Natural History

The People Who Discovered Columbus Version 2.0

By Dr. Peter T. Sinelli and Dr. William Keegan

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” — Albert Einstein

In our last contribution to Times of the Islands, we described the “conventional wisdom” concerning the colonization of the Caribbean Islands—namely, that the Island Arawaks efficiently island-hopped their way to eventually settle most every island in the West Indies. Before specifically addressing the Turks & Caicos Islands we need to look at a broader perspective on the movement of peoples and the cultural identities of the peoples who inhabited the Antilles prior to their expansion into the Bahama archipelago.

Original bronze sculpture by Diana Fierin depicts a Lucayan Indian.

Instant replay: First, the Gulf Stream prevented overwater contacts with the Caribbean islands from North America. In spite of their geographical proximity to the Caribbean, ancient seafarers from the southeastern United States were more likely to have been swept into the North Atlantic toward Europe than to the Bahamas or the Greater Antilles. Second, beginning around 1000 BC Arawak-speaking expanded from the upper Amazon eastward along the Amazon and Orinoco Rivers of South America. This “Saladoid” expansion led them to Trinidad, whence they colonized the Lesser Antilles and Puerto Rico by 500 BC. Their expansion was halted in Puerto Rico for 1,000 years, perhaps by the presence of indigenous “Archaic” peoples who had migrated to Cuba and Hispaniola from Central America around 5000 BC, and were none too pleased with the new South American interlopers insinuating themselves into their long-established territory. Eventually (sometime after AD 500), the descendants of the Saladoid overcame this obstacle and resumed their expansion into Hispaniola, Jamaica, Cuba, and the Bahama archipelago, where they eventually evolved into the cultures that Columbus quite accidentally stumbled upon in 1492.
This (hi)story is based on the notion that “Saladoid” peoples possessed a superior way of life based on agriculture and the use of pottery, both of which are associated with a Neolithic revolution that allowed people to live in permanent (sedentary) communities, and not suffer the limitations on cultural development imposed by a mobile existence in which people were forced to move continuously to take advantage of resources that were seasonally abundant. Archaeologists did not bomb anyone back to the Stone Age. However, we did assume that the tidy and continuous alignment of islands that extends from northeastern South America to Cuba provided a convenient corridor for expansion into the Antilles, and that a hunter-gatherer way of life would be swept away by agriculturally based immigrants that produced their own food and didn’t need to rely upon the limited wild resources that were available in a circumscribed island environment.
In our last article we suggested that archaeological research conducted throughout the Caribbean has exposed fundamental flaws in the prevailing wisdom. In short, we now know that archaeologists’ first stab at explaining the indigenous colonization of the West Indies was wrong! There are four main schisms. First, Archaic peoples were not as “simple” as once portrayed. Second, there is significant evidence for interchange with the Isthmo-Colombian region (the continental lands between Colombia and Costa Rica). Third, the lower Orinoco (that portion of the river near the delta in what is today eastern Venezuela) now seems to have been settled by the Indians relatively late, and there is no evidence that the initial “Saladoid” migrants expanded through the Lesser Antilles to reach Puerto Rico by 500 BC. Finally, there is new evidence for several distinct early ceramic traditions in the Antilles that predate the Saladoid migration by many centuries.
It is generally agreed that the first humans to settle the islands arrived from Central America sometime around 7,000 years ago, and established colonies in Cuba, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico. They manufactured large stone blades by flaking blocks of chert (flint), and it is assumed that they used these to hunt large game. Indeed, there is evidence that the Caribbean sloth went extinct shortly after humans arrived. In conformity with evolutionary schemes, often based on modern ethnographic studies, it is assumed that these “Lithic Age” (i.e. Stone Age) peoples were simple hunter-gatherers who lived in small, mobile groups that moved seasonally in response to available resources. We lack archaeological confirmation for this conclusion. It also has been assumed that after they arrived in the islands they abruptly lost all ties to their continental homeland—even though island peoples the world over have frequently been observed to maintain a degree of ongoing contact with the folks “back home.”
Conventional archaeological interpretations also have been based on Eurocentric notions of technological “progress.” We “Westerners” tend to view cultural evolution through the lens of our own history—in which European modes of “civilization” and “technology” were spread throughout the world via colonialism—as if contact with “superior” cultures is the only way anyone living anywhere else could ever move out of the Dark Ages toward a more prosperous and enlightened future. Thus, when ground-stone tools used for mashing and chopping begin to appear in the islands around 4,500 years ago, it has been assumed that this “superior” technology represents the arrival of a new wave of immigrants, this time from eastern South America. These new-and-improved “Archaic Age” peoples also are assumed to have been hunter-gatherers who wisely and sagaciously used grinding tools to expand their use of local plants. Their arrival signaled the extinction of the preceding Lithic Age peoples, who went the way of the sloth.
To the contrary, recent investigations have shown that there is absolutely no evidence for a separate migration of Archaic peoples. If they had expanded from northeastern South America through the Lesser Antilles and into the Greater Antilles, then there should be some evidence for this passage. None exists. A better explanation is that ground-stone tools reached Lithic Age peoples in the islands through continuing connections with Central America (which we really should have expected), and that these tools were associated with the processing of plants imported from sister communities on the mainland. Our characterization of the Archaic has changed substantially in the past decade. We now know that some of them made and used pottery. Some imported cultigens from Central America, lived in more permanent, settled communities, and developed more complex forms of social and political organization. In short, they became “superior” all by themselves, thank you very much.

