Indigenous Peoples

A stone outcropping with carved Taino symbols representing faces with animal features, dots, and swirled symbols
Taino petroglyph carvings along the Reef Bay Trail show faces with animal features and other symbols central to Taino culture.

NPS/Parnicza

Humans first arrived in the Virgin Islands from South America about 2500 to 3000 years ago. The oldest archeological site found on St. John is near the beach at Lameshur Bay. Today, we know very little about these earliest human inhabitants of the Virgin Islands. These early explorers of the islands were nomadic hunter-gatherers. They likely traveled to the Virgin Islands from South America and made short trips from island to island as they made their way north. They left behind no evidence of agriculture or villages, and likely lived in caves or out in the open.

Around 1000 to 1300 years ago, the Virgin Islands experienced a population boom. We know of these people as the Taino. The Taino people spoke an Arawakan language, but they developed a culture that was easily distinguishable from that of their mainland ancestors, who also spoke Arawakan. The Taino people established villages at Cinnamon Bay, Coral Bay, Caneel Bay, and Lameshur Bay. Taino society was more complex than those that had come to the region before them. The Taino grew crops like cassava, potatoes, and corn. They built communal villages, used stone tools, and practiced a complex religion based on ancestor worship complete with priests, rituals, sacred relics, and more.

 
An image of a Zemi with a human face including eyes, a nose, and an reddish brown rock is pictured against a black backdrop.
A Zemi from around 900 A.D. depicting a a human face.

NPS photo.

Taino archeological sites provide many clues to how the Taino people organized their society. They developed farming methods that required very little time and effort to maintain, allowing ample free time. In this free time, they developed complex religious ceremonies and games of skill, like Batéy. Batéy is a ball game played on a small court. Two teams attempt to drive the ball past the other team's backline without using their hands. Each Taino village had a chieftain, known as a “Cacique.” The Cacique was not only the political leader of the community, but he was also the spiritual leader.

The most recent evidence of Taino settlement on St. John dates to the mid-1400’s, years before the arrival of Christopher Columbus. Today, we don’t know why the Taino left St. John. Many archeologists assert that their neighbors to the south, the Island Caribs, may have pushed them out or conquered the Taino of St. John.

Visitors can explore Taino culture at the Petroglyph site found on Reef Bay Trail. This site was a sacred place to the Taino, who came there to practice their religion, which was built around the worship of their ancestors. The carvings found at Petroglyphs represent past Caciques whom the living Taino sought to commune with for guidance in the world of the living. Discover more at our archeology page.

Last updated: August 16, 2022

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