In recent times, archaeology in the Caribbean has experienced marked changes as a result of the wide range of information that has been generated by the application of new methods and techniques for studying indigenous societies that inhabited the region long before the European invasion of their land. Much of this research has shown that some of the ideas about the ways of life and cultural development of these groups should be reviewed, particularly in reference to how the various human communities interacted over time and space. In this essay, we present some of the new evidence and argue that the inhabitants of the Caribbean islands maintained ties with various continental areas over time, in particular with the Colombian isthmus area, a region that includes the current territories of Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia. These processes of interaction – in conjunction with those developed locally – provided the framework for forging, over time, the different cultures that lived in the Caribbean.

Defining early interaction vectors (7500 – 2500 B.C.)

The evidence currently available suggests that the first population movements to the Antilles began to take place about 7500 B.C. To date, two principal sources of migration to the islands have been proposed: 1) from the Yucatan peninsula to Cuba and later to the Dominican Republic (Casimiroidseries), and 2) from northeastern Venezuela to Trinidad and the Lesser Antilles and on to Puerto Rico (Ortoiroid series). It was also proposed that all the groups that inhabited the Antilles disassociated themselves with their regions of origin once their societies arrived and settled on the islands. Therefore, it was thought that the groups associated with both series developed on the islands in an insular form, or, in other words, in total cultural isolation from other continental influences. Marcio Veloz Maggiolo (1980) argues that the two cultural series “hybridized” in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, developing into the local forms called the corozo in Puerto Rico and porvenir in the Dominican Republic.

A review of the archaeological literature of the surrounding Caribbean area, however, shows that this process appears to have been much more complex than originally proposed. When we compare stone implements of the Ortoiroid and/or “hybrid” groups, particularly those documented in the northern Lesser Antilles, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, we see marked similarities with other contemporary cultural complexes identified in the southern portion of the Colombian isthmus, such as those documented in Monagrillo, Cerro Mangote and Puerto Hormiga. So the evidence available at this time leads us to argue for the existence of population movements and sustained interactions coming from Panama, Colombia, and/or northeastern Venezuela (the portion north of Lake Maracaibo), in addition to those established previously. The main basis for proposing this movement vector is the presence of the grinding pebbles and grinding bases that has been documented in an area from the coast of Ecuador to Panama. In the Caribbean islands, these items have been associated with the Ortoiroid series and with other hybrids in a range of dates from 6000 B.C. in Puerto Rico at the Angostura site in Barceloneta, 4100 B.C. at Puerto Ferro on Vieques, and 3200 B.C. on the Virgin Islands.

The association between the grinding pebbles and bases and the culinary repertoire related to them has been confirmed recently through studies done by Jaime Pagán Jiménez on grinding pebbles and similar instruments in Puerto Rico. The tools analyzed by Pagán Jiménez have provided direct evidence about the collection of cultigens, including corn, cassava and yams (although there were also other plants that were truly Antillean), which matched those documented along with these kinds of artifacts in Colombia and Panama.

Also identified in early settings in Puerto Rico is the avocado, which was ubiquitous in many sites along the north-central coast of Peru from circa 4450-3750 B.C. and archaeobotanical evidence suggests was present in Colombia circa 3270 B.C. This shows that a possible route of movement of this cultigen matches that of some of the other plants mentioned above.

It was previously considered that corn, cassava and yams, documented in the study of food starches by Pagán Jiménez, had been introduced by Saladoid immigrants to the islands in approximately 2500 B.C. However, the presence of these cultigens in association with the use of grinding pebbles and bases, as well as certain growing and cooking processes in pre-Arawak times in de Puerto Rico, Vieques and the Dominican Republic (similar to those observed in Panama and Colombia), indicate the possibility of population movement directly to the Greater Antilles from the Colombian isthmus.

The similarities between the two regions are not limited to utilitarian implements. Other elements, such as the use of shark’s teeth and fish vertebrae as beads, also appear to have been used in both zones. The use of ocher, in the same fashion in association with human burials, was present both in the Caribbean islands and in Panama and Colombia, though its use appears to have been quite generalized in early cultures in all of the greater Caribbean locations. Particularly in Cuba and the Dominican Republic, scholars have documented the presence of dirt structures consisting of circular mounds made from accumulations of alternating layers of earth, shells and/or ashes that generally are about 30 meters in diameter and up to 3 meters in height. These mounds, which date to 4000 B.C. in Cuba, are very similar technologically and are contemporary to those documented in the Windward Islands and sites in Colombia. These structures are totally absent in early settings in the Lesser Antilles, which allows us to dismiss the possibility that they came to the islands along with the Ortoiroid migration from northeastern South America. Similarly, in regard to the second proposal for the origins of the migrations to the Antilles in this time period (Belize, Yucatan peninsula), the grinding pebbles and bases mentioned above have not been found in those sites.

