ancient antilles





Indigenous people of the ancient Antilles maintained their settlements and their cultures by strategic responses to their natural environment and to their neighbors. They made use of tropical land, river and marine resources for food and raw materials, and traded with partners near and far for practical and elite materials. Their lifestyles were uniquely that of island people: accustomed to seafood, relatively easy access to salt, volcanic stone, shell tools and jewelry, and other coastal and marine supplies; dreading catastrophic hurricanes but having few predatory animals to fear as their mainland neighbors did; doing without metallurgy but excelling at stonework and various forms of sculpture. What they lacked, they traded for with mainland peoples, and in the process, exported their materials and arts as well.

Paleoindian, Archaic and Ceramic Antilleans

The Antilles was settled by multiple waves of indigenous people over an 8,000-year period. Each of the settling groups likely had a distinct social order and special set of subsistence strategies. Paleoindians arrived in the islands so far in prehistory that their lifestyles can only be inferred from “Stone Age”-type cultures living today and from the very rare stone tools such as axe heads and flaked blades, and bone and shell implements such as fish hooks, that have been excavated from their period [1] . Paleo-Indian may have lived in constructed dwellings, in available natural features such as caves, or in some provisional combination of these. As hunter-gatherers, they are likely to have been egalitarian people who shared the fruits of their labors and settled internal conflicts through complex interpersonal negotiations and consensus, rather than having disagreements arbitrated by some absolute authority or enforced law.

Archaic peoples

Various Archaic Amerindians arrived in the Antilles between the 4th and 2nd millennia BCE and have left considerably more artifacts than their Paleo-Indian forerunners and neighbors. These include finely made stone tools such as axes, adzes, mortars, pestles, scrapers, blades and projectile points [2]. Their social structure seems to have been quite similar to that of earlier Paleoindians but they lived in constructed dwellings and may have supplemented their hunting and gathering with basic, experimental agricultural techniques [3]. They also made the earliest known pottery in the region, unadorned ceramics whose function in cooking seems obvious but which may have also had some ritual significance [4].

Lithic (stone) tools: (left) Archaic stone axe, Jolly Beach, Antigua; (center) flint knives, Antigua; (right) late-Saladoid or post-Saladoid (Suazoid) axe, Grenada.
Image Sources: Photographs by Lawrence Waldron.

As illustrated here by the lyrically sculpted axe head at left from the 18th century BCE, the stone-working skills and aesthetics of the earlier “Archaic” people were highly advanced, especially in stone objects that may have had some symbolic significance. The island of Antigua and its offshore islet, Long Island, were important sources of flint from Archaic times onwards. “Long Island flint” was favored for making knives and other sharp-edged tools. The scalloped, flaring head of the Grenadian axe at right may represent the heads of two vultures facing away from each other (See Arie Boomert, “Raptorial Birds as Icons of Shamanism in the Pre-Historic Caribbean and Amazonia,” in Proceedings of the XIX International Congress for Caribbean Archaeology (Aruba: Archaeological Museum, 2001), 138-139)).


Ceramic Periods and Cultures in the Ancient Antilles

Archaic peoples’ selective clearing and cultivation of certain plant species was later joined by the full-fledged horticulture of intensive ceramic-making people who began arriving in the Caribbean islands around the 5th century BCE [5]. These “Ceramic” people are named so for their highly developed ceramic arts, a clear indication of their more sedentary lifestyle (since pottery is heavy and fragile and not suitable for a life of constant foraging).


Some major pottery styles of the Ancient Antilles: (left) Saladoid white-on-red vessel with zoomorphic adornos (Guadeloupe); (center) Huecoid vessel fragment with zone-incised crosshatched geometric scrools and zoomorphic adorno (Vieques); (right) Taíno bowl with incised rim and anthropomorphic adornos (Hispaniola).

Image sources: (left and right) photos by author; (center)Luis Chanlatte Baik, and Yvonne Narganes Storde, Cultura La Hueca, 2005.


Over several phases, the Ceramic era persisted in the Antilles up until the Spanish Conquest of 1492. The Pre-Columbian cultures in the 2,000 years leading up to the arrival of Europeans are often referred to by the name of their pottery styles, such as Huecoid, Saladoid, and Chicoid/Taíno (see figures above). This is because in addition to the many tools and items of jewelry made of stone, bone and shell they have left behind, ceramics are by far their most numerous artifacts. It remains unknown what most of these people called themselves.

