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The Pre-Columbian Caribbean

Karl Watson
“These Islands have been shaped by the most severe human traumas of global significance to have taken place within the last four centuries: (among them) the virtually total and rapid removal of a large aboriginal population following initial European contact.” (David Watts)

Though a growing body of information is being assembled on the pre-Colombian or Amerindian peoples of the Caribbean, we often tend to ignore or forget them when discussing the history or examining the cultural background of the Caribbean. The reason for this is their disappearance in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with only residual populations being left in Dominica, St. Vincent and Trinidad. As they no longer have a physical presence among us and left no written records, we often glibly assume that they have no history and on that basis, can be safely ignored. Yet, in terms of time, the first occupants of these islands, the Amerindians, had a much longer run than those peoples who have occupied the Caribbean since 1492. We have been here for some twenty generations in the case of the Spanish speaking islands and some fifteen generation in the English and French speaking islands. The Amerindians occupied these islands for some forty generations prior to the arrival of Columbus. During the period of time, their societies produced a vibrant material culture as the archaeological evidence attests. Despite the lack of written records produced by them, we know from the reports of Spanish officials at the time of contact, and from observations made by early Spanish and French missionaries, that their societies were organized and structured, that they had political structures and that their economic system, though it was largely self-sufficient, included elements of trade. Ethnography also permits the development of insights into Amerindian culture. By studying and comparing present day Indian groups in the Guyanas and Venezuela, it is possible to make inferences about island Amerindian culture and to grasp to a degree, the world view of these people. Though long gone, their presence lives on among us, either through some genetic inheritance, as can be seen among the population of the Dominican Republic, or in the features of

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individuals from Guadeloupe or St. Lucia, in our language and cuisine, or from the large quantity of artifacts strewn across our islands. Field-walking or even garden forking can produce Amerindian artifacts on every Caribbean island. Though the size of their populations is hotly debated and will probably never be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, recent opinion tends to support the notion of larger, rather than smaller populations. A variety of factors would of course affect the size of Amerindian populations among the various islands, among these being geo-physical characteristics such as the size of the island, topography, soil conditions and rainfall patterns. Let us now consider some of these issues.

Geology and Geography of the Caribbean The Caribbean is a relatively new geological area. The oldest section is the Greater Antilles, consisting of the islands of Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica and Puerto Rico. In their discernable shape, they started to emerge some 15 million years ago, during the geological period know as the Miocene. Of course, the Caribbean Sea had appeared during the Cretaceous period approximately 135 million years ago, but shifting tectonic plates caused instability which made land forms appear and vanish. It is along the eastern edge of the Caribbean tectonic plate that underground pressures created the uplift which gave birth to the inner arc of the volcanic islands of the Lesser Antilles. This would include islands such as Montserrat, St. Kitts, Guadeloupe (Basseterre), Dominica, Martinique, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and Grenada. An outer arc of coral formation appeared subsequently, which includes islands such as Antigua, Barbuda, Anguilla and Guadeloupe (Grandterre). This happened during warm periods of the Pleistocene some 3 million years ago, when conditions were optimum for the growth of coral reefs. The other islands of Trinidad, Tobago and Barbados are linked to geological events which took place in northern South America when Andean movements during the Miocene created these three islands which are all linked by submarine ridges. Barbados grew during the Pleistocene, when coral reefs colonized the underlying Andean sediment. The geographic location of both the Greater and Lesser Antilles was of some importance in later years, after man entered the Americas, since the contiguous islands provided a corridor which facilitated movement eastward from Central America into the Greater Antilles. Subsequently, other migrations took

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Amerindians northward from the Orinoco region into the Lesser Antilles and from there on northward to sections of the Greater Antilles.

