Southeast Archeological Center a
  • 3D Rendering of Shiloh Mound

    Southeast Archeological Center

    Cultural Resources National Park Service


Natural Setting | Paleoindian | Archaic | Woodland | Mississippian | Caribbean Prehistory
European Exploration | American Independence and Westward Expansion | The U.S. Through the 19th and 20th Centuries

A Taino zemi excavated from the Cinnamon Bay site on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
A Taino zemi excavated from the Cinnamon Bay site on St. John (National Park Service).

Caribbean Prehistory (continued)

2,000 to 500 Years Ago*

*During this time, radiocarbon years ago and actual years ago are relatively similar, so only one date will be given in the text.

Bat-winged shell pendant from  Lower Camp excavations.
Bat-winged shell pendant (Adapted from "Archeology at Lower Camp").


Archeology at Cinnamon Bay
(Excavations at a site at Virgin Islands National Park on St. John Island)
Archeology at Lower Camp
(Archeological investigations at Culebra National Wildlife Refuge in Puerto Rico)
Archaeological Study of a Limestone Sinkhole: Diving in Manantial de la Aleta East National Park, Dominican Republic
(Describes archeological work at a sinkhole in the Dominican Republic associated with the Taino)
Taíno: Pre-Columbian Art and Culture from the Caribbean
(Describes museum exhibition with materials related to this culture)

This period, dating from around 2000 years ago* to European contact, approximately 500 years ago*, was characterized in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands by distinct cultural periods, which were originally separated on the basis of different ceramic styles and other cultural manifestations. The first group to immigrate into the Antilles were the Saladoid (2,000 to 1,400 years ago*) who brought horticulture (cassava, yucca, and maize) and pottery technology to the islands. It is generally accepted that they originated in the lower Orinoco River Valley before spreading throughout the Antilles pushing the Mesoindian groups to western Cuba (Willey 1976).

In reviewing this earliest of pottery-making cultures in the Caribbean, the 1963 Theme Study noted "the hallmark of the earliest pottery brought into Puerto Rico [and the Virgin Islands] is a style which includes a number of types that are white paint on a red background. This white-on-red may be traced to its ancestral home in northern Venezuela and probably indicates the movement of new peoples rather than the simple diffusion of new traits. However, there is little basis for believing that some of the white-on-red pottery was actually manufactured in Venezuela and imported into Puerto Rico" (Haag 1963:333-335).

It has been postulated that between 1,400 to 1,200 years ago*, another surge of migrants came out of the Orinoco area and spread throughout the Antilles (Stevens-Arroyo 1988). Called the Ostionoid culture, it is separated from the preceding Saladoid culture by different pottery styles, involving less painted decoration and more incised decoration, and the creation of ceremonial centers containing ball courts (Alegría 1983). Within the area of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, sub-regional cultures emerged and developed permanent settlements, some with associated ceremonial centers and ball courts.

Later elaborations of the Ostionoid culture, referred to as Elenoid (1,200 to 850 years ago*) and Chicoid (850 to 500 years ago*), were established by Rouse and Allaire (1978) on the basis of ceramic styles. These later cultures and their people were called Arawak or Taino Indians by the Spanish when contact occurred in the early sixteenth century. This Arawak culture reached its peak shortly before European contact. The Arawak culture is noted for large village sites of 1,000 to 5,000 people controlled by chiefdoms, with heavy emphasis on the cultivation of yucca and cassava, with supplemental hunting and shellfish-gathering, and the creation of ball courts or ceremonial plazas attached to the larger settlements. Religious artifacts, such as zemi, or spirit stones, were often found in context with ceremonial sites, as well as distinctive polychrome and incised pottery styles and fine ground stone and shell work. In the latter part of this period white-on-red ceramics disappeared and plain ceramics with lugs shaped like human or animal heads are molded onto the rim of vessels. These features were believed to have originated in Meso-america and diffused to the Caribbean through northern South America. Evidence of this culture has been found in Virgin Islands National Park.

Just a few hundred years prior to contact, the Arawaks had begun to be displaced from the Lesser Antilles by a new group of Orinoco River Valley migrants, the Caribs. By European contact (approximately 500 years ago*), the Caribs had occupied all of the Lesser Antilles including the United States Virgin Islands (Righter 1992:26).

The most recently developed cultural chronology for the islands of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands is derived from Rouse (1992) and Oliver (1992).


