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With some 7,000 islands and cays and a 7,000-year history of human habitation, the Caribbean Sea is practically synonymous with maritime travel. The very word "canoe" is derived from the term "kana:wa," used by the Indigenous Arawakans of the Caribbean to describe their dugout vessels.

Without clear road signs to indicate where native islanders were traveling, however, the task of reconstructing ancient trade routes relies on subtle clues locked away in the archaeological record. Researchers at the Florida Museum of Natural History recently turned to pottery to tease apart the navigational history of the Caribbean, analyzing the composition of 96 fired clay fragments across 11 islands.

The study, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, is the broadest of its kind yet conducted in the Greater Antilles and marks the first time that pottery artifacts from the Lucayan Islands—The Bahamas plus the Turks and Caicos Islands—have been analyzed to determine their elemental composition and origin.

"Our methods mark a big improvement over other studies that mostly look at a single site or single island, where you might see differences but not know what it means because you're looking at the results in isolation," said co-author Lindsay Bloch, a courtesy faculty member with the Florida Museum's Ceramic Technology Lab.

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