Flora and Fauna It is generally the norm that all islands are species poor when compared to continental landmasses. It is also the norm that the smaller the island is, the fewer the number of species it can support. The flora of the Caribbean is far richer than its fauna. This is especially true of the larger islands of the Greater Antilles, but also applies to the volcanic islands of the Lesser Antilles, since the higher elevation, the greater the precipitation, so that islands such as Dominica, St. Vincent and St. Lucia have extensive forest cover with a greater variety of species presenting than islands such as Antigua, Barbados, or the very dry islands of the southern Caribbean, notably Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao. The richest and most diverse fauna of the Caribbean is to be found in the offshore marine environment, particularly the coral reefs. This naturally had implications for the Amerindian peoples of the Caribbean, since the relative abundance of the sea led their economy in that direction and influenced the development of their culture. It should be noted here that Amerindians practiced both inshore and offshore fishing, which necessitated the development of different techniques, including the use of traps, spears and arrows, lines, and nets. It is also probable that they used specific plants whose toxicity allowed corralled fish to be stunned and float to the surface. The richest on land fauna was the bird life which was greatly increased during the months of July to March with the annual migration of North American bird species southward. However, each island possessed two or three species of doves or pigeons which flocked in great abundance and these were extensively hunted for food as analysis of bone fragments recovered from middens has shown. A considerable amount of work has been done on this in the Dominican Republic, (Hispaniola) where it has been suggested that special traps were constructed by the Amerindians for the capture of large numbers of these pigeons, especially the White crowned or Baldpate and the Scaly-naped or Ramier, (see Veloz Maggiolo). The wetlands of the islands also provided opportunities for the hunting of ducks, especially the West Indian Whistling Duck, the Fulvous Tree Duck and during the winter months, the Bluewinged Teal. We know from the archaeological record that the Amerindians consumed a

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wide variety of bird species which they trapped or hunted with darts and blunt arrows. Analysis of bond fragments recovered from Amerindian middens or garbage dumps by specialists or zooarchaeologists, clearly demonstrates this. Some bird species such as the Mockingbird, which in modern times is not eaten, were consumed by Amerindian peoples. The only inference we can draw from this is that each culture has its own norms and values. During the pre-Colombian period, the islands had no mega-fauna. The largest mammals were aquatic. These were the West Indian Seal (now extinct), the Manatee (which is critically endangered in the few islands where it survives) and the turtles (four species) of which the most frequently hunted was the Green Turtle. On land, the most frequently hunted animals were the rice-rat and the iguana. Other aspects of the diet of these peoples will be discussed further on in this paper.

Demographic patterns It is widely assumed that early man entered the Americas during the last ice age at the time of the Wisconsin glaciations, some 15,000 years ago, when ocean levels were lower, and a land bridge developed between Siberia and Alaska, in the region known today as Bering Straits. It should be pointed out however, that some individuals suggest an even earlier time of arrival, postulating some 30,000 years ago as a possible time. These people were of Asiatic stock, and so possessed specific physical characteristics. Generally, they were copper coloured, had straight black hair, high cheek bones and narrowed eyelids. Columbus in his log described them as a “very well built people, with handsome bodies and very fine faces.” After crossing the Bering land bridge, the Amerindians moved south very quickly and archaeological evidence confirms their arrival in South America some two thousand years after the initial crossing. Though we have no exact date for their arrival in the Caribbean it is estimated that the first settlers arrived about 5000 B.C. (or 7000 B.P./Before Present). Radio carbon dating of organic samples recovered from Banwari Trace, Trinidad give this early date for man in the Caribbean. This is probably not a definitive date. Because of on-going archaeological work and improvements in dating techniques, the time horizon keeps being