This leads to believe that some of the supposed “hybrids” between the Casimiroid and Ortoiroid series in reality are an independent cultural development that could have come across open ocean directly to the Greater Antilles and/or the Virgin Islands from the southern part of the Colombian isthmus area. This is supported by the absence of pre-Arawak sites in the Lesser Antilles that predate those documented in Puerto Rico, which also tends indicate direct movements to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, at least. Even though the idea of direct voyages across open ocean from the Colombian isthmus to the northern Antilles seems absurd at first glance, studies developed by Richard Callaghan (2003) and based on computer models of sailing routes show that those voyages were possible, especially from the territories of Colombia and northeastern Venezuela.

All of these movements and interactions among the early inhabitants of the Antilles and other surrounding continental regions can be contextualized within what we call the formative Pan-Caribbean period. In all of the areas mentioned so far, evidence suggests an emerging elite that went about establishing public displays of power. This could serve to consolidate the status of certain individuals through the demonstration of acquiring or consolidating power. If we accept this idea, we face a scenario in which a particular group of individuals in some areas mentioned above were establishing distant contacts that allowed them to legitimize discourses of power through the use of objects, symbols, and techniques that came from places well beyond the horizon.

The evidence suggests that the contacts in this early period did not disappear once the groups initially arrived to the Antilles, but rather that they were constant and established the norms for spheres of interaction and population movements that began in the Antilles around 2600 B.C.

Intensification of multi-directional interactions in the Greater Caribbean (2600–1500 B.C.)

The multiple interactions that appear to have occurred in the early formative stage of the Antilles led to population flows of Arawak societies in the area after 2600 B.C., as part of what is known as the Saladoid series. The traditional view in Antillean archaeology is that this cultural tradition migrated from the Orinoco area to the Lesser Antilles and then to Puerto Rico, moving from island to island. The chronological evidence currently available raises an important question, however: Why are there earlier dates in the northern Lesser Antilles, such as St. Martin and Montserrat (2600 B.C.), and in Puerto Rico (2450 B.C.) than in the southern islands of the Caribbean, such as Trinidad and Grenada (2200 B.C.)? This raises the possibility of direct voyages by the Saladoid from various points in South America to the northern Antilles. Thus the available evidence does not indicate that the Saladoid participated in a unidirectional movement to the north through the Antillean arc from southeastern Venezuela, as current suggested, but rather that they could have made direct voyages across open ocean to Puerto Rico and the northern Lesser Antilles, from where they could have moved to the south to occupy the Lesser Antilles. The absence of early findings on the southern islands of the Caribbean suggests problems with the idea of an Arawak migration to the Antilles as proposed by Rouse (1992), as there is no concrete evidence to establish the directionality he assumed.

Added to this uncertainty is another Antillean tradition called the Huecoid. The hypothesis on the origin of this culture has led to one of the biggest debates in Caribbean archaeology in recent decades. Opinions are divided between those who think that artifact complex consists of a subseries within the Saladoid series that developed in the northern Lesser Antilles (i.e. Huecan Saladoid) or a distinct cultural complex (Huecoid) from the area of the Guapo River in north-central Venezuela. The pottery of these groups is characterized by the use of a technique called zone incised crosshatching (ZIC), which is its most distinctive feature, as well as the absence of white over red (WOR) paint, which significantly characterizes the Saladoid series.

The stonework by this culture is the element that has created the most controversy, as its iconography is far from that documented in Saladoid sites. The Huecoid stonework is distinguished by the bird’s beak motif, which is the emblematic element of this culture. The kind of bird represented on these pendants has been extensively studies because it could provide clues about the area of origin of the culture, a question that has not been clearly answered to date. Chanlatte and Narganes have argued that they represent condors, which would suggest origins in northeastern South America or the Colombian isthmus, or king vultures, which would indicate an origin in northeastern South America. So far, however, similar pieces have not been identified in either of the two proposed continental areas of origin to shed light on the subject. Fortunately, in our review of the literature, we have identified pieces recovered in the Atlantic basin of Costa Rica by Carlos Balser that are nearly indistinguishable from others recovered in Puerto Rico and Vieques. The artifacts in Costa Rica present similar techniques, raw materials and dimensions to those of the Huecoid tradition. Also shared by these two areas are mythical frog-like features that Narganes has called “batraciforms.” Pieces totally indistinguishable from those recovered in Puerto Rico and Vieques have also been documented in the Atlantic basin of Costa Rica, in a period dated circa 1820±140 B.C. at the Mercocha site.