Gasparee pot of the Saladoid Period in Trinidad.
Gasparee pot from the Saladoid Period (Image obtained from
archive/spirit_of_americas.html - link no longer works)


Pre-Columbian Pottery in the Antilles
(Brief discussion of ceramics in the Caribbean prior to Columbus' arrival)
Caribbean Archaeology: The Archaeology of St. Eustatius
(Describes a Saladoid occupation at the Golden Rock site in the Virgin Islands)
Prehistoric Settlement and Social Organisation...
(Article describing excavations of Saladoid and Ostionoid occupations in the Lesser Antilles)
The Tutu Site
(Description of Saladoid Period site on St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands)
Archeologists Uncover Pre-historic Village Site on Tortola
(Description of excavations at an Ostionoid Period site in the British Virgin Islands)
The Coralie Site, Grand Turk
(Excavations at the site labeled as the "best example of an Ostionan colony in all of the West Indies")




Saladoid Period (about 2,500 to 1,405 years ago*)
Around the fourth century B.C., a new migration of people, whose culture exhibited traits of ceramics, agriculture, and sedentism, occurred from mainland South America northward up the Lesser Antilles (including the area now containing Virgin Islands National Park and Buck Island Reef National Monument) and west into Puerto Rico and Hispaniola. This culture, termed the Saladoid culture, appears to have established itself initially in the southernmost Lesser Antilles as early as 2,500 years ago*, and reached the area of the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico by 2,295 years ago*. Radiocarbon dates for these two island areas indicate the Saladoid period, or Cedrosan sub-series, lasted from about 2,295 to 1,405 years ago*. The relatively rapid movement of the Saladoid culture into the Lesser Antilles and the eastern half of the Greater Antilles appears to have displaced the earlier lithic period cultures as far as Cuba, where up until contact with Europeans in the sixteenth century, a pre-ceramic culture, called the Ciboney, continued to exist.

This early ceramic period is further subdivided by ceramic styles. On Puerto Rico, the subperiods are Hacienda Grande (2,200 to 1,700 years ago*), and Cuevas (1,600 to 1,400 years ago*). In the Virgin Islands they are Prosperity (2,000 to 1,600 years ago*) and Coral Bay-Longford (1,600 to 1,400 years ago*). The Saladoid ceramic styles of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands showed significant influences from the Barrancoid styles of ceramics based in the lower Orinoco River Valley of Venezuela. It has been suggested that these influences were due to long distance trade between the two areas.

Shared ceramic techniques between these two areas include vessel forms, such as zoomorphic effigy vessels, trays, and platters (some depicting animals native only to South America), jars and bowls with D-shaped strap handles, censers, and bell-shaped vessels. Saladoid potters decorated their vessels with polychrome designs in white-on-red, white-on-red with orange slip, black paint, and negative-painted designs. A smaller number of ceramics were decorated with designs incised into the body of the vessels.

Diagnostic lithic artifacts of the Saladoid culture in both Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are pendants shaped like raptorial birds endemic to South America made from exotic materials, such as jasper-chalcedony, amethyst, crystal quartz, fossilized wood, greenstones, carnelian, lapis lazuli, turquoise, garnet, epidote, and possibly obsidian. The distribution of these artifacts throughout the Greater and Lesser Antilles and northern South America is indicative of a Pan-Caribbean trade network of raw and manu-factured goods. By about 1,400 years ago*, however, these artifacts all but disappear.

Settlement patterns of the Saladoid culture tended to be on the flat coastal plains and alluvial valleys of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, probably to utilize the maritime food resources and fertile soils for growing food crops, such as manioc, cassava, or yucca, and, to a lesser extent, maize. In the later part of the Saladoid period, there appears to have been an expansion into the mountainous interiors of the islands. Typical village patterns in Puerto Rico and adjacent islands consisted of a semi-circular series of mounded middens, frequently serving as the village cemetery, facing a central plaza. Excavations of these cemeteries show individuals were treated equally in terms of grave goods, an indication of an egalitarian society.

Ostionoid Period (1,400 to 500 years ago*)
At the time of the 1963 NHL Theme Study the Ostionoid period was viewed as a new migration of people coming out of the northern South American coastal area and spreading throughout the Antilles. Today, the prevailing theory among Caribbeanists is that the Saladoid culture evolved into the Ostionoid. So the Ostionoid period represents a continuation of the Saladoid period in terms of ceramic-making, agriculture, and sedentism. However, there seems to be a breakdown in cultural continuity between the Caribbean Islands and mainland South America due to the lack of trade goods, such as the Saladoid exotic stone pendants, and the concomitant rise of regional ceramic styles in both Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Another change from the preceding period is the increase in size and complexity of communities in the Ostionoid period, with the appearance of ball courts and ritualistic items, such as zemi stones, and a ranked hierarchy of chiefdoms that appear to have controlled specific regions. Ostionan Subseries (1,400 to 800 years ago*). The Ostionan subseries, like the earlier Saladoid period, is defined by the distribution of specific ceramic styles. These ceramics lack the polychrome-painted decoration of the earlier period and instead are decorated by polishing, red painted surface, appliqué and modeled designs (usually zoomorphic), and in the latter part of the subseries, horizontal bands of geometric line-and-dot incising. Based on the findings of ceramics specific to this subseries, the Ostionan is restricted geographically to the western half of Puerto Rico. Major sites include Boquerón, Calvache, Las Cucharas, Las Mesas, Llanos Tuna, Abra, Buenos Aires, Cañas, Carmen, Diego Hernandez, and Pitahaya.