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pushed back farther and farther. Some time in the future therefore, we can expect a revision of these dates. Early man entered the Caribbean in a series of migratory waves which took place over a period of thousands of years. The earliest people to settle in the Greater Antilles it is assumed, came through Central America, crossing the relatively narrow stretch between Belize and Hispaniola/Cuba. The earliest dates known thus far for this migration come from the site known as Levisa, Cuba, where radio-carbon dates of 3190 B.C. have been obtained. Subsequent waves came from the Orinoco region of South America and moved north through the island chain of the Eastern Caribbean on to Puerto Rico and points north. Though of the same stock, these immigrants exhibited various cultural differences which allow us to differentiate among them, and so establish distinct ethnic groups. genetics or racial assignation). (Please note that ethnicity is determined by cultural attributes and has nothing to do with biological makeup, Also, because of the time span covered by their various migrations, different groups at different times exhibited varying levels of technological innovation. It should also be noted that the Greater Antilles presents a slightly different profile to that of the Lesser Antilles in terms both of the size of population and the complexity of society. At the very early date mentioned above therefore, that is some 5000 years ago, a pre-ceramic, truly lithic or stone age peoples settled in the larger islands of the Greater Antilles. As stated above, it is believed that they migrated from Central America, although the possibility exists that groups may have come south from Florida. Much later, about 4000 years ago, a similar preceramic people entered the Lesser Antilles, coming north from what is today the country of Venezuela. We know very little about these first groups, since they left only very sparse traces of their occupation of the islands. They were coastal dwellers, almost certainly hunters and gatherers, with a heavy reliance on shellfish and reef fish for sustenance. No evidence to date has been found which would suggest that these early palaeo-indians had a knowledge of, or practised agriculture. Of their social organization, we know nothing, but comparisons with similar groups from other geographical regions would indicate that the level of their organization was quite simple.

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They possessed a basic material culture which relied on tool manufacture using flint and related stones and shells. Several of their knives and projectile points fashioned of flint have been recovered from the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Puerto Rico. No evidence of ceramics has appeared in the excavated levels of strata occupied by them. As regards their beliefs systems, we can only hypothesize. However, since it can be demonstrated that all studied cultures exhibit a belief in a supernatural world which is linked to and in fact controls the natural world which we inhabit, then it is fair to conclude that these early dwellers of the Caribbean islands also had an understanding of a supernatural world, from which we have evolved a religious system and cosmology. Archaeological evidence indicates that subsequent migrations took place into the Greater Antilles, and some of the Lesser Antilles, including Trinidad, Tobago, Martinique, Antigua, St. Kitts and Barbados. These migrations of non-agricultural, non-ceramic peoples continued until approximately 1000 B.C. It is believed that the origins of these groups were in what is today northern Venezuela. Some six hundred years later, at approximately 400 B.C., Arawakan speaking peoples entered the Caribbean moving from northern South America (in the general area of the delta region of the Orinoco River, Venezuela and the Guyanas). From settlements in Trinidad, they moved north through the island chain on the Greater Antillian islands of Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica and Puerto Rico. The term Arawak is applied to these peoples, although in the Greater Antilles, they are also known as Taino. They were more advanced culturally than the earlier palaeo-indians, practised agriculture, produced fine ceramics and had complex social organizations. Archaeologists further subdivide these Arawaks into groups or cultures, using stylistic elements found among their ceramics as their markers. These markers include such attributes as firing temperature, thickness of body, painted surfaces, and decorative lugs or adorns. In the Lesser Antilles, the principal divisions are Saladoid, Barrancoid, Troumassoid and Suazoid. Saladoid ceramics tend to much finer and are usually decorated with abstract designs painted with red and white paint. Suazoid ceramics are on the other hand, much thicker and cruder in