Other Huecoid objects are made of mother of pearl. These pieces display a marked iconographic richness and are nearly indistinguishable from those documented in Panama by Richard Cooke at Cerro Juan Díaz, Los Santos. Interestingly, some of these pieces from Panama were made with Pinctada, the same kind of shell used in Puerto Rico to make them. As in Panama, these pieces were produced on site in Puerto Rico and Vieques, using a collection of techniques ranging from the selection of raw materials to the reduction of finished pieces that show many parallels between the two collections.

Although these artifacts are contemporary in the areas studied here, they are not present in the Antilles in association with the entire range of artifacts documented in Costa Rica and Panama. For example, the bird’s beak and batraciform pieces are associated with a zoned bichromatic style in the Atlantic basis of Costa Rica. Vessels with decorations and forms different from those documented in the Huecoid cultures were found in Costa Rica. Also found there were grinding stones, mace heads and other kinds of artifacts that are totally absent in Puerto Rico and Vieques during this period. The issue is made more complicated if we consider – despite the fact that the distinguishing characteristic of Huecoid pottery has been the use of ZIC – that sites such as Punta Candelero and Hope Estate show that in the early phases of the culture, the decorations were characterized by the use of thick incisions with a pointed area, which is also seen as a minority decorative element in La Hueca. This type of decoration is more similar to the early pottery of Colombia, such as that of the Malambo culture, which also shows marked similarities to the pre-Arawak pottery of the Antilles, as documented at the Pepe Site in the Dominican Republic and at Hope Estate on St. Martin. The techniques and the kinds of stone and shell implements present in the Huecoid culture also show attributes similar to those of other pre-Arawak sites in the Greater Antilles and early formative sites in northeastern South America.

The collection of influences in the formation of the Huecoid culture leads us to suggest an alternative explanation for their formation. We argue that this culture does not necessarily reflect a migration to the Antilles, as has been proposed by some, but rather a cultural development brought about by the pre-Arawak cultures of, at minimum, Puerto Rico and Vieques, that arose both through internal transformation processes and through the interactions they maintained with the Colombian isthmus over time. This could explain why the initial Huecoid phases show elements developed locally and associated with the pre-Arawak societies of the islands (i.e., bone spear tips, hatchets, stone tools, chisels, grinding pebbles) and a gradual increase in elements indicating contacts with the continent. Therefore, we believe that the formation of the Huecoid culture in the Antilles could have been the result of a gradual process of hybridization of Caribbean pre-Arawak groups with societies from the Colombian isthmus (and vice-versa) with which they had sustained constant previous interactions. This could explain why the introduction of jade and other semi-precious metals did not occur in the Huecoid culture from its initial phases, as seen in earlier settings such as Hope Estate, Maisabel (Puerto Rico) or El Convento (Puerto Rico), but rather appears to have been introduced after the development of networks of movements of stones that have been documented in Costa Rica and Panama beginning in 2300 B.C., or perhaps a little earlier. Additionally, the importation of jade and other semi-precious stones to be cut at the local sites, as documented at different levels at Punta Candelero and La Hueca, could indicate that these contacts with the Colombian isthmus were maintained during the length of the occupation of these sites.

This western influence in the formation of the Huecoid culture was proposed earlier in the Antilles by Rodríguez Ramos, based on a study of the utilitarian stones at the La Hueca and Punta Candelero sites. In his study, Rodríguez Ramos established the presence of what he called a west-to-east influence corridor, based on the import of raw materials, mainly from the western part of Puerto Rico (flint, serpentinite, and peridotite) and the Dominican Republic (amber and flint from that island) in both Huecoid settings, with these items possibly acquired through interactions with pre-Arawak groups that inhabited those zones. This interpretation is also based on the similarities to techniques used to produce utilitarian implements in pre-Arawak sites in Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Thus, as we have stated above, we believe more careful consideration should be given to the possibility that the Huecoid culture did not result from a migration to the Antilles, but rather represents the development of certain pre-Arawak groups, in conjunction with influences from the Colombian isthmus (and vice versa), which began to forge the culture early in the pre-colonial period in the Antilles.

