Home » Blog » 2023 » March » The Precolumbian Caribbean


Written by Graham on Saturday 25th March 2023.

This is an old page, whose final draft dates to the 13th September 2014. I may well update it in due course, but here it is for posterity.

Christopher Columbus did not find a land without people during his great voyages to the west. Indeed, the earliest native peoples of the American continent were those living in the Caribbean archipelago. In some cases, their descendants still survive, though much of their culture & heritage was doomed when the first Europeans appeared. This essay endeavours to provide brief historical background to their story.


Though no concrete evidence of human activity and settlement has been found dating prior to around 5,000 BC, the presence of Pleistocene megafauna coupled with much lower sea levels would have made the islands of the Caribbean a tempting stopover to the palaeo-Indian cultures of the Americas during the millennia prior to that date. Thereafter, the Banwari culture appeared in Trinidad & Tobago and the Antilles, heralding the advent of the meso-Indian era, which persisted until the start of the Christian era. The greatest number of sites dating to the period are found in Cuba, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, whose populations possibly descended from those of the Banwari culture. The meso-Indian populations seem to have existed primarily through gathering shellfish, evidenced by middens and population crashes during climate change events which caused the lowering of sea levels between 2700 & 2000 and 1500 & 600 BC.

Two preceramic cultures have been identified in the Caribbean: the Casimiroid (4000 BC-2000 BC) and Ortiroid (4000 BC-200 AD). The Casimiroid culture shows affiliations with Central America and the Yucatán peninsula, and is thought to have entered the Caribbean via a chain of now-submerged islands, through which they moved into western Cuba, eventually reaching as far as the extreme west of Puerto Rico. The Ortiroid culture, on the other hand, emerged from South America.

Agriculture appeared in the islands at the beginning of the neo-Indian period in the form of the Saladoid culture, which dates from the beginning of the Christian era to around AD 600. The Saladoid is the first ceramic culture in the Caribbean. Cultivating staples such as cassava, yucca and maize, they emerged, like the bearers of the Ortiroid culture, from the Orinoco region of South America and spread throughout the archipelago, seemingly forcing the meso-Indian hunter-gatherers into marginal areas such as western Cuba. The Saladoid culture developed into (or was displaced by) the Ostinoid culture between 600 and 800 AD, the hallmarks of which are incised pottery decoration (as opposed to the Saladoid preference for painted decoration). The Ostinoid culture is divided into two phases: the Elenoid (c.AD 800-1150) and Chicoid (c.AD 1150-1500). By that stage, the historical identities of the various populations of the Caribbean were recorded after contact with Europeans.


Map depicting cultural areas in the Caribbean at the time of European "contact."


The Guanahatabey were a people who lived in westernmost Cuba at the time of Columbus' arrival: the explorer visited the Guanahatabey area in 1494 during his second voyage. In terms of material culture, the Guanahatabey appear to have utilised a hunter-gatherer lifestyle based primarily around fishing, with no forms of permanent housing beyond caves. Their language was unrelated to that of their agriculturalist Taíno neighbours. In cultural terms, their lifestyle reflects those of the meso-Indian cultures who were restricted to areas such as the west of Cuba by the expansion of the ceramic Saladoid culture during the early post-Christian centuries.

Other groups with similar origins were also found on Hispaniola. The eastern part of that island formed the cacicazgo of Quisqueya, wherein lived two groups who spoke a language different from the Arawakan form spoken by the Taíno. These were the Macroix and Ciguayo.


Taíno woman and friend.

In all likelihood, the Arawak-speaking Taíno emerged from participants in the Saladoid and especially the Ostinoid culture. Several sub-groups of Taino can be identified. In the Bahamas, the inhabitants termed themselves Lukku-Cairi (Lucayans - the name of the Lukku-Cairi is reminiscent of that of the Lokono, more commonly known as the Arawak, who inhabit coastal areas of South America to the present day), whilst other groups from Dominica to Trinidad & Tobago used the name Igneri (also given as Igñeri or Eyeri). By the time of Columbus' arrival, however, the areas where the Igneri had lived had been taken over by a warlike group calling themselves Kalipuna or Kalinago (see below).

