor called Alexander Selkirk who was marooned on the island from 1704 to 1709.
Selkirk had sailed in September 1703 with a privateering expedition consisting of two ships. He was master of one of them — that is, the man responsible for navigation — but after the death of the ship’s captain on the voyage out, Selkirk may have been demoted by his successor, Thomas Stradling. This would seem to have had nothing to do with his professional ability — he was later to demonstrate that by navigating a captured Spanish galleon back to England from the Pacific, via Java and the Cape of Good Hope. The problem seems to have been bad-temper. Alexander Selkirk came from a rather dysfunctional family in a small village on the coast of Fife. He later became a pirate, and had a reputation for hot-headedness. He was, it seems, the sort who was prone to arguments during long voyages in the small confines of a sailing ship!
The search for Selkirk’s camp
The idea that it might be possible to find archaeological evidence for Selkirk’s stay on the island first occurred to Daisuki Takahashi when he visited Robinson Crusoe Island a few years ago. In 2005, with help from David Caldwell and the support of two Chilean archaeologists and a soil scientist, he put together a team, funded by the National Geographic Society in Washington DC.
Takahashi had been shown the ruins of a small building in an overgrown clearing in the forest by an elderly islander. The place, little known or visited by other islanders, is called Aguas Buenas. He believed it was the right place for Selkirk to have based himself, and therefore worthy of further examination. Takahashi had reasoned that Selkirk would choose a campsite that: (1) had a good supply of fresh water; (2) was near readily available food — fruit, vegetables, and goats; (3) had enough level ground for him to erect his huts; (4) provided shelter from sun and rain; (5) was near the only practical viewpoint from which ships could be spotted approaching the island from north and south.
These are extracts from the full article published in CWA 34.
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