Prehistory of the Caribbean Culture Area

NATIONAL PARK UNITS: Prehistoric sites have been located in Virgin Islands National Park. Also see SEAC's Archaeology in the Caribbean: The Water Island Project and Archeology at Lower Camp, as well as Friends of the VINP Web pages.

Outline of the Cultural Chronology of the Caribbean
with an Emphasis on Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands



    The National Historic Landmark Theme Study (Haag 1963) noted the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the United States Territory of the Virgin Islands were prehistorically a part of a much larger Caribbean culture area. The prehistoric sequence of the Caribbean culture area is divided into three major units.

    Paleoindian Period (ca. 9500 - 5000 B.C.):

    The earliest recorded prehistoric site for the Caribbean cultural area is the El Jobo site in Venezuela, which has been dated as roughly contemporaneous with the Clovis period in North America. Gordon Willey (1971) assumes that this culture is an offshoot of the North American Big Game Hunting (concentration on the hunting of Pleistocene megafauna) tradition.

    Although the Lesser and Greater Antilles were home to various types of extinct Pleistocene megafauna, such as the giant ground sloth (Megaelocsus), no actual cultural artifacts have been identified for this time period (ca. 10,000 - 6,000 B.C.) for the Caribbean Islands. Some authors have treated the occurrence of Pleistocene megafauna and an acknowledged lower sea level of nearly 20-meters that could facilitate travel between the northern coast of South American and the Antilles during the Paleoindian period as positive conditions for Paleoindian occupation (Veloz Maggiolo and Ortega 1976).

    No pre-5000 B.C. sites were noted in the 1963 theme study for either the Greater or Lesser Antilles islands (Haag 1963:337).

    Mesoindian Period (ca. 5000 B.C. - A.D. 1):

    The cultures of the Mesoindian period of the Caribbean area were considered roughly equivalent to North American Archaic hunting and gathering cultures. This period was believed to begin ca. 5000 B.C. and ended for most of the Lesser and Greater Antilles about two thousand years ago. A people referred to by the early Spanish as Ciboney, utilizing a Mesoindian life style, continued to exist in extreme western Cuba until historic times. This period was characterized as representative of a hunting and gathering people, who increasingly became dependent on the littoral zones of the islands for subsistence (Willey 1976).

    The first noted Mesoindian occupation in the Antilles was the Banwari culture, a small animal-hunting and shellfish-gathering phase from Trinidad (ca. 5000 B.C.), which appeared to have possibly moved up the Lesser Antilles to Puerto Rico, Hispaniola, and Cuba over time. Most of the sites excavated from this period are related in some manner to the utilization of shellfish. However, this might be due to a sampling error, since most of the past archeological work in the Antilles has concentrated on the coastal environment. The Banwari phase was noted for coastal shell midden sites, which yielded fresh water and salt water shells of Neritina virginea and the conch, Melogena, and, predominately, crab remains, bones of deer, peccary, small mammals, and fish. The stone tools consisted of ground stone pestles, manos, grooved axes, celts, and chipped projectile points and tools. The points were also made of bone, as were needles and fishing spears (Harris 1976).

    Twice during the Mesoindian period (2700 - 2000 B.C. and 1500 - 600 B.C.), sea levels lowered, destroying the shellfish environments of the islands and causing a depopulation of coastal areas. The lack of sites from these periods may also be explained by the idea that, as the sea level dropped, the shellfish beds retreated and with this retreat followed the prehistoric peoples who subsisted on them as a major source of food. Therefore, sites for these two periods, if they exist, may now be underwater. One site of the Mesoindian period has been found in the the U.S. Virgin Islands at the Krum Bay site.

    In the islands of Cuba, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico, where the greatest concentration of Mesoindian sites are found, these period sites tended to be coastal shell middens with artifact assemblages generally similar to the Banwari culture found on Trinidad. Dr. Irving Rouse (1970) defined the Mesoindian period for the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico as having two distinct series, the Ortoiroid, known principally from the South American mainland, with scattered finds of artifacts in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico to the Mona Passage; and the Casimiroid series. The Casimiroid was further subdivided into the Courian subseries of Cuba, Haiti, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, and the Redondan subseries of Cuba (Righter 1992).

    The 1963 theme study proposed that "the first peoples arriving in the Greater Antilles did not filter through the Lesser Antilles to reach this goal. It seems much more probable that the smaller islands may have been by-passed and bigger islands, such as Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and Cuba, occupied first" (Haag 1963:333). However, as noted above, any change in sea levels may have destroyed many of these early sites if occupation was oriented toward the coastal environment.

    Mesoindian period sites are generally open camp sites of small shell middens found on or near the coast. The faunal material recovered consists of fresh and saltwater shellfish and remains of fish and sea and land mammals. There currently is no basis from the available information on these sites to indicate seasonal use of marine and land resources. Although the sites were almost entirely oriented toward the maritime environment, there appears to be a heavier reliance on land-based hunting resources in the earlier part of the Mesoindian period than in the latter part.

    The Mesoindian tool assemblage consists of stone tools, such as flake points, awls and knives. Ground stone celts, manos, and axes are also found. In addition, modified conch shells made into vessels and plates are found. It should be noted that Puerto Rican sites tended to produce more ground stone tools than similar sites in Cuba or Hispaniola.