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appearance, are monotone and are characterized by the presence of decorative handles or lugs, which usually portray a variety of animals. These are known as adorns. In the Greater Antilles, the term Ostionoid is used to indicate a pottery style which evolved after the Saladoid style. Sometime in the fourteenth century, another linguistically different group, known as Caribs or Kalinago (as they referred to themselves), entered the Lesser Antilles, replacing the Arawaks on all the islands with the exception of Trinidad, Barbados and possibly Tobago. In broad terms, they exhibited the same cultural patterns, but did not produce the extremely fine ceramics of the Saladoid peoples. Many of their ceramics resemble the Suazoid styles, but often include finger nail indentations on the rims of vessels as decorative motifs. Arawakan speaking peoples continued to dominate the four larger islands of the Greater Antilles, where their extensive populations had permitted the development of complex political units headed by chiefs or caciques. It was these peoples whom Columbus encountered on his first voyages, and who as we shall see paid the price of extinction, once that barrier the Atlantic Ocean, which separated the Old World from the New World was converted into a highway of exploitation. For it was along this highway that a variety of agents of destruction travelled, including bacteria and viruses unknown, and hence mortal, to the immune systems of the Amerindians. (See Crosby, The Colombian Exchange) As will be discussed in the subsequent chapter, the Amerindians of the Caribbean suffered a total demographic disaster as a result of the European penetration and occupation of their territory. This was a disaster unparalleled in human history. The Indians of the Bahamas, the so-called Lucayos, disappeared within fifteen years of contact. In less than a hundred years, the native populations of the Caribbean had disappeared, leaving as noted, tiny residues in Dominica, St. Vincent and Trinidad. Though the size of the pre-Colombian population is hotly debated, and we shall never know the precise figures, most recent researches are of the view that each island in the Caribbean supported meaningful populations of Amerindians. following table gives an idea of the range of population estimates for selected islands. The

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CROSSROADS OF EMPIRE: THE EUROPE – CARIBBEAN CONNECTION Fig. II: Demographic estimates of pre-Columbian populations, showing Wide variations: High Hispaniola Cuba Jamaica Puerto Rico Lesser Antilles Total Kroeber 200,000 Rosenblat 300,000 Steward 220,000 7,000,000 1,700,000 300,000 1,000,000 300,000 9,300,000 Sapper 3/4,000,000 General Estimates for total Caribbean Dobyn 550,000 Low 100,000 60,000 40,000 70,000 150,000 420,000

Socio-political organisation Both Arawak and Carib societies were hierarchical in nature, at whose apex was a small elite group, often related, who were lead by a chief or cacique. Political differentiation was at its greatest in the larger islands of the Greater Antilles, with Hispaniola, the most heavily populated island, being the most developed. We know a fair amount of historical detail at contact, as a result of the descriptive works of Columbus, Las Casas, Oviedo y Valdes and Peter Martyr. Hispaniola was divided politically into five large cazicazgoes, whose names were Guacayarima, Bainoa, Cayabo, Huhabo, Caizeimu. Similar chieftainships also existed in Cuba, Jamaica and Puerto Rico, and there is no doubt, that leaders, perhaps with less well defined political authority, controlled individual islands of the Lesser Antilles. Historical documents from the early eighteenth century, indicate that this was the case for the Carib/Kalinago societies of St. Vincent, St. Lucia and Dominica, and it would not be misleading to infer that the same applied to other islands. Society was centered around the chief and his ruling elite, who were linked to him through a shared matrilineal heritage. They had specific privileges, and like the chief, were distinguished from the rest of the population as a class, known by the Arawaks (Taino) as naborias. The role of the chief was varied, and included judicial decisions, religious leadership, diplomatic overtures with rival chiefs and military leadership. Power was expressed symbolically through material culture. The house of the chief dominated the settlement and was of a distinctive architectural style, those of his elite supporters were built in close proximity, but on a smaller scale. Body decoration, jewellery, especially elaborately carved necklaces, cotton garments and objects of conspicuous consumption, such as the carved chairs or duhos, also

