Pre-Columbian Caribbean Chronology

Timeline of Caribbean Prehistory

Earliest Migrations into the Caribbean: 4000-2000 BC

The earliest evidence of people moving into the Caribbean islands dates to around 4000 BC. Archaeological evidence comes from sites in Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and the Lesser Antilles. These are mainly stone tools similar to the ones from the Yucatan peninsula, suggesting these people migrated from Central America. Alternatively, some archaeologists also find similarities among this stone technology and the North American tradition, suggesting movement from Florida and the Bahamas.

These first-comers were hunter-gatherers who had to change their lifestyle moving from a mainland into a island environment. They collected shellfish and wild plants, and hunted animals. Many Caribbean species became extinct after this first arrival.

Important sites of this period are the Levisa rockshelter, Funche Cave, Seboruco, Couri, Madrigales, Casimira, Mordán-Barrera, and Banwari Trace.

Fisher/Collectors: Archaic period 2000-500 BC

A new colonization wave occurred around 2000 BC. In this period people reached Puerto Rico and a major colonization of the Lesser Antilles occurred.

These groups moved into the Lesser Antilles from South America, and they are the bearers of the so-called Ortoiroid culture, dating between 2000 and 500 BC. These were still hunter-gatherers who exploited both coastal and terrestrial resources. The encounter of these groups and the descendants of the original migrants produced and increase in cultural dvariability among the different islands.

Important sites of this period are Banwari Trace, Ortoire, Jolly Beach, Krum Bay, Cayo Redondo, Guayabo Blanco.

South American Horticulturalists: Saladoid Culture 500 – 1 B.C.

Saladoid culture takes its name from the Saladero site, in Venezuela. People bearing this cultural tradition migrated from South America into the Caribbean around 500 BC.

They had a different life style from the people already living in the Caribbean. They lived in one place year-round, instead of moving seasonally, and constructed large communal houses organized into villages. They consumed wild products but also cultivated crops like manioc, which was domesticated thousand of years before in South America.

Most importantly, they produced a distinct type of pottery, finely decorated along with other craftworks, such as basketry and feather works. Their artistic production included carved human and animal bones and skulls, jewelry made out of shells, mother-of-pearl and imported turquoise.

They moved quickly through the Antilles, reaching Puerto Rico and Haiti/Dominican Republic by 400 B.C.

The Saladoid Florescence: 1 BC – AD 600

Large communities developed and many Saladoid sites were occupied for centuries, generation after generation. Their lifestyle and culture changed as they coped with changing climates and environments. The islands landscape changed too, due to the clearance of large areas for cultivation. Manioc was their main staple and the sea played a pivotal role, with canoes connecting the islands with South American mainland for communication and trade.

Important Saladoid sites include: La Hueca, Hope Estate, Trants, Cedros, Palo Seco, Punta Candelero, Sorcé, Tecla, Golden Rock, Maisabel.

The Rise of Social and Political Complexity: AD 600 – 1200

Between A.D. 600 and 1200, a series of social and political differentiations arose within Caribbean villages. This process would ultimately lead to the development of the Taíno chiefdoms encountered by the Europeans in the 26th century. Between A.D. 600 and 900, there was not yet a marked social differentiation within villages. But a large population growth along with new migrations in the Greater Antilles, especially Jamaica which was colonized for the first time, produced a series of important changes.

In Haiti and the Dominican Republic, fully sedentary villages based on farming were widespread. These were characterized by features like ball courts, and large settlements arranged around open plazas.

There was an intensification of agricultural production and artifacts such as three-pointers, typical of the later Taíno culture, appeared.

Finally, the typical Saladoid pottery was replaced by a simpler style called Ostionoid. This culture represents a mix of Saladoid and earlier tradition already present in the islands.

The Taíno Chiefdoms: AD 1200-1500

Taíno culture emerged out of the above described traditions. There was a refinement of political organization and leadership which ultimately became what we know as the historical Taíno chiefdoms encountered by the Europeans.

Taíno tradition was characterized by larger and more numerous settlements, with houses organized around open plazas, which were the focus of social life. Ball games and ball courts were an important religious and social element. They grew cotton for clothing and were crafted woodworkers. An elaborate artistic tradition was essential part of their daily life.

Important Tainos sites include: Maisabel, Tibes, Caguana, El Atadijizo, Chacuey, Pueblo Viejo, Laguna Limones.

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Caribbean History, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Wilson, Samuel, 2007, The Archaeology of the Caribbean, Cambridge World Archaeology Series. Cambridge University Press, New York

Wilson, Samuel, 1997, The Caribbean before European Conquest: A Chronology, in Taíno: Pre-Columbian Art and Culture from the Caribbean. El Museo del Barrio:  Monacelli Press, New York, edited by Fatima Bercht, Estrella Brodsky, John Alan Farmer and  Dicey Taylor. Pp. 15-17