Ceramic Era conch shell work: (left) drilled disk beads; (center) axes, gouges and other tools; frog motif amulets (Antigua).

Image sources: photos by author.


Island Caribs

People from among the Caribs of the Guianas began expanding throughout the Lesser Antilles in the early 2nd millennium CE. While they are famed for their martial prowess in battles with Arawak peoples during the expansion they also seem to have intermarried with Arawak-speaking relatives of the Taíno, called the Igneri, in the Eastern Caribbean. The children of Carib-Arawak unions spoke a largely Arawakan language [6] Anthropologists and historians have referred to this uniquely Antillean people as “Island” Caribs. These are the ancestors of today’s Kalinago people of Dominica and St. Vincent, and of the Garifuna people of St. Vincent and Belize. Their hybrid Arawakan-Cariban language and culture epitomized Caribbean mélange long before the créolité/mestizaje/creolization of the European colonial period.

On the eve of the Conquest Antillean Caribs began staging raids on Taíno-ruled Puerto Rico from bases in the Leeward Islands [7]. While the war arm of Carib society was quite mobile, giving evidence to the reputation of this ethnicity as maritime marauders, there is increasing evidence of settled living, pottery making and agriculture among the Island Caribs. In the last decade, local and Dutch archaeologists especially have intensified their excavations of Cayo-style pottery at sites in the Eastern Caribbean and have concluded that Cayo is a diagnostic ceramic style of Island Carib people in the first half of the 2nd millennium CE. This adds an even more sedentary aspect to the evidence that has always existed of Island Carib settlements having been supported by an agrarian economy much like that of the Arawak peoples described above.  [8]

Carib artifacts: (left) Cayo ceramic fragment with frog adorno; (right) Prof. Corinne Hofman and a University of Leiden team, with local assistants, conduct archaeological excavation at Argyle, St. Vincent (January 2010), while racing a thunderstorm, and the construction of the new international airport. This Island Carib site is located atop an embankment, strategically overlooking the sea. The earlier Saladoid (presumably Arawak) site of Escape is located just behind it, further inland.
Image sources: photos by author.

Famed for their skill and fierceness in war and political negotiation, Island Carib men may have also served as mercenaries in the internecine conflicts between different Taíno chiefdoms in the Greater Antilles. They may have also risen to positions of power among the Taíno through intermarriage with noble lineages in the Greater Antilles and Bahamas.

The Lesser Antilles Island Caribs’ carting off Taíno prisoners who never returned led to the belief among some Greater Antillean Taínos that Lesser Antillean warriors were maneaters. Spaniards eager to seize the Lesser Antilles during the Conquest also seized the opportunity to replicate, augment and report this fearsome legend to their king and thereby gain royal permission to enslave or eradicate the Island Carib population from its Eastern Caribbean stronghold. The term “cannibal” is derived from varied spellings of the word “Carib” as “Galibi” and “Canib.” Although ritual cannibalism is known among tropical Amerindians (i.e., eating small parts of enemies and loved ones in order to possess their life essence), Carib anthropophagy remains unsubstantiated [10]



For much of the human occupation of the ancient Antilles societies were probably more often than not characterized by egalitarian social structures. However, there was likely considerable variation of this social mode from culture to culture and by the arrival of the Spaniards in the late 15th century, the stratified Taíno chiefdoms and kingdoms of the Greater Antilles showed marked departures from the egalitarianism of smaller populations. Indeed in the Arawak homeland of South America, Arawak societies over the past two or three millennia have tended to manifest stratified chiefdoms and kingdoms after settling a new area [11]. The Taíno branch of Arawak culture was no exception.

As mainly hunter-gatherers, Archaic people likely had no ‘leaders,’ except in spiritual matters and perhaps for military affairs when a temporary leader (i.e., a ‘war chief’) may have been elected. Ceramic Antilleans, however, showed several signs of social hierarchy, which may have emerged from more egalitarian structures during their earlier settlement of the islands.

