ancient antilles


The Paria Sphere: the Multiple Ethnicities of Trinidad, Tobago and the Lower Orinoco

The landmasses to the west, south and east of the Gulf of Paria constituted a cultural interaction sphere during the first settlement of the Antilles by ceramic-making horticulturalists. This area encompasses the Lower Orinoco in Venezuela and the islands of Trinidad and Tobago. It is primarily from here that Ceramic Amerindians first expanded into the Antilles. Between 500 BCE and the beginning of the Common Era, the Saladoid ceramic cultures, named after the Saladero type-site on the Lower Orinoco, expanded into the island of Trinidad and from there, in a very short time, reached as far as Puerto Rico and eastern Hispaniola in the Greater Antilles.  

The Middle to Lower Orinoco in the 1st millennium BCE seems to have been a place with dynamic cultural interactions between people steadily migrating into the area from points deeper in South America, especially upriver on the Orinoco. The Saladoid pottery styles represented just one ceramic culture among many that developed in this culturally vibrant atmosphere. But it is the Saladoid series of ceramics that would come to predominate in the Ceramic settlement of the Antilles.  

From several sites along the Lower Orinoco, distinctive polychrome (painted), incised and modeled pottery spread to the northeastern coast of Venezuela and eventually out to Trinidad (sometime between 500-250 BCE). A style of white-on-red pottery (sometimes written WOR for short in the archaeological literature) appeared first, along with single colored and unpainted varieties with incised designs.1) Some WOR and incised pots featured curvilinear abstract designs while other motifs were obviously biomorphic (representing parts or aspects of animal or human likenesses). Some potters filled in their abstract and biomorphic motifs with a dense crosshatching (“zone-incised-crosshatched” from which was coined the term “ZIC-ware”). Modeled pots featured the faces and limbs of human and animal subjects protruding from the pots as decoration or as handles and stands. These modeled protrusions (or adornos) cause the vessels to be considered as works of sculpture as well as utilitarian pots for cooking or storing food and drink.

By the early Common Era, the Cedrosan Saladoid pottery style 2)combined all three methods of decoration in that it often featured modeled and incised anthropomorphic (human) and zoomorphic (animal) figures emerging from the sides of the ceramic vessels that were also painted in one or more colors. This Cedrosan variation on the Saladoid seems to have developed in the interaction sphere between northeastern coastal Venezuela and Trinidad, rapidly spreading to Tobago as well.

Saladoid  white-on-red sherds

In Trinidad and Tobago, the varied Saladoid ceramics evinced a vibrant pottery industry. Local potters seem to have interacted with those on the mainland, either through personal relationships as relatives or associates of those potters; through studying pottery exported from the Orinoco; by doing traditional pottery as it was remembered from when they too used to live on the mainland; or through some combination of these. But even with regular canoe trips back and forth between southern Trinidad and Venezuela, potters in the islands began to develop new methods, styles, motifs and symbolic emphases by the 3rd-4th centuries CE. 

Local materials changed the mineral composition of the ceramics, the potters employing different clays and also different kinds of shells and ground stone in the ceramic temper (non clay particles used to strengthen the ceramic). Likewise, the species of animals depicted on ceramic adornos began to reflect the local avian (bird), reptile and marine animals of the Caribbean islands. The common mainland adornos depicting crocodilians (caimans), snakes, jaguars and birds of prey, all of these important creatures in South American mythology and iconography, began to wane. As that happened, images of parrots, owls, turtles, frogs, and bats began to preponderate the Antillean iconography, reflecting the new insular environment, but also an increasingly distinctive mythology of the Antilles. 

Alongside the growing distinctions in pottery, Trinidad and Tobago’s lithic (stone) technology also began to change. This was a result of the trade relationship these islands developed with other Saladoid era people who had moved on into the other islands to the north. The great range of volcanic, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks coming in from the other islands (from Grenada to Montserrat and beyond) revolutionized the production of tools, jewelry and religious objects and icons (zemis).

Lithic and lapidary technology (i.e. stone working and semi-precious gem carving) itself was also transformed as the Saladoid cultures encountered Archaic people like the descendants of the Ortoiroids already inhabiting the islands. Far from being “primitive” to the Saladoid ceramicists, these more ancient Antilleans were master stone carvers who would have had much to teach to the new immigrants who hailed from an alluvial environment on the mainland in which the earth was soft all around them. Lower Orinoco (and Amazonian) people sometimes had to travel long distances to trade for stone objects. Certainly, the Archaic Antilleans, accustomed to their varied geological environment, would have surpassed the Saladoid ceramicists in lithic technology. Thus, the encounter between Ceramic and Archaic people would have exposed the latter to fine pottery and the former to fine lapidary arts.



1) Incised and modeled pottery from the Lower Orinoco is also identified as a separate but closely affiliated Barrancoid culture-style that eventually combined with the Saladoid during the Cedrosan phase

2) Named after the type-site at Cedros in southern Trinidad, which is not necessarily the place of origin of the style but rather is merely a site discovered early in the study of this style with many characteristic specimens.