The Taíno culture involved the worship of two major gods, the zemis (Yúcahu and Atabey were chief among the Taínos' gods and the zemis were stones containing petroglyps unearthed in ritual settings) - and the "Classical" Taíno featured ball courts in their settlements, an innovation common throughout Central & South America which first appeared in the Caribbean during the Ostinoid period. The Classical Taíno inhabited Hispaniola, Puerto Rico and the extreme east of Cuba, with the more primitive Western Taíno, including the Lucayans, living in most of Cuba, Jamaica and the Bahamas, as well as the south-west of Hispaniola. The Classical Taíno seem to have characterised their Western kindred as primitive cave-dwellers, calling them Ciboney, a term later erroneously applied to the hunter-gatherer Guanahatabeys. The Eastern Taíno, who seem to have had a more martial outlook than the other Taíno groups, populated the Virgin Islands, Antigua & Barbuda, Montserrat and Guadeloupe. Their warlike nature was likely due to their being subject to raids by the Kalinago.

A Kalinago family with dinner. And a parrot.


Commonly known as the Island Carib, the Kalipuna or Kalinago had, by Columbus' day, come to dominate the former Igneri area from Dominica to Grenada, and were perhaps influential as far north as the Virgin Islands. They have traditionally been regarded as descendents of another group of South American migrants, the Kali'na or Galibi, though modern analysis tends to underplay the extent of such a migration. Kalipuna infiltration of the Lesser Antilles may be dated to around AD 1100, and is perhaps associated with the development of the Suazey ceramic complex. The Hispaniolan Taíno called this people Canima or Caniba - and the probably-erroneous supposition that the Kalipuna ate human flesh leads to the term "cannibal." For the most part, the activities of the Kalipuna appear to have been raiding settlements to secure booty and wives - their womenfolk spoke an Arawakan language, Igneri or Island Carib, whilst the men used a Carib-based pidgin, as well as the Arawakan-based Island Carib, which was this group's lingua franca .


English explorers differentiated between the "Yellow Carib" and "Black Carib," the latter having interbred with shipwrecked Africans who had been transported to the Caribbean for use as slaves. The Black Carib proved restive and were eventually transported from Dominica to the island of Roatan and adjacent coastlands of Central America, where they survive under the name Garifuna (or, to use their own name, Garinagu).


Trinidad & Tobago enjoys a history distinct from much of the other islands in the Caribbean sea. Tribes located on the islands included the Aruacas, Carinepagotos, Iaos and Nepuyos according to Sir Walter Raleigh, who visited in 1595. The name by which Trinidad was known before contact with Europeans, however, was Kairi or Lelo, which come from Kalinago (though the name Tobago could be wither Kalinago or the Cariban language Kali'na). Native tribes on Trinidad were the Arawakan (probably Taíno) Nepoya and Suppoya, as well as the Cariban Yao, whilst Tobago was in the hands of Island Caribs and their continental relatives the Kali'na (Galibi).


Previously, questions were raised about the affiliation of the Tequestas, a tribe who formerly resided in southern Florida opposite the Bahamas, with a suggestion that they may have been of Taíno descent. This notion has, however, been dismissed, as the Tequestas show a much greater affiliation with the Glades culture, suggesting their presence in Florida since the 1st millennium BC. In terms of linguistics, information on the Tequesta language is sparse and, most likely, it formed part of a dialect continuum with the language of the Tequestas' sometimes overbearing western neighbours the Calusas. The Calusas may also have been overlords of the Tequestas' northern neighbours the Jaega and Ais, though the Ais were also powerful enough to subjugate the Jaega. The Calusa language may have shared some similarities with the recently-extinct Tunica language of Louisiana. Additionally, the Glades groups cultivated plants of Mexican origin, as opposed to the Taínos, whose staples derived from South America. The Tequestas, furthermore, did not practice agriculture but lived primarily as hunter-gatherers.

Another group of proposed South American origin are the significant Timucua, whose language has been posited as belonging to the Arawakan group, as well as sharing a relationship with Warao (a language spoken in Venezuela and Guyana), Chibchan (a group spoken between Honduras and Colombia) - and even Carib. The Caribs have also been tenuously associated with the Karankawa of coastal southern Texas. These ideas are certainly intriguing, though it is surely especially unlikely that the correlations were transmitted via the Caribbean.

All in all, on the subject of Caribbean-North American contacts, we must return to Carl O. Sauer's statement that: "the Florida Straits, one of the most strongly marked cultural boundaries in the New World."

Sir Graham