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served as visual reminders of elite status to the commoners. Slavery of the chattel type which was established in the Caribbean during the historic period, did not exist in Amerindian societies, though there was variant of bondage, which largely involved captives taken during raids. As occurred in West Africa however, captives could become integrated in society through marriage, and could and did possess rights. Similarly, although women did not enjoy the same status as men, neither were they treated as bond servants. Arawakan society it would appear, treated their womenfolk better than the Caribs/Kalinago did. Oftentimes, descent and the inheritance of power was matrilineal and this gave a degree of influence to females. The Caribs on the other hand, practised polygamy, and a late eighteenth century drawing by Agostino Brunias shows the Black Carib chief of St. Vincent, Chatoyer lording it over his five wives. Contemporary observers agree that in a relationship, women could be physically abused and overworked. Thomas Coke who visited St. Vincent and recorded his eyewitness observations, has this comment in his History of the West Indies. “They treated their women with much indignity and placed them in a abject state of degradation…their females in general are considered as inferior to themselves and obliged them to perform those drudgeries for which nature has evidently intended the masculine race. The cassava was prepared and conducted by them in all its process; the hammock was woven by them; and by them the maize was ground. The various branches of domestic labour was executed by them; and while the men were jealous of the least infringement of their liberties and rights, their women were considered in nearly the same light as female foes.” Other Brunias prints depicting the Caribs of St. Vincent are ethnographically important, as he was a trained artist with an ability to capture detail, and he did his drawings on location. The focal point of settlement was an area of levelled ground or plaza which was located in front of the chief’s house. This was used for public and ritual functions, such as feasting and dancing which were frequently held, in order to main and strengthen the sense of community. It was also utilized for the team ball game known as batey, which pitted rival teams against each other, and on occasion was used for diplomatic initiatives or to defuse a confrontational situation existing between rival communities. Echoes of this can be seen among present day Yanomamo

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groups living on the border of Venezuela and Brazil, who use ritualized competition among males as an alternative to war. Clear evidence exists for these structures in the Greater Antilles, and archaeologists have hypothesized that some islands in the Lesser Antilles may also have had these plazas and ball courts. One such plaza has been reconstructed in Puerto Rico and is a major attraction for their heritage tourism. Houses were constructed of a framework of felled logs which were then covered with leaves or trash. Excavated postholes show that they were elliptical in shape and varied in size, depending on the social status of the occupant. In the Greater Antilles, the term bohio was used to describe the dwelling of the non-elites. Larger communal structures, such as longhouses for men were also constructed, and in the Lesser Antilles, these were known as carbets. Furnishings were sparse. Hammocks for sleeping, plaited mats for sitting, a variety of baskets for carrying things and the ceramic utensils for cooking or everyday usage. These were often fired with holes so that they could be slung from pegs in the rafters. Columbus has left us this description of houses in Cuba. “I took the small boat ashore and approached two houses that I thought belonged to fishermen. The people fled in fear. In one of the houses we found a dog that did not bark, and in both houses we found nets made of palm theads, cords, fish-hooks made of horn, harpoons made from bone and other fishing materials. There were many fire hearths; and I believe that many people live together in each house. I ordered that not one thing I touched, and thus it was done.” The cosmology or religious beliefs of the Amerindian peoples of the Caribbean also intruded heavily on their daily lives and manifested itself in many aspects of their material and expressive culture. Their belief system was based on polytheism and was animistic in nature. Supernatural beings therefore, could inhabit the heavens, but could also be found in natural settings such as mountains, rivers and caves. Such places were regarded as powerful focal points for supernatural energy, and it is not surprising that the greatest number of pictographs and petroglyphs of the Caribbean are found in such settings. This rock art, an early form of picture writing, and the only thing that remains of Amerindian intellectual energy, a crude documentation if you like or written record, provided a doorway between the natural and supernatural world. The symbols or iconography can be divided into three broad categories. Anthropomorphic or representations of humans, zoomorphic or representations of animals and