Other artifacts and features associated with the Ostionan subseries are petaloid stone celts, zemi objects of stone, shell, and clay, the introduction of petroglyphs, and ball courts. Beginning about 1,400 years ago*, the central plaza of the Saladoid period evolves into stone-lined enclosures, or ball courts, called batey. These ball courts appear to have served a multi-functional public space use.

Elenan Ostionoid Subseries (1,400 to 800 years ago*): Contemporary with the Ostionan subseries on the western half of Puerto Rico was the Elenan Ostionoid subseries that was distributed over the eastern half of the island. Two ceramic styles for this subseries have been recognized in eastern Puerto Rico. The earliest is Monserrate (1,400 to 1,150 years ago*), and the other is Santa Elena (1,150 to 800 years ago*).

The Monserrate ceramic style is essentially a development from the earlier Cuevas style, but without the elaborate decoration, such as polychrome painting. Decoration consisted of red- or black-painted geometric designs and strap handles. In the following Santa Elena period, ceramics are characterized by loss of strap handles, production of mainly bowl forms, the abandonment of painted decoration and polishing. Modeling and incising became the major ceramic decoration.

As with the Ostionan subseries, the larger Elenan Ostionoid subseries sites have associated ball courts. And some sites, like Tibes, have multiple plazas and ball courts. Major sites associated with the Elenan Ostionoid subseries are Tibes, Collores, and El Bronce.

Magens Bay-Salt River 1 (1,400 to 800 years ago*): Contemporary with the Puerto Rican subseries of the Ostionoid period, in the Virgin Islands, is the Magens Bay-Salt River subseries. It was partially named after the type-site located at Salt River Bay National Historical Park And Ecological Preserve. The ceramics, stone artifacts, zemis, and ball courts found in the Virgin Islands at this time show continuity with the Elenan Ostionoid subseries of eastern Puerto Rico. Major sites of this time period include Tutu, Magens Bay, and Salt River Bay.

Chican Subseries (800 to 500 years ago*): The last three hundred years of prehistoric occupation in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands may be traced to the historic Native American culture called Taino, which was first encountered by the Spanish on the first voyages of discovery in the 1490s.

Around 800 years ago*, a new ceramic style, called Boca Chica, emerged in the area of southeastern Hispaniola (present day Dominican Republic). This style is characterized by complicated vessel forms, surface polishing, relatively few red-painted vessels, and elaborate incised, modeled, and punctated designs. Trade ware of elaborately incised Boca Chica ceramics are found on Capá- and Esperanza-phase sites in western and eastern Puerto Rico, respectively. It is believed that the introduction of Chican trade wares was responsible for stylistic changes in the Capá and Esperanza culture areas, which saw the introduction of elaborate incising in their ceramics. Recent work by Rouse has postulated that settlers from the Boca Chica area of the Dominican Republic actually established a colony in the middle of the southern coast of Puerto Rico, from which they spread their cultural influence.

What is clear about this time period in both Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands is rapid population growth in terms of site numbers and size of sites. There appears to be a clustering of large sites around major ceremonial centers, such as Caguana in western Puerto Rico, and Cuevas-2 in eastern Puerto Rico. This suggests these sites were centers of religious and political power that extended over large territorial units.

The Esperanza phase appears to have extended eastward into the Virgin Islands (Magens Bay-Salt River 2 subseries) based on styles of ceramics and cultural attributes, such as ball courts. About 500 years ago*, some authors have postulated the beginning of the introduction of Carib culture on St. Croix island, which displaced the Esperanza culture. A currently debated topic among Caribbeanists is the Carib culture. Some scholars have begun to question the traditionally held belief that the Caribs represented a new migration from South America. They are suggesting the Caribs are the product of the evolution of Arawak speakers in the Lesser Antilles.

At first contact, the Spanish viewed Puerto Rico as being controlled by a series of Taino subchiefs, or caciques. These were the religious and political leaders of discrete geographical areas, and were loosely affiliated with paramount chiefs in a ranked hierarchy organization. The Spanish noted the Taino of Puerto Rico were engaged in resisting Carib attacks from the Virgin Islands. Ultimately, by the second decade of the sixteenth century, both Taino and Carib cultures in these areas were nearly extinct.

Further Reading


•Current Research: The Caribbean
(Summarizes recent research in the Caribbean culture area)


Keegan, William F.
•1992 The People Who Discovered Columbus: The Prehistory of the Bahamas. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Meighan, C.W., and R.E. Tailor
•1978 Chronologies in the New World. Academic Press, New York.

Rouse, Irving
•1970 The Entry of Man in the West Indies. Yale University Publication in Anthropology, No. 61. Department of Anthropology, Yale University, New Haven.
•1992 The Tainos: Rise and Decline of the People Who Greeted Columbus. Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut.

Wilson, Samuel M., ed.
•1999 The Indigenous People of the Caribbean. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

National Park Units

Caribbean prehistoric sites have been located in the following National Park Unit:

Return to the Caribbean Paleoindian and Mesoindian | Move on to the Historic Period

Return to the Site Index.Return to the Table of Contents.