Centuries before the Christian era, from 500 B.C. to 600 A.D., various groups of Arawaks from the northern coast of South America settled in the Antilles, including Puerto Rico. These settlers are traditionally called Saladoids for the Saladero archaeological site in Venezuela, where they originated. They probably arrived in the Antilles in their canoes during various migrations. This series of migrations is known as the ceramic stage. U.S archeologist Benjamin Irving Rouse postulated that this stage of migration by the Saladoids led to the disappearance of the island Archaics. This led to the development of the Saladoids, gave origin to the Ostionoids and, finally, to the Tainos.
The new inhabitants practiced slash and burn agriculture to clear the land of trees for planting. They adapted to the environment of the islands by using all its resources. This maximization of resources included gathering marine life. Puerto Rico, with its greater land size, provided them with better protection and abundant resources of fish and plants.
There are variants of nomenclature for these migratory groups depending on the school of research. Some call them Saladoids because their pottery resembles that of the Saladero site in Venezuela. Others call them the agoceramics because of their skills in both agriculture and pottery making. They are also known as Insular Arawaks, Insular Saladoids, or Igneris.
In Puerto Rico, the most important archaeological site of this cultural group was found at the place known as Hacienda Grande in Loíza. The site reached its peak around 200 B.C. On the other hand, archaeologists Luis Chanlatte and Yvonne Narganes, based on findings at the Sorcé site on Vieques, believe that the Agroceramic period consisted of two successive migrations: the Hueca and the Saladoid-Igneri. Other archaeologists consider the Huecoids to be a cultural offshoot of the Saladoids.
It is believed that this society lived an egalitarian village lifestyle. An individual’s position in society was based on domestic activity and parentage. They lived in community houses, built in an oblong form and occupied by large families. Their villages had a semi-circular form around a common central plaza. The chiefs were elected seasonally and only for certain activities. They had a shaman or priest, who probably served as an authority figure in some cases.
A very important event was the introduction of yuca in the Antilles by these cultures, which were characterized by cultivating the tuber. They grated, squeezed and cooked the yuca to make it into cassava bread. Cassava became the base food for all of the Antillean aboriginal cultures from then on.
The Agroceramic groups spread and perfected the creation of pottery throughout the islands of the Antilles until arriving to Puerto Rico and possibly the eastern coast of Hispaniola. The peculiarity of the Huecoids, Saladoids, or Igneris was the excellence of their pottery, which achieved high technical and artistic levels. They excelled at all phases of pottery-making: appropriately selecting clay, and adding the precise amount of additives to prevent cracking. They used spinning techniques to make specific types of containers.
Decoration was done by painting, molding, incisions or combinations of these. Paint made from minerals and vegetables was applied to the outside of vessels and the interior of plates and platters. The decorations mostly consisted of geometric figures. They used white paint over a red or multicolored base. They sometimes molded the handles to resemble animals or anthropomorphized (in human form) mythical beings. Many of the pottery vessels made by the Saladoids have an inverted bell form and handles in the form of the letter “D” that do not extend beyond the edges and have a small burr near the top.
The next migration of the Ostionoids took place between approximately 600 to 1,200 A.D. It can be inferred that the earlier group had already adapted to the Antillean ecosystem and with the new migrations and influx from South America, the Ostionoids adopted the practices of all the different groups that settled on the island. As a result, in Puerto Rico new techniques of agricultural production were developed, the style of pottery making changed and the population increased. Gradually, the Ostionoids spread to Hispaniola, Cuba, Jamaica and the Bahamas, displacing or interacting with the Archaics on those islands.
The Ostionoids are considered the precursors to the Tainos. Despite regional variations, they are called Ostionoids because they were originally reported at Point Ostiones in Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico. In 1919, Adolfo de Hostos reported on an archaeological site at Point Ostiones that reflected a decisive social change that occurred around 600 A.D. This site clearly showed adaptation to the island environment, which possibly resulted in an emerging elite.
This new cultural group showed different socioeconomic behavior from the previous Agroceramic group. The archaeology showed that they lived in coastal villages near coral reefs, mangroves, and potable water. Froelich Rainey called them the “crab culture.”
The agricultural techniques of the Ostionoids underwent a radical change. There is evidence of the innovative use of agricultural mounds. This allowed a significant increase in production. They also continued to improve their methods for hunting birds. Ostionoids are considered to have achieved broad dominion over their environment.
These improvements favored social development and a parallel population growth. The community space came to be defined with greater precision. Housing was built in an oblong form, but it appears it was reduced in size, which suggests there was a change toward the nuclear family. During this era, the first constructions of fields for ball games are found.
The Ostionoids had an organized work force and an established authority, which appears to indicate the collective represented the first step from a tribal society to a chiefdom society in the Antilles. Francisco Moscoso concluded that the Ostionoids were properly considered Tainos at the tribal level and that those called Tainos and found by the Europeans were chiefdoms of the same culture. The Taino phase came to be the cultural result of the previous aboriginal populations in their later stages.
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