The shape of dwellings and villages might provide some insight into political structures of ancient Antilleans. The plan of settlements from the first millennium CE often described a circular arrangement of dwellings. From the postholes still detectable at many settlement sites, we can observe that houses were arranged in a circle around a central plaza, not unlike many traditional Amazonian villages today. Several plazas have mortuary remains interred beneath them so that the center of the village was a communal cemetery. [12].

Radial settlement plans: (left) artist interpretation of recently excavated Kuhikugu town on the Xingú river in Brazil; (right) aerial view of a Mehinako village, also in the Xingú region.

Image sources: Michael Heckenberger, “Lost Cities of the Amazon: The Amazon Tropical Forest is not as Wild as it Looks” in Scientific American, Oct. 2009, 64-71; Vanderbilt College of Arts and Science Department of Anthropology:

Roughly circular villages and towns with open central plazas, located near water resources, surrounded by orchards, gardens and anthropogenic (i.e., managed) forests have characterized the settlements of both Arawakan and Cariban peoples in several parts of the Amazon from since Pre-Columbian times. Roads radiate from these settlements and, in the Amazon, they are wide, tamped flat, and often perfectly straight for long distances. Similarly, Pre-Columbian Caribbean villages from the mid 1st millennium to early 2nd millennium CE at Maisabel and Punta Candelero (Puerto Rico), Sorcé (Vieques), Golden Rock (St. Eustatius) and Indian Creek (Antigua) seem to have had open plazas ringed by residences, middens and/or boundary markers (see Wilson, Archaeology of the Caribbean, 92; also see Peter E. Siegel, “Dynamic Dualism: A Structural Analysis of Circular Communities,” in Proceedings of the XXI Congress of the International Association for Caribbean Archaeology (Port-of-Spain, Trinidad: International Association for Caribbean Archaeology, 2005).


Villages of this type showed no division of rank in that all houses were roughly the same size and distance from the honored dead at the communal heart of the settlement.

The size of many settlements also indicates an overall equality among their constituents in that multiple social divisions would not have been practical in a population of only a few hundred as was often the case.

Many early Ceramic Era houses themselves seem to have had a circular or oval floor plan. They had domed, vaulted or conical thatched roofs depending on those floor plans. Some houses accommodated only single families but several families, presumably of the same clan, lived in larger longhouses [13]. The walls of houses were made of basket-woven grasses or wooden pickets between structural posts. These porous walls promoted circulation of air through the dwelling in the balmy Caribbean, and the thatched roof was easily replaceable after hurricanes and other storms. Some dwellings may have had no walls at all, functioning only as shelter during the night and in bad weather.

Some traditional Antillean structures: (left) Kalinago (Carib) meeting house with picket walls (Carib Territory: Dominica), note the canoe being expanded by water and (originally hot) rocks in the foreground; (right) Arawak elevated house of the type, which in the Eastern Caribbean have been more associated with Kalina (Carib) peoples (Pakuri Arawak Territory, Guyana).

Image sources: (left) photo by author; (right) Damon Corrie: Pan Tribal Confederacy of Indigenous Tribal Nations:

In the southernmost islands, Arawak, Warao and Carib houses were also elevated off the ground. These ajoupas, as they were called by the Caribs, enhanced the cooling effect of circulating air, this time beneath the dwelling, but also constituted a protective measure against flooding. Hammocks performed a similar function of elevating sleepers off the ground away from dampness, dirt and insects but also promoting coolness by minimizing pressed surfaces against the sleeper and producing a breeze by swaying the sleeper through the air. 

All these house designs, and hammocks as well, are still in use among Amazonid cultures of South America, among vestigial populations of indigenous people in the Caribbean, and have been adopted in one way or another in the colonial and contemporary architecture of the Caribbean and Latin America. In fact, the use of hammocks has spread throughout the world.