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abstract designs. If one looks at the example of Mountain River Cave, Jamaica, zoomorphic representations predominate, including birds, fish, turtles and iguanas which were consumed as food. Tree frogs are also frequently depicted. One reason for this may be the relationship between tree frogs and rain, since their nocturnal mating activities are usually triggered by rain, and of course, rain was necessary for the successful cultivation of crops (see Watson). One notable aspect of the rock art of the Caribbean, is the degree to which motifs and symbols are repeated throughout the islands, indicative of the common origins and shared visions of these people. Certainly the most frequently shared icon is what of the bat. This mammal was held to be a divine creature throughout the Caribbean, where it is often carved on stones. Henri PetitJean Roget of Martinique interprets this as a proclamation of a commonly shared creation myth, in which the creator gods gave bats the responsibility for establishing man on earth. The gods were represented tangibly in many forms, including sculptures of stone or wood. The latter often were decorated with carved teeth and eyes made of shell. Specimens have been recovered from caves in Hispaniola (both Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and Jamaica. However, as wood is perishable, these complete statues are rarely found. More frequently recovered are the teeth and eyes, which are less perishable. The word zemi is often applied to these representations of the deities. Special individuals or shamans could commune with the supernatural beings. Invariably, this included the chief of the polity, and was in fact, one of the sources of his power. Other individuals in the groups who were sensitive enough to the rhythms of nature could also commune with the gods. Often this was achieved through the use of hallucinogenic drugs. Excavations throughout the islands have revealed the presence of clay dishes with nozzles to fit into nostrils for the inhalation of these drugs. Other items associated with ritual drug usage, include finely carved spatulas used to induce vomiting. Specimens of these have been recovered from Hispaniola. Drug inhalation allowed what was considered to be ‘out of the body’ travel, which allowed the individuals to traverse long distances and encounter those supernatural beings who could intercede on behalf of the supplicant’s people or perhaps advise on the future outcome of events. We know from the excavated burials that the Amerindians believed that the deceased had a soul. Among the grave goods and objects buried with the dead were three pointed stones, some of them elaborately carved. This represented the god of the cassava or Yocahu, the most

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powerful deity in the Arawak pantheon. Aspects of ancestor worship may have given rise to the claim of cannibalism, as the Amerindians practised exhumation, which involved the display of bones of departed members of families. It is entirely possible, however, that some ritual cannibalism may have taken place, as many contemporary observers commented on this possibility, and we know from the ethnographical record that South American culture groups did practise ritual cannibalism. However, we can dismiss the idea that human flesh was consumed as a source of protein. There was far more palatable meat available from an abundance of sources for this to have taken place.

The economy The livelihood of the Arawak and Carib peoples of the Caribbean was based on agriculture, fishing and hunting. The chief crop of the Amerindians was cassava. This was cultivated on plots which had been cleared using slash and burn techniques. Earth mounds known as conucos, were used to plant cassava. The Indians used a shifting system of agriculture which also utilised inter-cropping. Other favoured crops were the sweet potato, tania and a species of New World yam. Peanuts, peppers, beans and possibly squash were also cultivated. Many types of fruit trees were grown, including the mammy apple, the sour sop and guava. a good discussion of Arawak agricultural practises.) Cotton was grown and used for the manufacture of hammocks, twine, ropes, sacks and clothing. Various clay artifacts associated with the spinning of cotton have been excavated. Another crop planted was tobacco, and dye plants, especially bixa, indigo and genip (the misnamed ackee of Barbados) were cultivated for the red, blue and black dyes used for body decoration or on painted objects. Rev. Coke provides us with this somewhat jaundiced account of the appearance of Carib males, “To guard against the bite of insects, they painted their bodies from head to foot with the juice of rocou or arnotto, which gave them the colour of a boiled lobster. They likewise disfigured their cheeks with deep incisions and hideous scars, which they stained with black; and they painted white and black circles round their eyes.” Most of the utensils and tools used by communities were manufactured by them on the spot. However, there is a growing body of evidence which confirms that trade did occur between A favourite fruit of the Indians was the pineapple. (See David Watts, The West Indies pp.53-65 for

