Spirit of the Americas

Recent finds have thrown new light on the Caribbean’s rich Amerindian past. But lack of funds for archaeology, and new development on many islands, mean we’ll continue to lose much more than we preserve. Alex de Verteuil explains

  • Trinidad's "Carib Stone". Photograph by Alex De Verteuil
  • Adornos found at Saladoid site in Trinidad, part of the National Museum's collection. Photograph by Ian Chan/ National Museum, Trinidad
  • IACA conference delegates at an archaeological site in Grenada, 1999. Photograph by Leslie Pierre
  • Dr Kofi Agorsa (in red shirt), of Portland State University, with team students on a dig in Trinidad
  • Adornos found in Grenada. Photograph by Jim Rudin
  • Clay figure, Trinidad. Photograph by Ian Chan/ National Museum, Trinidad
  • Pottery vessel, Saladoid period, Trinidad. Photograph by Ian Chan/ National Museum, Trinidad
  • Decorated clay vessel at the National Museum, Port of Spain, Trinidad. Photograph by Ian Chan/ National Museum, Trinidad
  • Artefacts in storage at the Archaeology Centre, UWI, Trinidad. Photograph by Alex De Verteuil
  • Archaeology Centre, UWI, Trinidad. Photograph by Alex De Verteuil
  • Archie Chauharjasingh, Peter Harris and Prof. Keith Laurence at UWI Archaeology Centre. Photograph by Alex De Verteuil
  • The Carib Stone, Trinidad's only known petroglyph. Photograph by Alex De Verteuil
  • Views of the Gasperee Pot, which was found by a diver in seas off Port of Spain in 1990. Photograph by Alex De Verteuil
  • Views of the Gasperee Pot, which was found by a diver in seas off Port of Spain in 1990. Photograph by Alex De Verteuil
  • Views of the Gasperee Pot, which was found by a diver in seas off Port of Spain in 1990. Photograph by Alex De Verteuil

In a cramped room at the St Augustine campus of the University of the West Indies in Trinidad, amid a clutter of biological specimens, a large glass-covered box houses a rather unremarkable-looking collection of bones. They are human bones, the skeletal remains of a man. They lie in a bed of earth, more or less as they were found in 1971. The vertebrae are easily distinguished, as are some of the limbs. The skull itself has been almost completely crushed but is still recognisable, though more by virtue of its position than for any other reason.

These are the bones of Banwari Man, so named because they were found adjacent to a muddy country lane in the south of Trinidad called Banwari Trace. Carbon-dated to 5,000 BC, they are the oldest human remains to have been found in the southern Caribbean, and represent one of the most important archaeological discoveries in this part of the world.

Trinidad is roughly 10 km from Venezuela, and was the gateway for human migration from South America to the southern Caribbean. Amerindians crossed in their canoes over the narrow dividing strip of water and settled the island, which eventually became a jumping-off point for further voyaging up the island chain. The island’s unique position made it very important in the Amerindian history of the region. Throughout Trinidad, middens have been found bearing an assortment of pottery sherds, stone axe-heads, animal bones and various bits and pieces of everyday life. These middens were the garbage dumps of the early village dwellers and, today, contain invaluable clues to the lives of the people who lived in South America and the southern Caribbean before the arrival of Columbus, 500 years ago.


But despite its rich and important Amerindian heritage, there has been little attention paid to archaeology in Trinidad. In fact, there is no qualified archaeologist on the island. A government-appointed committee exists to advise the Ministry of Culture on archaeological matters, and at the university there is an Archaeology Centre, but funding to operate it is minimal. Finds are housed in a small bungalow on the campus in crumbling cardboard boxes. These have been carefully labelled and catalogued by Archie Chauharjasingh, a former civil servant, who now, as assistant at the centre, devotes much of his time to the cause of archaeology in Trinidad.

“We have over 280 archaeological sites on record,” says Professor Keith Laurence, retired Professor of History and Chairman of the Archaeology Committee, “and yet we have no trained archaeologist . . . We have so much archaeological material in storage it would take half a dozen archaeologists several years to study what is already there, far less deal with new finds.”

Some of these artefacts are on display at the National Museum in Port of Spain. Several items demonstrate considerable skill and sophistication of manufacture. One of the most impressive pieces is the Erin Bottle, found early this century in the south of the island by John Bullbrook, an English geologist working with an oil company. Bullbrook was a skilled amateur archaeologist and his early work was the inspiration for later archaeological investigation in Trinidad.

