ancient antilles



(left) Taino: Art and Culture from the Pre-Columbian Caribbean exhibit catalogue from el Museo del Barrio's momentous exhibit of 1997. (right) A page from Oviedo's Historia General de las Indias or 1535

There are few illustrated books on the Pre-Columbian Caribbean and since most American Pre-Columbian university courses spend less than two class sessions on the Caribbean topic, the purchase of rare, well-illustrated volumes as textbooks is cost-prohibitive. The main purpose of this web site then, is to make available to Pre-Columbian students visual examples and explanatory text on the physical remains and visual culture of the ancient Caribbean, primarily from an art historical point of view. Since the field of Pre-Columbian art history pulls together archaeological findings, anthropological scholarship and visual culture, often in an approachable, tactile manner, it is often the best ambassador to the popular psyche.  

There is no known textbook with colour illustrations of Caribbean Pre-Columbian art objects that represents the entire archipelago, from the foundational Ceramic cultures of the Lower Orinoco and Trinidad to the Classic Taino of Hispaniola. Thus, represents a singular place for a complete survey of the Pre-Columbian art of this region: a critical region in understanding the development of Pre-Columbian societies; the unique dynamics of the maritime and tropical Amerindian culture; the beginning of the American conquest; the first studies in the modern discipline of anthropology;1) and the foundations of what Caribbean historians have called the modern world’s first global society.  

With regard to the cultures presented here, the classification of Pre-Columbian Caribbean societies is marked by some controversy. Linguistic designations do not necessarily coincide with ethnic or cultural ones in that Pre-Columbian languages often overlapped cultural boundaries and vice versa. In the same way that an Afro-Barbadian today is not an Englishman simply because he speaks English, nor is an Indo-Trinidadian automatically a citizen of Uttar-Pradesh or even a Hindu practitioner, Amerindians who spoke an “Arawakan” language were not necessarily Arawaks by blood, nor were Island Caribs necessarily Cariban speakers. And neither linguistic group was absolutely distinguishable by religion, culture or technology.

In many ways, this web site avoids the arguments that continue between linguists, geneticists and archaeologists (among others) over the classification of Caribbean Amerindians. Since the author is primarily an art historian, a field where ceramic objects outnumber all other surviving Amerindian items, the tendency here is to follow the commonly used ceramic phases and designations for classifying cultural remains. Yet the reader is admonished that, in these pages too, it is easy to mistake say the “Palmetto” of the Bahamas (a ceramic designation) for the Lucayo of that same area (a cultural designation contemporaneous with the Classic Taino) though the two may be almost synonymous.

It falls on the reader to match up ceramic periods (where given) with the associated ethnic group of that region and time. Illustrations will give both designations where web space affords, helping to clarify this issue. Web links between associated objects and cultures will also help to clarify the classifications.

Lawrence Waldron,
October 2007,
St. John's University,
Department of Fine Arts


1) The writings of the 15th century Fray Ramon Pané on the Amerindians of the Greater Antilles are considered by many to be the first works of anthropology conducted in the so-called New World.