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Anguilla's Precolumbian History


Arawak Spirit Eyes at Big Spring in Island Harbour.
Arawak Spirit Eyes at Big Spring in Island Harbour.
The rich and dynamic Amerindian history of the island is beginning to be reconstructed as a result of recent work by the Anguilla Archaeological and Historical Society and archaeologists from numerous institutions such as the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the University of Maine at Farmington, and the University of Pittsburgh. Read on and educate yourself about Anguilla's fascinating archaeological record and find out how you can get involved!


Big Spring Arawak stone carving
Big Spring Arawak stone carving

The First Anguillians

Long before Anguilla was "settled" by the British (1652), or even "discovered" by Christopher Columbus (1493), the island was inhabited by Amerindians. Based on archaeological research we now know that like many other Caribbean islands, Anguilla was first occupied by indigenous peoples as early as 1500 B.C. At least two of the sites identified thus far in Anguilla can be attributed to this era, referred to by archaeologists as the "Preceramic" or "Archaic" period.
An Arawak dig conducted in Sandy Ground produced amazing results.
An Arawak dig conducted in Sandy Ground produced amazing results.

The first Amerindians to set foot on the island likely were attracted to the area by the prime fishing provided by the extensive reefs nearby. They also collected shellfish along the shoreline such as whelks and hardbacks, and gathered other foods from the bush and saltponds. These pioneers lived in temporary camps, moving around frequently to exploit various food resources. They used tools manufactured from stone, such as axes and knives, and from shell, such as scrapers and gouges. They did not make clay pottery (hence the period is called "Preceramic") but instead made containers out of conch shells. as containers. The first Amerindians on the island also likely utilized gourds such as the calabash and manufactured baskets too. Unfortunately, these and other perishable materials have not stood the test of time and only artifacts made of durable materials such as stone and shell are preserved for study by archaeologists today.
A pottery bowl contained the remains of an Arawak infant at Sandy Ground.
A pottery bowl contained the remains of an Arawak infant at Sandy Ground.


The Golden Years

Following intermittent occupation by the earliest Caribbean colonists, Anguilla was settled by pottery making fisher-farmers around A.D. 600. The ancestors of these "Ceramic Age" peoples were originally from South America and had migrated out of the Orinoco River region of Venezuela and up the Lesser Antillean archipelago around 500 B.C. The first Ceramic Age settlements in the northern Lesser Antilles, during what archaeologists refer to as the "Saladoid" period, were on high, volcanic islands such as Montserrat and St. Martin, presumably because these islands had more water and better agricultural soils than did the lower, limestone islands. As populations grew and people became better adapted to the Caribbean environment (particularly the maritime environment), virtually every habitable island was colonized by around A.D. 600-900, including lower, dryer islands like Anguilla.
Details were recorded at the Arawak dig in Sandy Ground.
Details were recorded at the Arawak dig in Sandy Ground.

The majority of the 42 Amerindian sites now known in Anguilla are attributable to A.D. 600-1500, or the latter portion of the Ceramic Age in the Caribbean which is referred to by archaeologists as the "post-Saladoid period." Based on pottery styles and radiocarbon dates, archaeologists estimate that the peak of precolumbian settlement in Anguilla occurred sometime between A.D. 900-1200. As many as 14 villages may have been occupied on the island at this time, each containing an estimated 50-250 people. They settled locations close to the sea and saltponds which afforded the best access to the natural resources upon which they lived. Well-preserved fish bone and exotic stone material in archaeological contexts provides evidence that the Anguillians of the Ceramic Age were expert mariners. Such remains indicate that they were fishing both inshore reefs and deeper waters offshore, and trading with peoples throughout the Caribbean region, often as far away as mainland South America. Judging from the presence of ceramic griddles at archaeological sites, probably used to cook flat bread, they also likely processed flour from cultivated crops such as manioc, or cassava.

