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Has The Legacy of Colonialism Influenced Science In The Caribbean Islands?

To avoid extinction and maintain access to traditional livelihoods, we must understand the life history of endemic species threatened by stochastic natural and anthropogenically caused events. On the other hand, systematic difficulties have considerably skewed our biological knowledge of the Caribbean.
November 15, 2023
Caribbean Island

As a world traveler and someone deeply interested in the history of science, I’ve had the privilege of exploring the Caribbean Islands and delving into the complex relationship between colonialism and scientific developments in the region. The Caribbean, with its lush landscapes, diverse ecosystems, and unique cultural mix, has a rich scientific history that has been deeply shaped by centuries of colonization.

Scientists acknowledge the Caribbean archipelago as a biodiversity hotspot and use it as a natural laboratory for their study. However, they do not often recognize that these ecosystems are palimpsests formed over millennia by multiple human societies.


A human incursion into the region began about 5,000 years ago, despite well-documented post-European anthropogenic impacts. As a result, judgments about ecological and evolutionary processes in the Caribbean could be relics of an undiscovered human legacy connected to issues influenced by centuries of colonial authority.


To avoid extinction and maintain access to traditional livelihoods, we must understand the life history of endemic species threatened by stochastic natural and anthropogenically caused events. On the other hand, systematic difficulties have considerably skewed our biological knowledge of the Caribbean.

First World War

Prior to the First World War, Europe’s enormous empires covered nearly 80% of the planet’s area. Following WWII, that percentage plummeted as colonies and occupied territories successfully fought for independence, leading many to believe that the colonial attitude of stealing from smaller countries to fund larger nations had passed them by. 

First World War Battle Gear

However, a recent study by an international group of academics reveals how colonialism’s legacy is still firmly embedded in scientific practice across the Caribbean archipelago. Rather than just criticizing these activities, the authors believe that the study would serve as a road map for researchers to avoid the traps of extractive science. 

Lead author Ryan Mohammed, a Trinidadian biologist and postdoctoral research researcher at Williams College in Massachusetts explained, “We wanted to present a solutions-based approach.” “We want to encourage foreign scientists to include local people and expertise in their study, as well as give opportunities for local scientists to advance their careers in science.” 

The authors discuss systemic concerns in the Caribbean that affect attitudes and scientific practice. They go on to highlight how two countries, Trinidad & Tobago and the Bahamas, are taking measures toward a more equitable distribution of research resources and rewards.

Second World War

With the fall of empires after WWII, one might expect that the colonial mindset of stealing from smaller countries to support larger nations would also be relegated to the past. 

Second World War Gun

However, a new report published in The American Naturalist by an international team of researchers demonstrates how colonialism’s legacy is still profoundly embedded in scientific practice throughout the Caribbean archipelago. 

The authors point out that our knowledge of these systems is skewed by a colonial attitude in science, which ignores the ways humans have interacted with and impacted the Caribbean environment for centuries. Furthermore, the absence of indigenous participation in research and the extraction of natural history specimens have harmed former colonies and occupied areas. 

Melissa Kemp, an assistant professor of integrative biology at The University of Texas at Austin who has done extensive fieldwork in the Caribbean and is one of the study’s three senior authors, said, “I hope our study encourages more people to think about the impacts of their research and research practices and to be more involved in the communities they are doing research in.”

Major Findings of The Research

Alexis Mychajliw, an assistant professor at Middlebury College, and Michelle LeFebvre, assistant curator of the South Florida Archaeology and Ethnography department at the Florida Museum of Natural History, are the paper’s other senior authors. 

Ryan Mohammed, a Trinidadian biologist and postdoctoral research associate at Williams College, is the paper’s lead author. They express worry that scientists have tended to see the Caribbean islands as a natural laboratory for testing ecology and evolutionary biology concepts, a pristine environment mostly unaffected by humans. 

Alexis Mychajliw  in the office

On the other hand, Indigenous communities have lived on the islands for thousands of years and have had significant impacts, such as bringing animals up from South America and transporting animals across islands. More changes resulted after centuries of colonialism. 

The second source of worry is that field research in the Caribbean has typically lacked numerous local partners and researchers. Local scientists have found it difficult to advance their careers as a result of this. 

It also means that research topics relevant to local populations may go unasked, limiting science’s ability to assist in the resolution of local issues. The authors propose that local people be involved in the conception, implementation, and interpretation of research. 

“We call it ‘helicopter science,’ when people come in, grab what they need, then leave with no interaction from the local community,” Kemp explained. “We’re capable of doing better. We may include the community in our work so that they understand the process, why we’re doing it, and why it’s vital. We can inquire about their priorities and the questions they hope our research will solve. We can go back and tell people what we’ve discovered.” 

Lack of access to specimens is the third challenge, particularly for Caribbean researchers working to piece together the natural history of the archipelago’s more than 7,000 islands. The authors performed a global examination of digitized natural history collections from Trinidad and Tobago to demonstrate this issue, finding that the vast majority are kept in North American and European institutions. 

The same pattern can be found on other Caribbean islands. As a result, local scientists will have to travel outside of their country to use these specimens in their studies. Without collections, it’s also impossible for local scientists to train the next generation.

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Key Takeaways!

To illustrate a better approach, the authors outline a rising effort among institutions working with local and international researchers to ensure that any specimen leaving its place of origin in the Caribbean is only on loan for a limited time. 

The writers mention a long-standing collaboration between the Bahamas Antiquities Monuments & Museums Corporation and Florida’s Museum of Natural History. The alliance has aided in the acquisition and preservation of a substantial local collection of fossils and archaeological material from Great Abaco Island sinkholes.


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