The Erin Bottle is almost complete and, for that reason, is a rare find. The “bottle” is from an era known as the Saladoid period, between 300 BC and 250 AD, which is characterised by the red and white pigment decorating much of the pottery of that time. Many other pieces are on show at the museum, including a collection of adornos — zoomorphic clay figurines representing the gods and spirits of the Saladoid people. (Adornos were used to decorate the handles and rims of pottery items that were in everyday use as cooking utensils or containers.)

A recent discovery that caused much excitement in archaeological circles is the Gasparee Pot. It was found in 1990 by a diver in the sea off Port of Spain. “It is the most complete example of a prehistoric Amerindian ceramic ‘bottle’ to have been discovered in the Caribbean,” says Dr Nicholas Saunders of University College, London, an archaeologist with a special interest in the Caribbean and considerable practical experience in Trinidad. “Its significance lies in its completeness, excellent preservation, and location. It is of the Saladoid period, and, for this part of the Caribbean, is a masterpiece of the potter’s art. It was undoubtedly an ‘expensive’ piece to make, not to be discarded lightly, and was probably meant to contain the Amerindian equivalent of beer — an intoxicating brew of fermented manioc juice.”

There is speculation about the use of the vessel and how it came to be in the sea. Did it fall overboard from a canoe or was it a ritual offering to the spirit of the waters? “Whatever the cause,” says Dr Saunders, “its state of preservation, and the luck of its being found by someone who knew its value, make it a unique piece and one of the most significant discoveries in Trinidad this century.”

In a bamboo grove in Caurita, high in the hills overlooking the Maracas valley in the north of the island, is one of Trinidad’s more enigmatic Amerindian artefacts: the so-called Carib Stone. This huge boulder of quartzite, etched with symbolic carvings known as petroglyphs, is the only one of its kind to be found so far in Trinidad. “I am almost certain more await discovery,” says Dr Saunders. “The spectacular location of the Caurita petroglyph suggests its importance as a tribal boundary marker or a sacred place associated with spirits and ancestors, possibly with astronomical/mythological associations.” In the islands to the north of Trinidad, however, there are many Carib Stones. In St Vincent, Grenada, Puerto Rico, and even Barbados, we find significant examples of petroglyphs in many different locales.


Dr Saunders believes that Trinidad, situated as it is at the end of the island chain and so close to the mainland, is unique. “There is tremendous potential for archaeology here,” he says. “But there are also disasters that have occurred due to the lack of enforcible legislation and public awareness, and especially the non-presence of a national with even a B.A. in archaeology.” This was recently highlighted when a consortium of multi-national companies was contracted to lay a pipeline across the southern part of the island, Dr Saunders says. “They had to dig a trench, which was in reality an archaeological trench, that was 50 miles long and which cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Not one cent was made available to archaeology.

“This would have been impossible in almost any other industrialised Third World country. It was also a missed opportunity. An alliance of government and big business could have made a decisive contribution to the future of Trinidad and Tobago’s archaeological heritage.”

But this does not mean that there is no archaeological work being carried out. Trinidad, and her sister island, Tobago, regularly welcome visiting teams from universities as far afield as Portland in Maine and Leiden in Holland, who are more than happy to spend time and effort excavating some of the many sites on the islands. One of the more unusual of these groups is from an organisation based in France called the Jules Verne Expeditions, and led by archaeologist Leonid Kameneff. Operating from the research vessel Karek Ven, a converted North Sea trawler, Kameneff and his crew of young students, aged between 12 and 16, have conducted archaeological surveys in several Caribbean islands. Their latest expedition at Great Courland Bay in Tobago uncovered in 1998 a large Amerindian settlement yielding thousands of artefacts, and also exposed two Amerindian burials, one of a very young child.

Kameneff is elated over the discovery. He has had the support and encouragement of the Archaeological Committee in Trinidad, the Tobago Trust and the Tobago House of Assembly, as well as the French Embassy, who have given some financial backing. But a scarcity of funds to cover the cost of research work, including carbon dating, is the main problem.

“This place has hardly moved,” says Kameneff. “Things are where the Amerindians left them. It seems to have been a substantial village with fireplaces, huts, workshops, a functioning community. The site would be ideal for an interpretive centre of Amerindian civilization, not just for Tobago, but for the whole of the Caribbean. The physical area is beautiful woodland, perfect for use as an ecotourism site.” Kameneff and his young team hope to return to Tobago before the end of this year to continue their work.


But if Trinidad seems dismissive of its Amerindian past, Grenada, just 80 miles to the north, and much smaller in size, is now beginning to pay serious attention to its own Amerindian legacy. Last July, under the patronage of the Prime Minister, Keith Mitchell, the 18th Congress of the International Association for Caribbean Archaeology (IACA)was held in St George’s, the island’s capital. There were over 200 participants, representing most of the Caribbean region.