By Taíno times (12th–15th centuries), central plans were still used to organize villages and towns but with the house of the chief (cacique) rather than a communal cemetery, located at the center. The clan divisions that may have always been part of Antillean life had become quite pronounced by the 15th century so that related groups buried their own dead near or beneath their homes rather than in the center of the settlement as in earlier times [14]. In addition to clan divisions, the Taíno seem to have had several castes as well. These included royals and nobles (nitainos), commoners, and a vassal class (naborias) [15]. Shamans were outside this structure except when they were of noble birth. Different house designs suggest these social divisions. While circular Taíno houses (called caneys) were located in village plazas and were reserved for caciques and for use as shrines, most other Taínos, according to Spanish reports, lived in rectangular plan houses (called bohios) [16].

With regard to furniture, highly decorated ceremonial seats (duhos) found throughout the islands, from the first to second millennium CE, indicate that special individuals sat slightly above the others sitting on the ground at public gatherings such as ritual celebrations (areitos) and the sacred ballgame [17].


Duhos (ceremonial thrones): (left) elaborately incised Taíno duho with inlaid bone dentures, and formerly (gold?) inlaid eyes (Hispaniola); (right) Saladoid duho in the form of a dog recovered from the Pitch Lake (Trinidad) possibly as an offering or funerary deposit.

Image sources: Bercht et al, Taíno: Pre- Columbian Art and Culture from the Caribbean,1998; Boomert, Trinidad, Tobago and the Lower Orinoco, 2000.

These finely carved thrones are a clear indication of some manner of hierarchy among the Ceramic Antilleans, a hierarchy accompanied by elite heirlooms. The bodies of leaders and other elites also may have been modified to indicate their status. Early Spanish accounts describe the elaborate body adornments of Amerindian leaders, including impressive featherwork and gold alloy jewelry. Shamans likely made themselves conspicuous in some way by their regalia, amulets, and perhaps body markings. It is unclear to what extent other professions, such as artisans and warriors, may have differentiated themselves at gatherings or in daily life.

Personal adornments: (left) early Ceramic period (Saladoid?) shell necklace (Antigua); (center) Taíno necklace made of semi precious stones that evoke the color variations of feathers (Hispaniola); (right) Waurá (Arawak) ceremonial headdress of parrot, scarlet macaw (solar symbol) and harpy eagle (heavenly messenger) feathers (Brazil).

Image sources: (left) photo by author; (center) Altos de Chavón Museo Arqueológico Regional Quincentennial Commemorative Catalog (La Romana: Dominican Republic, 1992); (right) Barbara Braun, and Peter Roe, Arts of the Amazon, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1995).



The ancient Antilleans cultivated a wide range of fruits, vegetables and herbs for preparing food and medicine, and fibers for making clothing, roofing, housing and basketry. Some of the fruit gathered and grown in the ancient Caribbean included hog plums (jobos), pineapples, aguacate (avocados), genip (chenette/quinepas), guava (guayava), mamey, sapodilla, papaya and soursop (guanabana).


Some indigenous Antillean fruits: (left) hog plums (Spondias mombin); (right) guanabana
(Annona muricata).
Image sources: photos by author

Caribbean peoples also cultivated various species of peppers, from chilis to Habanero peppers (Scotch bonnet) (see figure below); peanuts, and beans. While all these foods and others, such as tomatoes, cacao and the various members of pumpkin/squash family are American endemics, coconuts, bananas, mangoes, breadfruit and carambolas (star fruit) are not from the Caribbean. These tropical foods were introduced during the colonial period from the Pacific Islands and Africa and were not part of the Pre-Columbian diet.

More indigenous edibles: (left) Genip/quenepa/canepa/chenette (Melicoccus bijugatus); (center) guayaba/guava (Psidium guajava); (right) Scotch bonnet peppers (Capsicum chinense)at different stages of ripening.

Image sources: photos by author

In the Antilles, as in the tropical lowlands of South America, crops were grown in a variety of ways. Herbs and small plants could be planted in dooryard gardens near dwellings, purposefully interspersed with wild plants that regulated soil chemistry. Some fruit trees were grown in organized orchards. Other fruit trees that attracted edible birds and animals were planted or allowed to grow near settlements in anthropogenic (man-made) or managed forests [18.] In these deceptively ‘pristine’-looking forests, people curated a high density of useful trees that provided fruit, medicine and meat (having attracted edible creatures) within walking distance of a settlement. Staple crops were cultivated in large quantities in fields called conucos, often on mounds that facilitated irrigation and the oxygenation of the soil around plant roots. But even conucos could be planted with multiple crops in the ecologically balanced manner of a dooryard garden.