In Puerto Rico there is also evidence of small pieces used for personal adornment and made from a gold and copper alloy during the Saladoid period, dating 1810±60 B.C. During this period, this alloy was only produced in Colombia. It is very likely that these gold pieces were handled by the same networks of interaction that circulated the semi-precious stones and polished black wooden pieces among these areas and in which both the Huecoid and Saladoid groups appear to have participated.

During this period, all of the pieces moving about the Caribbean, both semi-precious stones and metals, were associated mainly with body adornments. Pieces such as the nose rings, beads and pendants made of semi-precious stones, may serve as indicators of a more formal asymmetric distribution of power in these societies. Thus these pieces could be expressing or translating activities that reflect domination of the natural environment – observed in pre-Arawak settings – or the projection of the higher status of certain individuals through the display and control of personal symbols. These body adornments, which symbolize external connections, could have been used by these individuals as emblems of their ability to strike up contact with the outer world. As we have seen, the use and manipulation of these external contacts and the symbols associated with these links could have served as the beginnings of dominant lineages in the Antilles that may have arisen from the web of interactions dating back to pre-Arawak times in the islands.

Greater Caribbean interaction vectors and late cultural forms in the Antilles (1500–500 B.C.)

Beginning in 1500 B.C. in Puerto Rico, other archaeological indicators of external influences began to appear. Among these is the advent of the use of frontal-occipital cranial deformation. Because of the presence of what appear to be deformed heads in association with the Huecoid condor, Crespo established the possibility that this group had introduced these practices to the Antilles. Crespo’s hypothesis appears to be supported by the presence of the only burial with cranial deformation that has been identified in early agricultural ceramic settings in the Antilles, recovered at the Morel site in Guadalupe. The burial included offerings such as semi-precious stone beads similar to those identified in Huecoid settings in Puerto Rico and Vieques. It is the only burial with this kind of cranial deformation identified so far in the Lesser Antilles, however. The absence of this deformation in the Lesser Antilles, in settings preceding those of Puerto Rico (with the exception of the case previously mentioned), appear to indicate that the practice developed independently in the Greater Antilles or that the practice spread directly from some point on the surrounding continents that cannot be pinpointed at this time.

Beginning at this time, we see other marked changes in the Greater Antilles. One of these is a reduction in the emphasis on the trade of jade, serpentinite and other semi-precious stones for the production of stonework documented in earlier times. Interestingly, this coincides chronologically with a decreased emphasis on the trade of green stones in the Colombian isthmus area, where a transition toward the trade of gold and copper pieces occurred after 1500 B.C. In the Caribbean islands, there was a transition toward stonework using hard stones, as had been recorded much earlier in the pre-Arawak groups of the Greater Antilles, mainly demonstrated by the production of stone daggers, stone balls, stone vessels and implements, among others. Therefore, the elaboration of stonework from hard pieces in the Antilles appears to represent a local development of pre-Arawak stonework techniques, which same time were influenced by, and possibly influenced, those documented in other settings recorded in the surrounding Caribbean area. In fact, in 1954 Carlos Balser indicated that many of the motifs identified in various grinding stones, such as the “fertility base” made of pottery that was recovered in the Atlantic basin of Costa Rica, appear to reflect influences of the Antillean view of the world in the Taino myths compiled by Brother Ramón Pané. Interestingly, Marcio Veloz Maggiolo suggests that five grinding stones made of hard stone, identified by Michael Coe as coming from Costa Rica, were identified in the Greater Antilles, specifically in Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.

Other elements that appear in the Greater Antilles during this time are the civic and ceremonial plazas. Trying to determine the origins of the plazas has created polarization between those who continue to think that they were the result of a formalization of the central space of the concentric Saladoid settlements and others, such as Alegría and Fernández, who believe their construction reflects the advent of external influences, possibly from Central America. If we consider that the earliest plazas are at sites close to rivers and with access via those rivers to the coast in Puerto Rico (such as Tibes and Las Flores), we could argue that the spaces were laid out for the purpose of conducting activities of interaction, both at the regional and inter-regional levels. One important fact is that the plazas are located almost exclusively in the Greater Antilles, found south of Puerto Rico only in the Virgin Islands and Antigua. So if the development of the plazas had occurred as an evolution of the intra-community space of the Saladoid societies, then we would expect them also to be present in early post-Saladoid sites in the Lesser Antilles, which has not been the case. This leads us to concur with the interpretation of Alegría (1983), Fernández (1979) and García Goyco (1984), among others, that these plazas reflect Central American influences, although the specific area of origin is unclear at this time. It should be noted that the plazas were spaces that were laid out possibly to display power through gathering activities, where persons from various locations and ethnicities may have come together, as has been documented in other settings.