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islands and between specific islands and the mainland. In the case of the Greater Antilles, such contact would have been with Central America, as mentioned by Cortes, when his vessel encountered a canoe which had left Jamaica bound for the mainland. In the case of the Lesser Antilles, contact took place with Venezuela. Among the trade items were objects carved of semi-precious stones such as jadeite and the case of Barbados, polished stone axes and other implements made of hard volcanic rock. These were desirable items, as Barbados was a coral island of soft, non-durable stones, which limited the choice of material for the manufacture of implements to the shell of the Queen Conch (Strombus gigas). The Amerindians knew of gold and used it for personal ornamentation. However, only a few examples have been excavated in the Lesser Antilles. Since there are deposits of gold in the Greater Antilles however, the frequency of usage was greater. In his log, Columbus makes frequent reference to gold, sometimes shamelessly so, as we see in this passage recorded on his first trip to Hispaniola, “The King was delighted to see me happy, and he understood that I desired a great deal of gold. He indicated that he knew where there was a lot of it nearby and that I should be of good cheer, for he would give me as much of it as I desired.” It is also likely that gold ornaments, such as pectorals, were trade items brought from Columbia. Another item of body decoration which was imported, was jade, often used as ear lobe plugs. The Amerindians did not use the wheel, so transportation of goods and produce inland was done manually, usually in back-packs or panniers made out of plaited reeds. However, overseas travel was done with canoes and the Amerindians were skilled navigators, capable of steering by the stars in order to transit large stretches of water out of the sight of land. Canoes were of varying sizes, some being capable of carrying as many as fifty people. Ethnographical work done by Taylor, Honychurch and Seaman-Francis on the island of Dominica has show the techniques of felling and shaping the large tree trunks used to fashion canoes. A suitable tree would be felled inland, and through communal effort, pulled on rollers to the beach, where a combination of chipping and fire shaped the canoe from the massive log. The favoured tree of the Caribs of Dominica was (and is) the gommier, though other species were used as well. In the earliest known detailed map of Barbados dated circa 1635, an Indian Salymingoe is depicted with his canoe whose dimensions ‘35 feet long’ is specifically noted. Other ocean going canoes were almost double this length.

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Diet The diet of the Amerindians was varied, and provided good sources of carbohydrates and proteins. As noted, the principal food consumed was cassava, of which Columbus gives a good description, “These fields are planted mostly with ajes (cassava). The Indians sow little shoots, from which small roots grow that look like carrots. They serve this as bread, by grating it and kneading it, then baking it in the fire.” One of the most frequently recovered artifacts during excavation of Amerindian sites are the griddles used to prepare the cassava bread. Another item used in the preparation of this food is not recovered, because it is organic and has decomposed. This object of course is the sieve used to squeeze the gratered cassava, in order to get rid of the poisonous chemicals, hydrogen cyanide, contained in the cassava root. This was made of plaited fibres, and had a handle attached at either end, so that it could be pulled in opposite directions, thus compressing and squeezing the cassava mass inside. Also consumed in large quantities was the sweet potato. Corn (maize) was grown and eaten, but in far smaller quantities than the cassava, which was the favourite food of both the Arawaks and the Caribs. From time to time, the stone grinding implements or mutates, used to grind corn kernels are covered, almost always in the Greater Antilles. Protein was obtained from a wide variety of sources, but of these, fish were the most important. The Amerindians caught and ate the full range of reef fishes, including parrot fish, grunts, school-mistresses, congers and morays. They also ventured out to see in pursuit of the larger pelagic species, including tuna, king fish and sharks. Fine sieving at archaeological excavations in Barbados has shown that large quantities of flying fish were caught and consumed. (See Druett and Wing)

Epilogue Although the lives of the Amerindians of the Caribbean have been romanticised to a certain extent, one must ask the valid question, what was the quality of their lives? For the Arawaks who inhabited the Caribbean prior the European intrusion, life was enjoyable. Idyllic? Probably not, but at a less complex level, they lived lives which were in tune with the rhythms of nature and must have afforded greater psychological satisfaction. All early commentators talked about

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the intrinsic hospitality and goodness of these people. perspective is envious.

It is apparent that they lived in

equilibrium with the environment and that their lives had a harmony which from today’s

Karl Watson The University of the West Indies, Barbados

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