Unlike the Native peoples of North America, the Antillean, Orinokian and Amazonian peoples had another very important staple crop beside maize/corn. They grew over a hundred varieties of the starchy root food manioc (cassava/yuca). The different species of this hardy tuber could be grown at different speeds and harvested at different times of the year in addition to/alongside plots of maize and various species of potato [19]. “Bitter” and “sweet” varieties of cassava were also prepared quite differently.

Manioc: leaves and tuber of the yuca (manioc/cassava) plant, a chief staple of the ancient (and modern) Antillean diet. Today manioc tubers are prepared for export with a wax coating to slow the process of blackening oxidation that commences when the tuber skin is broken.

Image sources: photos by author

Bitter manioc was poisonous and had to have its hydrocyanic acid removed before consumption. This was done by grating the cassava to a pulp on a grater board and stuffing this pulp into a long, tubular basket, called a cibucan/matapi/coulevre by different Antillean peoples.

Tools for manioc preparation: (left) Wakuenai Arawak grater board (Venezuela); (center) detail of grater board showing inlaid pieces of stone (Dominica); (right) extracting the poisonous juice from bitter manioc using a ‘cibucan’ (Brazil).

Image sources: (left) Barbara Braun, and Peter Roe, Arts of the Amazon, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1995); (center) photo by author; (right) photo at American Museum of Natural History, New York.

The cibucan was hung from a beam of the house or other shelter and a wooden wand placed through the woven loop at the bottom of the basket. When the wand was turned, it corkscrewed the cibucan, thereby squeezing the pulpy contents. The poisonous, milky cassava juice bled out through the weave of the basket into a ceramic bowl or calabash placed beneath the cibucan. This poisonous liquid could be discarded or used in dam fishing. The desiccated cassava pulp could then be removed from the cibucan and used as flour for cassava bread. Sweet cassava did not require this complicated preparation before conversion to flour, and therefore could also be cut and boiled, roasted or stewed in soups and gravies directly after harvesting, much like potato. However, sweet cassava juice could be extracted with a cibucan for fermenting into cassava beer. All these preparations of manioc/cassava remain part of Amerindian cooking today, and most of them also constitute an important part of the national cuisines in South America and the West Indies.


Casabe preparation: (left) making casabe on a griddle, note the grater board leaned up at right; (right) Conquest-era illustration of Antillean women preparing cassava (i.e., grating manioc, boiling sweet manioc, and baking casabe on a griddle (called a buren in the Antilles).

Image sources: (left) Gabriele Herzog-Shroder, et al., Orinoco-Parima: Indian Societies in Venezuela, the Cisneros Collection (Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje-Cantz Publishers, 2000); (right) Girolamo Benzoni, La historia del mondo nuovo, 1565

Cassava bread (casabe) was created by kneading cassava flour into flat disks and roasting them on flat ceramic griddles over a cooking fire. Whether made from bitter or sweet varieties of manioc, cassava bread preserved exceedingly well. It could be carried on long journeys over land and sea without spoiling, providing a sometimes much-needed burst of carbohydrates on exhausting travels. Bitter manioc especially produced a kind of casabe that was virtually unassailable by vermin since it retained a small amount of hydrocyanic poison harmless to humans but harmful or deadly to insects and rodents. 

Many edible and utilitarian species were endemic to the Caribbean islands, but manioc, corn, beans, and some peppers were probably introduced to the islands from the South American mainland by Archaic and Ceramic peoples. Cotton was also a likely human introduction [20] . It was harvested, spun and woven into loincloths, aprons, arm-, leg- and head-bands, and even cloth zemis.

Cotton products of the Antilleans and Amazonians: (left) Arekuna (Cariban) beaded cotton apron of the type worn by Carib women (Guyana); (center) hammocks in the Caribbean and South America were (and still are) woven from cotton; (right) cotton zemi, a woven cotton sculpture with inlaid shell eyes whose head encases the skull of an ancestor. Note the bulging calves and biceps, which reflects an Arawak and Carib Antillean style of tightly wrapping one’s calves and arms with cotton bands to create beautifying bulges on the limbs.

