Ricardo Alegría, a Puerto Rican archaeologist

On July 7, 2011, the world lost a great archaeologist. Considered the father of Puerto Rican archaeology, Ricardo Alegria played a leading role in the preservation of cultural heritage.

Ricardo Alegría was born in 1921 in San Juan, a city in Puerto Rico. Even at a young age, he had a great interest in archaeology and in Puerto Rican cultures and their origins. This passion led him to earn his doctorate in anthropology at Harvard University in 1954. In honor of his memory, let's look back at the discoveries of the Puerto Rican past.


This past was occupied by the Arawak people, Amerindians from the Amazon rainforest, which includes several cultures, including the Taíno, inhabitants of Puerto Rico, whose language is a derivative of the Arawak language. Although they did not know how to write, they were the main inhabitants of Puerto Rico in the 15th century and practiced agriculture, fishing and gathering. But they were particularly known for their ceramics.


Taíno cup of Puerto Rico (1000-1500 AD)


But an even more ancient culture is revealed in the cave of Loíza, a municipality of Puerto Rico, called Cueva María de la Cruz. It was in 1948 that archaeological excavations were undertaken, which testify to a past where agriculture did not exist. Traces of shells, fish bones and other land animals, as well as some human bones, were exhumed. It is possible that this cave was used for burial purposes, or that this place was the theater of ceremonial activities.


Site of excavation: Cueva María de la Cruz


With the arrival of the Spanish, the colonizers quickly absorbed the culture of the first inhabitants of the banks of Loíza. The settlements followed one another after the discovery of gold in the rivers. An African population was incorporated into the city by the Spaniards, in order to start sugar cane plantations. The concentration of black slaves in the sugar plantations was such that Loíza was the first city on the island in terms of percentage of black population. For nearly four centuries, African culture developed, increasingly so as new shipments of African slaves arrived. For this reason, in the 19th century, Puerto Rican culture was a mixture of aboriginal, African and Spanish characteristics.

The Santiago Apostol Festival


The customs of this very characteristic village are a mixture of these three cultures: Spanish, Taíno and African. The life of Loiza and its surroundings undergoes a violent change during one week of each year when the people, with an indescribable outpouring of spontaneous joy and popular enthusiasm, celebrate their traditional festival, the Fiesta de Santiago Apostol (Saint James the Apostle). Although the origin of this festival is uncertain, it is probably a fusion between a festival of the Spanish colonizers, which celebrates Santiago (considered by the Spaniards as a divine warrior who helped them on earth to fight the infidels), and a festival of the black slaves, as the latter were mainly Yoruba, celebrating Shangò, the one of war and thunder. Celebrated in July, the festival has a religious side and is the occasion to celebrate baptisms and weddings.

Typical masks of the fiesta of santiago apostol

And today?


Considered a pioneer in anthropological studies of Taíno culture and African heritage in Puerto Rico, Ricardo Alegría has helped historians understand how the Taínos lived and suffered, both before and after the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors on the island. His research has greatly improved the understanding of these cultures. He estimated that about one-third of all Puerto Ricans have Taíno blood. Among the monuments restored under his direction are the Utuado Indian ceremonial center, the Caparra ruins and the San Jerónimo castle.


Ricardo Alegria, the pioneer of the Taino culture

After his death on July 7, 2011, researchers continue to work on the culture of the people of Puerto Rico. In his article "The Taíno: Phenomena, Concept and Terms", Antonio Curet proposes to revisit the very concept of the name. Originally, Taíno referred to a single ethnic group that shared a common culture. In recent years, this position has been questioned, and it appears that the Taíno culture is actually a mixture of several groups with different customs, which through interaction have blended into a common aboriginal culture.



Curet, L. Antonio. "The Taíno: Phenomena, concepts, and terms." Ethnohistory 61.3 (2014): 467-495.


Alegría, Ricardo, Henry Bigger Nicholson, and Gordon R. Willey. "The archaic tradition in Puerto Rico." American Antiquity 21.2 (1955): 113-121.


Alegría, Ricardo E. "The Fiesta of Santiago Apóstol (St. James the Apostle) in Loíza, Puerto Rico." Journal of American Folklore (1956): 123-134.