ancient antilles



Map by Lawrence Waldron© after Rouse and Boomert

By the 15th century, the Antilles was made up of at least six different cultural zones. It may be surprising to the Caribbean’s current inhabitants that coastal borders did not determine these various demographic regions as they do today. In our time, Cuba is separated from Jamaica, not only because these are two different islands but because they have radically different forms of government, vastly different colonial histories and obviously different languages. But in Amerindian times, Jamaica, most of Cuba and a small part of western Hispaniola comprised a single cultural zone, namely the Western Taino. 

The water between islands did not constitute a political separation, but in fact was a unifying factor. The Tainos and most other Caribbean Amerindians were no less comfortable on the water than on land and both topographic regions and expanses of water constituted their traditional territories.

In their manoeuvrable canoes Amerindians crossed the Windward Passage, the Mona Passage, the Gulf of Paria, and other expanses of open water with no more difficulty than North American Apache or Shoshone people might cross a large plain. Thus, groups like the Western Taino did not designate the boundaries of their territory simply by features of the land or coastal limits but along lines of political, family and other social affiliations, over land and sea.  

Thus the Amerindian cultural regions provide a dramatically different idea of Caribbean nationhood. These water-crossing boundaries compel us to consider the roles played by European colonization, Pan-Africanism, Asian Indo-centrism, North American Manifest Destiny and other latter-day conventions in organizing today’s Caribbean identity.

The chief cultural zones of the late Amerindian period hardly coincide with the political zones noted on today’s maps. The indigenous culture regions might be described as follows below (from south to north):

The Paria Complex : the Multi-Ethnic Interaction Sphere of Trinidad, Tobago and the Lower Orinoco [1]
The Windward Islands : Igneris/Island Caribs
The Leeward Islands]: the Eastern Taino
The Greater Antilles, East the Classic (central) Taino, but also the Macorix and other minorities
The Greater Antilles, West: the Western Taino
Western Cuba
: the Guanahatabey or “Ciboney”
The Bahamas : the Lucayo or “Palmetto” Culture   


[1] I have derived the “Paria Complex” idea from Arie Boomert’s “Trinidad, Tobago and the Lower Orinoco Interaction Sphere” in his book of the same name.

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