Image sources: (left) Frederick J. Dockstader, Indian Art in South America: Pre-Columbian and Contemporary Arts and Crafts (New York: New York Graphic Society, 1967); (center) Gabriele Herzog-Shroder, et al., Orinoco-Parima: Indian Societies in Venezuela, the Cisneros Collection (Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje-Cantz Publishers, 2000); Bercht, et al, Taíno: Pre- Columbian Art and Culture from the Caribbean,1998

Some cotton garments were made with dyed fibers, the dyes derived from black genipap (jagua) and red annatto (roucou) being derived from species grown specifically for their dyes.

It is unclear whether utilitarian species such as the calabash tree and larouma plant (Ischnosiphon arouma) were introduced from South America (whether in the Archaic or Ceramic period) or was endemic to the region. The inedible calabash fruit provided a lightweight hard-shelled container in which food and medicines could be carried, and like the pods of the roucou plant, the shape of the calabash was commemorated in ceramics.

Utilitarian crops: (left) roucou/annatto (Bixa orellana) used as a dye, and as (an insect repellant) ceremonial red body paint; (center) Saladoid roucou pod effigy, possibly for the preparation of roucou paint (Trinidad); (right) calabash gourds (genus Crescentia), which are halved to create two bowls, and whose emptied sphere is used to make the shaman’s maraca.

Image sources: (left) poster from the Carib Territory, Dominca; (center and right) photos by author

Like calabashes, baskets would have also provided lightweight containers for Archaic and Ceramic Age foragers, hunters and fishermen alike. Cibucans (i.e., coulevres) could also be made of larouma.

Larouma: (left) harvested larouma reeds before natural dyeing; (right) detail of a Kalinago (Carib) matapi (cibucan) showing the four different colors  possible through natural biochemical dyeing, including burying the larouma strips in soil for different lengths of time (Carib Territory, Dominica).

Image sources: Photos by author

As with their crops, Amerindians’ meat sources were partially endemic and partially introduced. While birds, iguanas, crustaceans and fish were native to the region, peccaries were probably brought to the islands and either bred in corrals or allowed to run wild and hunted later. Armadillos, guinea pigs and some agoutis were probably also introduced as food [21], whereas opossums, with their strong prehensile tails could just as easily have washed ashore clinging to floating vegetation from the mainland as brought in canoes by human settlers. Rice rats could have arrived either way as well. Butchered remains of these animals have been found in ancient Antillean middens (garbage heaps) indicating their use as food [22]. Dogs were used to assist in hunting many of the above species. However a breed of non-barking dog was also fattened for eating [23].

Despite the farming and hunting of medium-sized and small mammals, marine resources were by far the main source of animal protein for Paleoindian, Archaic and Ceramic Antilleans alike. Shellfish were gathered in the shallow coastal waters; further out to sea, conch were acquired through diving; and in deep water, a variety of fish were caught by cotton nets (with stone and shell sinkers), spearing and perhaps arrow fishing. River fish were also caught, perhaps sometimes by the clever use of the poisoned juice of bitter manioc. In dam fishing, sections of a river were temporarily dammed up with logs and other debris, the milky hydrocyanic liquid was then poured into the damned water, rendering the corralled fish unconscious, and as they floated to the top, the fish were collected and taken back to the village or town to be cooked (which neutralized the poison used to catch them) [24]

Poison fishing: Yanomamö collecting ‘drugged’ fish in a temporarily dammed portion of a stream, where the water is milky from the poisonous extract of bitter manioc.
go back up

Image source: Napoleon A. Chagnon, Yanomamö: The Fierce People (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1977)

Meat, fish and shellfish were cooked in soups and stews, such as the famed pepperpot still made by Caribbean cooks today. But they were also dried or smoked on latticework grills called bukans and roasted on open fires called barbacoas. These are the words from which the popular colonial terms “Buccaneer” (since 17th century West Indian pirates smoked their meat in a method derived from that of the Amerindians) and “barbecue” (a method of grilling marinaded meat) are derived.

