The First Settlers:

The inhabitants Christopher Columbus found on the island of Puerto Rico, as well as on its neighboring islands, such as the Dominican Republic (Hispaniola) and Cuba, were the result of various waves of migration consisting of different groups that were part of the Archaic societies. During the Archaic era, there were two groups of settlers in different migratory waves. The first Archaic groups probably came to the Greater Antilles from Central America. The second group of settlers migrated up from South America through the arc of the Lesser Antilles in rafts and canoes. Of the groups that probably came from Central America about 6,000 B.C., the first group settled in Cuba and Hispaniola. It mainly consisted of a population of hunters and gatherers. In the islands, they hunted and collected fruits, seeds, and plants. They also made objects from stone.

Around 4,000 B.C., groups from South America that subsisted on fishing began to populate the Lesser Antilles and Puerto Rico. They made objects from polished stone and, unlike earlier settlers, they lived along the coast and in swampy areas. They mainly relied on fishing. Their predominantly coastal settlements showed their preference for marine resources, which has been confirmed at archaeological sites and by studying shell-middens (deposits with large number of shells).

This second migratory wave was characterized by making objects from sea shells and polished stone that they used to mash and grind snails, seeds, and roots. Like the previous group, they were gatherers of food and did not possess agricultural or pottery-making skills, though there is evidence that some of the later groups could have begun developing them. In general, both groups are called Archaics.

The Mona Channel between Hispaniola and Puerto Rico appeared to be the border between these two groups. They may have used the currents to maintain communication and trade of materials and food. These migratory waves moved progressively through the western Antilles to Puerto Rico and Mona Island (Amona).

It is believed the Archaic society was formed by semi-nomadic bands. In some cases, it is believed they were formed by relatively sedentary groups probably united by blood ties. Based on the archaeological evidence, it has been established that the economy of the society was based on fishing, hunting, and gathering, probably in a seasonal cycle, because of the reliance on coastal resources and the semi-nomadic lifestyle.

In addition to fishing and gathering shellfish, hunting provided nutritional support to the inhabitants. The evidence indicates that among the animals captured were a variety of birds, both local and migratory; the hutia or West Indies guinea pig; and the megalocnus. The megalocnus was a kind of sloth that lived in the Antilles in the Pleistocene epoch of the Quaternary period but went extinct after the arrival of humans. There is a debate about whether they ate the so-called mute dog, which, in addition to serving as a hunting companion, could have been part of the Archaics’ diet in times of hunger.

The Archaics were characterized by their use of stone objects. This epoch was known as the Lithic era. They produced tools through a process of scraping the stone to create the desired form and then polishing it to create spear points and various types of hatchets from stone. They probably worked with and used wood, but because of the antiquity of these groups, and because of the humidity of the climate, conservation of wood was practically impossible.

To date, evidence of cranial deformation has not been found among this group. Apparently, this practice was adopted by later groups. It is reasonable to assume that these groups brought with them the customs from their place of origin, as well as clothing and bodily decoration. Today, these elements can be compared with those of tribes that can still be found in Amazonia.


The South American origin of the cultures of these groups that migrated to the Antilles has been established through genetic tests with mitochondrial DNA, which is passed on intact by the mother. Two groups were identified: haplogroups A and C. Group A came 20 percent from Mexico and Central America, probably from the Yucatan Peninsula through the Greater Antilles. It has been established that haplogroup C is 60 percent type AM79, found among the Yanomami of South America, and the haplotype of the remaining percentage was identified as AM32, which is found among other tribes in the Amazon and appears to have arrived along with AM79.

According to researchers, the Archaic populations existed in the Antilles for thousands of years and did not disappear until after 1,500 B.C. It is believed that a process of hybridization or exchange of artifacts and techniques occurred, a kind of acculturation, and they were likely assimilated into the Agroceramic cultures. In this way, the Ostionoids were the result of a slow transformation of the Archaics to farming and pottery making.

Beliefs and Burials:

According to archaeological evidence, the Archaic groups had defined religious beliefs and, in general, buried their dead with the body extended and placed them in caves or rocky shelters. Unfortunately, there is no written or oral evidence of their religious beliefs, but it is logical to believe they were similar to those compiled by the chroniclers Ramón Pané and Bartolomé de Las Casas. Their beliefs were possibly transmitted by oral tradition due to the similarities between the Taino creation myth and the myths of various Arawak tribes found throughout the Orinoco River basin. The findings of certain symbolic pieces (daggers, polished stone balls, and stone and shell pendants) could be indicative of this.

In Puerto Rico, the oldest evidence of the Archaics date to sites such as Puerto Ferro in Vieques, 2,140 years B.C., the excavations done in the 1990s by archaeologists Carlos M. Ayes in Angostura in Barceloneta (some 4,000 years B.C.) and Miguel Rodríguez López and Juan González in Maruca in Ponce (2,850 years B.C.). Other sites were found on Cofresí Key in Salinas (320 years B.C.) and in the María de La Cruz cave in Loíza (30 years B.C.).

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