    Generally, in comparison with areas surrounding the Antilles, the Cuban material was stylistically more closely related to material from eastern Venezuela (Rouse 1970); whereas, the Hispaniola and Puerto Rican material seemed to be associated with material from Central America (Alegría et al. 1955; Rouse 1970). Therefore, it is believed that origins for settling the Caribbean were multiple, as opposed to a single source of origin for the Mesoindian cultures of the Antilles; or, there may have been a single culture with differing manifestations related to different environments.

    Preceramic Subcultures:

    Casimiroid Culture. The Casimiroid Culture has been proposed to have originated from Lithic or Archaic period cultures from either the Yucatán or Central America. It is presumed the people of this culture migrated by sea from the mainland to western Cuba via a Mid-Caribbean chain of islands, which is now submerged. They spread eastward through Hispaniola Island, where the earliest known sites of this culture are dated at ca. 4000 B.C. Recent investigations in a rock shelter on Mona Island have uncovered a Casimiroid-like assemblage of lithic tools, with an appropriate radiocarbon date of ca. 2380 B.C. Only one Puerto Rican site, the Cerrillo site in the extreme southwestern part of the island, exhibits Casimiroid-like lithic artifacts. The implications are that the Casimiroid culture came into the western end of the Greater Antilles and spread eastward only as far as extreme western Puerto Rico.

    Casimiroid sites are generally noted for lithic artifacts manufactured of fine grained flint. These include core tools, blades, burins, awls, and scrapers, in addition to anvils and hammerstones. It is believed that the sites on Mona Island and western Puerto Rico date from the Barrera-Mordán Complex (3600 - 2000 B.C.). Little information is known on subsistence base of the Casimiroid culture.

    Ortoiroid Culture. While the Casimiroid was a lithic culture that migrated from west to east through the Antilles, a contemporary lithic culture, the Ortoiroid, was the result of migration of another lithic culture from northern South America, north up the Lesser Antilles to the Virgin Islands, and thence westward into Puerto Rico. The earliest dated Ortoiroid culture site in Puerto Rico is the Angostura site, which is dated at ca. 4000 B.C. Rouse has proposed a Corosan and Krum Bay subseries of lithic period sites for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, respectively.

    Krum Bay Subseries (1500 - 200 B.C.). The Krum Bay subseries artifact assemblage is characterized by fairly fine-grained basalt flake tools, hammerstones, shell picks, partially ground stone celts, and beads and pendants of stone, bone, and shell. Krum Bay sites tend to be open habitation sites located near the shore. Subsistence remains indicated shellfish gathering, fishing, and hunting of birds and turtles were the major sources of food. The Krum Bay Subseries is noted on St. Thomas and St. John (Virgin Islands National Park), United States Virgin Islands, the north coast of Puerto Rico, and Vieques Island (Caño Hondo site) off the southeast coast of Puerto Rico.

    Coroso Subseries (1000 B.C. - A.D. 200). The Coroso subseries was identified as a lithic or preceramic culture as early as the 1930s by Rouse. Sites tended to be located on all the coasts of Puerto Rico, in caves and at shell middens. Recent work indicates occupation also occurred in the interior of the island. The artifact assemblage of the Coroso subseries is characterized by hammerstones, pebble chop-pers, flake tools, shell scrapers, shell plates, and pebble grinders. Subsistence data indicates the early part of the Coroso culture saw a more generalized diet of turtle, crabs, fish, and shellfish, leading to a more specialized diet of shellfish in later times. Significant sites of the Coroso subseries are Cueva de María la Cruz (Loíza Cave), Cayo Cofresí, Coroso site, and Playa Blanca. Inhabitants lived on or near the coast, in both open and cave sites. Burials were placed underneath shell middens by digging through them until reaching subsoil.

    Neoindian Period (ca. A.D. 1 - A.D. 1500):

    This period, dating from ca. A.D. 1 to European contact, ca. A.D. 1500, 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 (A.D. 0 - 600) 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 A.D. 600 and 800, 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 (A.D. 800 - 1150) and Chicoid (A.D. 1150 - ca. 1500), 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 (ca. A.D. 1500), 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).

    Ceramic Periods:

    Saladoid Period. 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 500 B.C., and reached the area of the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico by 345 B.C. Radiocarbon dates for these two island areas indicate the Saladoid period, or Cedrosan sub-series, lasted from ca. 345 B.C. - A.D. 545. 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 (250 B.C.- A.D. 300), and Cuevas (A.D. 400 - 600). In the Virgin Islands they are Prosperity (A.D. 1 - 350) and Coral Bay-Longford (A.D. 350 - 550). 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 A.D. 600, 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. 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 (A.D. 600 - 1200). 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 A.D. 600, 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 (A.D. 600 - 1200). 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 (A.D. 600 850), and the other is Santa Elena (A.D. 850 - 1200).

    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 (A.D. 600 - 1200). 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 in-clude Tutu, Magens Bay, and Salt River Bay.

    Chican Subseries (A.D. 1200 - 1500). 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 A.D. 1200, 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 A.D. 1450, 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.

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