Manatee meat was smoked, grilled and eaten on some islands but as sacred animals, they may have been forbidden as food in some territories, restricted to elites or reserved for special events. Turtles and their eggs, though also highly sacred, were also a food source on most islands. This need not seem strange in that many sacred animals derive part of their sacred status from their life-giving flesh, especially if they carry maternal symbolism as did turtles and manatees. [25] The flesh and eggs of many birds were eaten as well. 



Inter-island trade was an important part of ancient Antillean economies, during the Archaic and Ceramic periods, but perhaps even during Paleoindian times. People of the Caribbean moved very naturally between islands, as comfortable on the sea as on land. Trade contacts, and the political alliances that accompanied them, sometimes forged closer connections between settlements on different islands than neighboring settlements on the same island. The close relationships between the Western Taíno chiefdoms on Cuba and Jamaica, and Haiti and the Bahamas are but a few examples of this overseas unity, cemented in part by trade ties [26].


One of the best indications of the range of Antillean trade contacts, especially during the Ceramic period, is the distribution of lapidary products and tools: stone beads, pendants, axes and other objects.


Discoveries of a certain type of stone object on islands where that type of stone does not occur naturally in the environment are one way that archaeologists trace the ancient trade routes. For example, Tobago, Grenada, Montserrat and Antigua & Barbuda seemed to have been important sources of un-worked semi-precious stones as well as centers of specialized stone working. They seem to have acted as hubs of widespread inter-island trade in these commodities [27].

Lapidary trade items: (left and center left) carnelian and quartz, raw and fashioned into drilled barrel-shaped beads for local use and export (Antigua); (center right and right) imported South American turquoise and possibly Martiniquian amethyst (Montserrat).

Image sources: (left and center left) photos by author; (center right and right) American Museum of the American Indian online collections search:


Lapidary evidence has given proof of trade contacts linking islands throughout the Antilles, with diorite and serpentine from the Greater Antilles appearing in the Lesser Antilles, quartz and amethyst perhaps from Martinique found in Montserrat, and turquoise and jade from South and Central America found from Antigua to Vieques. In many cases, lapidary materials seem to have been shipped raw from one island to another where it was worked into beads, pendants and other finished object. In other cases, islands with no known source of a stone abounded in beads and other objects made of that stone, indicating that the objects were worked elsewhere and exported [28].


Caribbean-made objects made of jadeite of uncertain origins: (left) Huecoid king vulture pendants, those at left made from jadeite (Vieques); (right) Saladoid jadeite frog amulet (Antigua).

Image sources: (left) Luis Chanlatte Baik, and Yvonne Narganes Storde, Cultura La Hueca, 2005; (right) photo by author


Recently discovered jadeite axes from a 3rd-6th century CE Saladoid site in Antigua have been traced back to the Motagua Valley in Guatemala, the same quarries from which the Olmec and Maya of ancient Mesoamerica acquired jade [29]. Thus, the ancient Antilleans either traded directly with the Maya or with Maya trading partners in Central and northern South America.


Mesoamerican jade: Saladoid petaloid celt made from jade from the Motagua Valley in Guatemala, indicating direct or indirect trade with the contemporaneous Maya.

Image source: photo by George Harlow, National Geographic, June 2006:


Other trade materials have survived in smaller quantities, such as volcanic temper from Montserrat, St. Vincent and other islands used in ceramics throughout the Lesser Antilles and pitch from Trinidad’s Pitch Lake used as black paint on ceramics throughout the Saladoid Antilles. This tar was probably also used to caulk cracks and holes in canoes.


[1]See Wilson, The Archaeology of the Caribbean, 25-58]
go back up

[ 2] See Rouse, The Tainos, 51-70; Wilson, The Archaeology of the Caribbean, 48-52]
go back up

[ 3] See Boomert, Trinidad, Tobago and the Lower Orinoco, 93-100]
go back up

[ 4] See Wilson, The Archaeology of the Caribbean, 38. For more on Archaic-era Antilleans see A. Gus Pantel, “The Archaics,” in General History of the Caribbean: Autochthonous Societies, ed. Jalil Sued-Badillo (London: Macmillan Caribbean, 2003) and Reniel Rodriguez Ramos, Rethinking Puerto Rican Pre-Colonial History, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2010].
go back up