Pendants representing Andean condors carrying a human “trophy head” excavated off the east coast of Puerto Rico.

We encounter similar issues regarding the next wave of migration. Conventional wisdom holds that farmer- potters (it sounds more scholarly in Spanish: “Agro-alfarera”) from the Orinoco River basin swept through the islands beginning around 2,500 years ago. They are distinguished by their pottery as “Saladoid,” named for the Saldero site in Venezuela. Their use of farming and ceramics is considered “superior” to the “Archaic” way of life, and the Archaics who managed to survive the Saladoid and subsequent Ceramic Age invasions eventually turned tail and fled to western Cuba, which became their Alamo; their last bastion at the time of Spanish contact.
The scenario is again one of “progress” along singular, Westernized lines. Innovations in root crop agriculture and pottery were combined somewhere in Amazonia, and these improvements were carried by “superior” people down the Orinoco River, onto Trinidad and Tobago, through the Lesser Antilles, and finally Puerto Rico. There, further expansion to the west was halted for about 1,000 years (by the backwards and unfriendly natives, of course), although the reasons for this long pause in Puerto Rico have never been adequately evidenced. Indeed, it is simply assumed that after adjusting to island life on Puerto Rico, “Agro-alfarera” peoples finally got their wits about them and resumed expansion into Hispaniola, Cuba, Jamaica, The Bahamas, and the Turks & Caicos.
There are compelling similarities between the pottery of eastern Venezuela and the islands. In addition, it seems logical that after departing from Trinidad and Tobago, “Ceramic Age” colonists would follow the inter-visible islands all the way to Puerto Rico. The problem, again, is that the oldest sites have been found in Puerto Rico and the northern Lesser Antilles, and there is no evidence, for at least 600 years, that they settled in the southern islands through which they supposedly paddled right past to reach Puerto Rico. This has led to the “southward migration” hypothesis, in which the northern islands were settled first, and the Saladoid peoples later expanded south through the Lesser Antilles. In addition, recent studies on the lower Orinoco now indicate that Saladoid peoples arrived there centuries after they had settled in the Antilles. So how can you come from some place you never lived?
In light of the emerging evidence, a variety of alternative perspectives on the peopling of the Caribbean recently have been proposed. We have mentioned that the Archaic no longer appears to be a separate migration from South America, but rather the adoption of tools, ideas and peoples from the surrounding mainland. This conclusion is further reflected in the continuation of ties with a Central American homeland that are expressed in the adoption of farming, the import of exotic stone objects, and the social construction of space. We are now faced with the problem of explaining complications to the simple model. If people originated in eastern Venezuela, then why, at an early date, do we find jadeite that originated in Guatemala? Why are Andean condors represented in Antillean artifacts? Why are there no archaeological sites in the Windward Islands until after AD 200? Did the Archaic peoples simply disappear, or did they contribute their forms of pottery making and plant management (agriculture) to later arrivals? Do the pottery styles that are classified as following a unilinear line of development really follow a singular progression, or do they reflect an amalgamation of multiple distinct traditions and trajectories? These are a few of the questions that Caribbean archaeologists now are facing.
The Caribbean is today what we could call a “melting pot.” Consider that the motto for Jamaica is “Out of many, one people,” there are traditional East Indian and Pakistani communities in Trinidad, most Saint Lucians speak a French patois, St. Eustatius has early Jewish enclaves, and Haitians have reproduced an African identity. And nowhere is this “melting pot” more evident than in the Turks & Caicos. Many Belongers proudly trace Haitian, Bahamian, Jamaican, and/or African roots. Indeed, the hamlet of Bambarra on Middle Caicos—which was established by Africans who escaped a life of bondage when the slaver Trouvadore wrecked on the Islands’ free soil in 1841—is named in honor of the African tribe with which many of the founding families identified themselves. Although we Westerners tend to attribute these developments, and many others, to the historical adventures of Spanish, French, British and Dutch colonists, the chaos actually began thousands of years prior to their arrival. The peoples of the Caribbean have been multicultural from the onset.
Einstein was right—we can’t solve this problem by using the same thinking that created it.

Anyone interested in more comprehensive discussions of these topics should look for The Handbook of Caribbean Archaeology, edited by William F. Keegan, Corinne L. Hofman and Reniel Rodríguez Ramos, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Dr. Peter T. Sinelli is an Instructor of Anthropology at the University of Central Florida, Orlando. Dr. William Keegan is Curator of Caribbean Archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida, Gainesville.

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