Religious Ceremonialism

Archaeological research has helped reconstruct not only where Amerindians lived in Anguilla and what foods they ate, but also has given us a window into the ceremonial lives of these people. Artifacts believed to be religious idols such as three-pointed stones called "zemis" have been recovered from numerous Ceramic Age village sites in Anguilla. Based on analogies drawn from the ethnohistoric period (when Europeans first came in contact with the Taino people of the Greater Antilles), Amerindians believed that zemis contained spirit beings. Various early chronicles indicate that zemis (which also were made of other materials like wood and cotton) were used as offerings during crop fertility ceremonies, during the worship of ancestors, and as spiritual consultants controlled by village chiefs. Other items related to Amerindian religious practices also have been recovered from archaeological contexts in Anguilla, such as portions of tubes used to inhale hallicinogens, and shell "teeth" which were likely part of wooden statues.
Whole sites also appear to have had primarily religious functions. The most significant of these in Anguilla is Fountain Cavern. This cave site, located near Shoal Bay, contains numerous Amerindian petroglyphs, or rock carvings, as well as an impressive stalagmite statue, the top of which is carved into the head of a spirit being. This statue which overlooks a pool of clear, fresh water is suggested to represent "Jochahu," or "Yuchahu," the Taino spirit of fertility and "lord of cassava."

Fountain Cavern and the surounding area are currently being developed into what will become Anguilla's first National Park. The project is being undertaken by the Fountain Cavern National Park Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Anguilla National Trust. Ultimately, the park will contain a museum/interpretive center, enable easy public access into the cave itself, and offer numerous educational opportunites for Anguillians and visitors alike.


Who Were They

In almost every history book dealing with the Caribbean, one will come across a just-so story that in condensed form reads something like this: "The Caribbean was first inhabited by the Arawak Indians, a peaceful people who were eventually wiped out by the fierce, warlike Carib Indians who practiced cannibalism." This unfortunate myth was initiated by Columbus himself and, unfortunately, has continued to gain support ever since. Based on archaeological research and critical reviews of early Spanish documents, the real story likely was much different. First of all, there exists absolutely no archaeological evidence of cannibalism, and the ethnohistoric "evidence" first cited by the Spanish consisted not of first hand accounts of Caribs feasting on Arawaks, but simply reports of human bones in Amerindian houses. Based on other descriptions, we now know that these bones were likely those of ancestors which were preserved for worship, not the spoils of cannibal banquets.
The second problem with the popular story derives from literal translations of Columbus' diaries which do not consider who his intended audience was, or what his motivations were for recording certain information. Critical reviews suggest that it was extremely convenient for Columbus to label indigenous Caribbean peoples as cannibals, particularly those in the Lesser Antilles. By falsely labelling them as "sub-human eaters of men," he helped justify and rationalize their enslavement and/or execution. This becomes even more significant relative to Columbus' quest for gold and other riches, and his desire to ultimately rule over the entire West Indies.

The third problem with the Arawak/Carib story is that both Arawak and Carib are language groups, not cultural groups. Because the first people encountered by Columbus (who called themselves Taino) spoke an Arawakan language, they and all those before them have been called "Arawaks." The fact is that Arawak is one of the largest language families among indigenous peoples of South America and calling a people "Arawak" is like calling people from the U.S.A., Canada, England and the West Indies all "English" because they all speak the same language! As for the Caribs, there exists no archaeological evidence that there was more than one cultural group in the Caribbean at the time of European contact, though it is believed that Carib Indians, originally from mainland South America, did enter the region sometime thereafter.

So who were the Anguillians of the Ceramic Age?? Well, pottery styles, zemis, petroglyphs, and other characteristics of archaeological sites in Anguilla indicate that these sites are closely related to contemporaneous occupations in the Greater Antilles. By virtue of this relationship, and the self-designation of Greater Antillean people as "Taino" at the time of European Contact, we can suggest that the people of Anguilla were probably Tainos as well.

We Need Your Help!!

Continued research into Anguilla's past, and the protection and preservation of the island's archaeological sites depends on your support. If you are not already a member of the Anguilla Archaeological and Historical Society, become one today!! Other organizations which support archaeology on the island include the newly formed Fountain Cavern National Park Corporation, and the Anguilla National Trust. If you are in Anguilla and have time to volunteer, or are interested in supporting these organizations in any way, get in touch!! Anguilla's fragile cultural resources need all the help they can get.





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