[ 5] See Rouse, The Tainos, 77]
go back up

[6] See Lennox Honychurch, The Dominica Story (London: Macmillan Education, 1995), 25-26; Rouse, The Tainos, 21-22; also compare Révérend Père Raymond Breton, Dictionaire Caraïbe-Français (1664; repr., Paris: Éditions Karthala et l’IRD, 1999) and Edwin Miner Solá, Diccionario Taíno Ilustrado (Puerto Rico: First Book Publishing, 2002)].
go back up

[7] See Rouse, The Tainos, 22]
go back up

[8] See Corinne Hofman and Anne van Duijvenbode, Communities in Contact: Essays in Archaeology, Ethnohistory and Ethnography of the Amerindian Circum-Caribbean (Leiden: Sidestone Press, 2011); Hulme, and Whitehead, Wild Majesty, 1992)].
go back up

[9] See Keegan, Taíno Indian Myth and Practice, Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007) 43-46; Stevens Arroyo, Cave of the Jagua, 50].
go back up

[10] See Hulme and Whitehead, Wild Majesty, 3, 9, 17-40; Rouse, The Tainos, 157]
go back up

[11] See Jonathan D. Hill and Fernando Santos-Granero, eds., Comparative Arawakan Histories: Rethinking Language Family and Culture Area (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006)].
go back up

[12]See Wilson, Archaeology of the Caribbean, 92-93
go back up

[13] See Searchlight (Kingstown: Friday March 27, 2009), 24:
go back up

[14] See Wilson, Archaeology of the Caribbean, 110-116
go back up

[15] See Wilson, Archaeology of the Caribbean, 110
go back up

[16] See Wilson, Archaeology of the Caribbean, 120; also see Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, Natural History of the West Indies, ed. and trans. Sterling A. Stoudemire (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959)
go back up

[17]See Wilson, Archaeology of the Caribbean, 92-93
go back up

[18] See Boomert, Trinidad, Tobago, and the Lower Orinoco, 94, Michael Heckenberger, “Lost Cities of the Amazon: The Amazon Tropical Forest is not as Wild as it Looks,” in Scientific American, 64-71; also see Charles Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (New York: Vintage, 2006)].
go back up

[19]Wilson, Archaeology of the Caribbean, 86-87]
go back up

[20] See Boomert, Trinidad, Tobago, and the Lower Orinoco, 97-99; Rouse, The Tainos, 11-13]
go back up

[21]See Charles A. Woods and Florence E. Sergile, eds., Biogeography of the West Indies: Patterns and Perspectives (Boca Raton: CRC Press, 2001)
go back up

[22] See Arie Boomert, “Agricultural Societies in the Continental Caribbean,” in General History of the Caribbean: Autochthonous Societies, ed. Jalil Sued-Badillo (London: Macmillan Caribbean, 2003)
go back up

[23] See Samuel Eliot Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus (New York: Book-of-the-Month Club, 1992), 255-256; 457].
go back up

[24] See Arie Boomert, “Agricultural Societies in the Continental Caribbean,” in General History of the Caribbean: Autochthonous Societies, ed. Jalil Sued-Badillo (London: Macmillan Caribbean, 2003); Rouse, The Tainos, 13].
go back up

[25] The Arawak word “manatí” means “breast”; and for the maternal symbolism of turtles, see Traditional Narratives and Religion- click here
go back up

[26] See David Watters, “Maritime Trade in the Prehistoric Eastern Caribbean,” in Indigenous People of the Caribbean, ed. Samuel M. Wilson (Tallahassee: University Press of Florida, 1997), 88; also see William F. Keegan, Taíno Indian Myth and Practice: The Arrival of the Stranger King (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007).
go back up

[27] See Rouse, The Tainos, 85; and Watters “Maritime Trade in the Prehistoric Eastern Caribbean,” 98
go back up

[28] See Louis Allaire, “The Lesser Antilles Before Columbus,” in Indigenous People of the Caribbean, ed. Samuel M. Wilson (Tallahassee: University Press of Florida, 1997), 24; Watters, 96-98].
go back up

[29] See George Harlow et al., “Pre-Columbian Jadeite Axes from Antigua, West Indies: Description and Possible Sources,” Canadian Mineralogist 44, no. 2(April 2006): 305-321]
go back up