Like the plazas, there are also animals, such as guinea pigs, that have been documented in the Greater Antilles and Antigua (in the same site as the ceremonial plaza), but have not been identified to date in the Lesser Antilles. In South America, the domestication of guinea pigs has been traced to the Andes. These rodents were not found in the Lesser Antilles south of Antigua, which has led Wing to propose, among other possibilities, the direct movement of these animals from northeastern South America to the Greater Antilles in late pre-colonial times.

Finally, another kind of artifact that began to be imported to the Greater Antilles, probably from the territory of Colombia, was the formal idols produced from gold and copper alloys that were called “guanín” in the Antilles. There is no evidence of the local creation of these artifacts in the Caribbean islands, which suggests they were imported to the islands in finished form. Unfortunately, the intensity of the importation of these kinds of resources cannot be clearly defined because it was one of the resources taken by the European invaders who arrived on the islands during the contact period. Some of these pieces have survived, however, mainly in Cuba and Haiti. Two pieces are noteworthy in Cuba: an anthropomorphic piece from the Yaguajay area known as the “Banes gold idol” and another ornithomorphic piece recovered at the Chorro de Maíta site, also situated in the Banes territory. Reviews and analysis of the Banes idol by experts such as Samuel K. Lothrop, Carlos García Robiou and Irving Rouse agreed with the proposed Colombian origin of the piece. Both the Banes idol and the ornithomorphic piece recovered at Chorro de Maíta present marked similarities to pieces from Sinú in Colombia.

Final Comments

In this work we have presented various pieces of evidence in collage form of the clear interactions that were occurring in the surrounding Caribbean area. Although we have focused our attention on the Antilles, we believe that the data presented should lead archaeologists who work in these areas to investigate evidence about objects that were not local in origin and could indicate the flow of Caribbean island pieces, techniques and concepts to those zones. At this time, it is not clear if many of the displays discussed in this work were initially developed in the Antilles or in the other surrounding areas.

Much of the evidence presented suggests a process that extends from agricultural economy to superstructural, especially after 2600 B.C. This is of great importance because of the emergence in the region of a ritual grammar translated into various geo-cultural settings but with a similar underlying structure that must be decoded in later works. Still, the nature of the movement of resources appears to have been in continuous transformation, not necessarily in linear form, among the various societies that lived in the Antilles over time. This argument is supported by the change in emphasis from the movement of cultigens (techniques of cultivation and culinary repertoires) and utilitarian implements (e.g. shell hatchets and hoes) to the movement of semi-precious raw materials and/or personal objects (such as beads and pendants) followed by trade of pieces for public display (e.g. idols made of gold and copper, stone, and wood). These continual changes in the spheres of interaction may reveal the beginnings of a social hierarchy that began in the pre-Arawak times and culminated in the final stage of the pre-colonial history of the islands.

The emphasis on the Caribbean islands throughout this work is not meant to suggest that this area was a recipient of influences from all of the continental zones mentioned above at the expense of obvious local development, but rather to insert a broader framework of interactions with the goal of desinsularizing Antillean archaeology. Although this work emphasizes interactions between the Caribbean islands and the Colombian isthmus and southeastern United States, we do not want to subordinate the interactions that took place with northeastern South America, as have been traditionally described, and, most likely, with Mesoamerica, as several researchers have asserted.

One of the elements that we have wanted to emphasize is that, at the very least, some of the vectors of interaction in the Caribbean islands were initially made by the pre-Arawak societies that inhabited the islands. We argue that the long-distance contacts were used as elements of manipulation since early times, putting to rest the idea that these processes were only part of the formation of later chiefdom societies on the islands. We believe that many of the links that we have discussed were maintained while others were added or disappeared. The presence of the links (reproduced, negotiated and reformulated) over time may explain ethnohistorical evidence that indicates the presence of Arawak groups in Panama and Costa Rica during the Indo-European contact period. The connections in the wider Caribbean also may also explain the multi-ethnic cultures of the later Antilles that have, unfortunately, been lumped together under the Taino concept, creating a false image of cultural homogeneity during the final phases of the Antillean pre-colonial period.

With this work, we hope to have raised questions about the interactions sustained between the Antilles and the surrounding continents. Thus we may in some measure bring back into the light the ideas of pioneering archaeologists in the region who looked beyond the horizon in search of connections among the human groups that inhabited the broader Caribbean area in pre-colonial times.




Author: Reniel Rodríguez Ramos
Published: February 15, 2012.

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