The scholars who gathered this week in San Juan wanted to explain the appeal of African cults, so they built shrines of drums, wooden skulls and hot peppers as public offerings.
"African religions are not about evil, spilling blood or worshiping devils," said Puerto Rican anthropologist Ricardo Alegria, founder of the Center for Advanced Studies for the Caribbean."If African cults exist today, it's because they are growing. And if there are followers, it's because cults aren't evil," Alegria said.
Alegria was among anthropologists and sociologists from the United States, Haiti, Venezuela, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Brazil who participated in a weeklong symposium at the University of San Juan on African religions in the Caribbean and Latin America.
Organizers said the conference, which closed Friday, was the first of its kind. It focused on the religions that branched out in the Caribbean after black slaves were brought to the New World by European colonists nearly 500 years ago.
"We hope to bring a better scientific understanding of these religions, why they survive and what role they play in society," said Mercedes Sandoval, a social science professor at Florida's Miami-Dade Community College.
It's believed up to 200 million people follow some type of African-rooted religion in the Caribbean and Latin America, but experts say the numbers could be higher because belonging to a cult is not necessarily information people volunteer.
Influenced by Spanish, British, French and Dutch religions, slaves slowly incorporated religious elements of their colonial masters into their own beliefs.
For example, Caribbean islands colonized by the French and Spanish adapted elements of Roman Catholicism, using effigies of saints in their own ceremonies. Initially, slaves used statues of saints as props to hide their own relics from the Europeans.
But the two sides fused and today, syncretism, the combination of different beliefs, dominates many African religions. It's common in some places to see a statue of St. George atop his white horse standing next to a horned Exu evil spirit.
In English colonized islands, African religions took a more evangelical, Protestant tone with less emphasis on religous effigies.
Among the religions and cults discussed were abakua, santeria, shango, palomonte, voodoo and mayombe.
Voodoo, it was explained, is not about the Hollywood stereotypes of zombies and sticking pins in lookalike dolls. Widely practiced in Haiti where Roman Catholicism is the official religion, voodoo is a blend of Catholicism and Indian mysticism, with an emphasis on ancestor worship and harmony with nature.
Animal sacrifices play a part in many ceremonies such as Brazil's candombe and umbanda religions, in which goats and chickens are killed by a "babaorisha," a father of a saint, and offered to holy spirits so they will grant earthlings good fortune.
The symposium featured an exhibit of nine altars and shrines displaying the paraphernalia of African rites.
The Nigerian altar had a curtain of dry palm leaves protecting holy rocks and bata drums that call spirits or serve as background music to celebrate a saints' birthday.
Many shrines had cauldrons stuffed with feathers, wooden skulls, spicy sauces, fruits and herbs.