Grenada and her offshore islands are richly endowed with Amerindian artefacts; the Grenadian PM spoke of the destruction of the islands’ ancient heritage through uncontrolled development and the smuggling out of artefacts, and called for help in establishing a strategy to protect what was still left.

Among the archaeologists presenting papers at the congress was Lesley Sutty, Secretary General of the IACA. Several of the Eastern Caribbean’s “micro islands” have unique and undisturbed sites, she says, and these are internationally recognised by the scientific community as important to the study of early human migration from the different continents. Yet many of these locations are under threat from transnational organisations that are targeting exotic and rare destinations for development. Canouan, in the Grenadines chain, is just one such “micro island”. It was recently bulldozed almost to bedrock to clear a site for a new luxury hotel complex, and virtually destroyed as an archaeological site.

Lesley Sutty believes that if investment is inevitable, and necessary, for developing island states in the Caribbean, much more attention has to be paid to the conservation of natural and cultural resources. Responding to the plea for help from Prime Minister Mitchell, the IACA is developing a “Joint Integrated Action Plan for the Conservation of Sites and Monuments”. This initiative is meant to serve as a model for regional governments. The plan calls for, among other things, laws that will ensure the preservation of historical structures, monuments and sites; the development of community-based education in cultural heritage; support for university education in archaeology and related disciplines; the development of museums; the development and promotion of heritage tourism and the practice of “rescue archaeology”.


Rescue Archaeology. The term describes precisely what it means. A site is suddenly found to be threatened — through erosion or encroaching bulldozers, for example — and the archaeologists move in to salvage what they can before the inevitable destruction. It is a sort of archaeology in extremis. But often there is neither enough money nor time to conduct an effective rescue before the sites disappear under the rubble of development.

Many of the islands of the Caribbean already have legislation to protect their national heritage. In Jamaica, for example, the National Heritage Trust takes an active interest in preserving Amerindian sites. The same is true for Barbados, Antigua, the French and Dutch Antilles, to mention a few. Often they work at developing the economic benefits to be realised through heritage tourism and enjoy the consequent pay-back, including opportunities for education and a fostering of civic pride. This is well demonstrated in Martinique and Guadeloupe, where archaeology has the active support of the French government and well-mounted displays have been attracting the attention of the paying public, both local and visiting.

In Trinidad, however, things are different. Prof. Laurence laments that even though a National Heritage Act was passed in 1991, it has so far not been proclaimed and is of no effect. “We have no legal means of controlling what happens to artefacts that might be found here. Anyone can pick up anything or purchase anything from an unscrupulous seller and take it out of the country and we would have no recourse.”

Paradoxically, the very development that so frequently is responsible for the destruction of archaeological sites often provides the first indication of an Amerindian presence. Bulldozers clearing land for one project or another sometimes turn up evidence that would otherwise have remained hidden. This recently occurred in San Fernando, Trinidad’s industrial capital, when work on a new promenade in the centre of the town unearthed an enormous midden. An emergency dig was conducted; some artefacts were recovered but much of the material had already been lost. Alas, some developers would choose to ignore Amerindian evidence rather than run the risk of having their project delayed or even halted if the find was reported to the authorities.


Further north in the Caribbean, signs of an Amerindian presence, if not as plentiful as in the islands to the south, are somewhat more dramatic. Between roughly AD 600 and 1492, the Greater Antilles saw the flourishing of the Taino culture, a highly developed and sophisticated way of life compared with the Amerindian societies to the south. The early Taino were an inventive and energetic people, extremely creative and gifted in the arts. They produced sculpture, jewellery, ceramics, textiles; they were poets and musicians and, in all things, they were a deeply spiritual people. Evidence of the Taino has been found as far south as Antigua; but it is on the island of Puerto Rico that the richest finds have been made. In Hispaniola too, there have been important recent discoveries.

The Tainos were probably more closely connected to the peoples of Central America than they were to the tribes to South America, having similar social and political hierarchies. The Taino built special courts for playing ball games between two teams of equal numbers. These courts, called bateys, were paved and often lined with rows of carved, upright stones buried in the ground to define the area in which the game was played. The remains of the ball courts are dramatic evidence of the sophistication and inventiveness of the Taino, as are the discovery of sacred cenotes, or wells, which were another focal point of Taino life.

The archaeological legacy of the Caribbean is enormously rich and there are important lessons to be learned from the evidence of the past. But commercial considerations too often take precedence over preserving the fast-disappearing ancestral heritage of the islands. Unless we pay attention soon, this irreplaceable tool for understanding our past — a past we all share as people of the islands — will be gone forever.

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
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