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Tracing Our Amerindian Heritage

by Dr. Basil Reid

Sir Walter Raleigh, during his 1595 visit to Trinidad, identified the Amerindian tribes of the “Aruacas,” “Carinepagotos,” “Iaos” and “Nepuyos” on the island. In all likelihood, the famed English explorer was not aware of the tremendous cultural and ethnic diversity that characterized Trinidad and Tobago and the wider Caribbean before European contact; far greater in scale than the handful of native groups he tentatively identified.  Contrary to popular opinion, archaeological research clearly indicates that the “Arawaks” and “Caribs” were not the primary pre-Columbian groups in the Caribbean. Indeed, archaeologists working in the region have conclusively proven that the Caribbean was inhabited from 7,000 years ago to the mid-16th century by a multitude of culturally and ethnically diverse native peoples. What needs to be writ large in our history books and made known to popular audiences is the fact that these myriad groups really existed and that they cannot be conveniently pigeonholed into either “Arawaks” and “Caribs” or any of the other grouping discovered by Sir Walter Raleigh.  

In Trinidad and Tobago, The Archaeology Centre, in the Department of History at The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine has been making significant discoveries in relation to the twin island republic’s pre-Columbian past. Given that over 250 prehistoric archaeological sites have, to date, been identified on the two islands, this southernmost country in the Caribbean clearly has a rich and enviable cultural heritage.  Trinidad and Tobago’s close proximity to South America made the islands an important “gateway community” for early Amerindian migrants such as the Archaic, Saladoid, Barrancoid, Arauquinoid and Mayoid peoples.  The much larger of the two islands – Trinidad – also holds a special place in Caribbean archaeology, because located in San Francique in the southwest of the island is the 7,000 year old site of Banwari Trace, the oldest archaeological site in the West Indies.            

Since its resuscitation in 2001, the University’s archaeology programme has focused on a number of field projects in both north and south Trinidad, with surveys and excavations specifically targeting Saladoid sites. But who exactly were the Saladoids?  The Saladoids were the first Amerindian potters, farmers and villagers to arrive in Trinidad and Tobago in 250 BC. By 600 AD they had settled both islands quite extensively. Field activities at Blanchisseuse in 2003, 2005 and 2007 have arguably been among the most significant UWI archaeology projects. The 2-hectare Saladoid site at Marianne Estate in Blanchisseuse; located in north Trinidad between Maracas and Matelot; is the largest known pre-Columbian site in that part of the island. In March 2005, a pendant was found at a depth of approximately 20 cm from the surface in one of the six units excavated at the site. The pendant’s well-defined hole, through which a string might have been strung for the adornment to hang around the wearer’s neck, has a diameter of 4 mm. There is no evidence to suggest that the stone artifact was imported, as the material used to make forms part of the local geology. The schist, a medium grade metamorphic rock from which the pendant is made, is common to the Northern Range. This artifact is archaeologically significant, as it provides useful insights into the personal adornment habits of the early Saladoid settlers of Blanchisseuse.

In March 2007, what appeared to be a vomit spatula was unearthed by UWI students at Blanchisseuse.  Dr. Brent Wilson, a Lecturer in Geoscience in the Department of Chemical Engineering at The University of the West Indies identified the geological make-up of the polished, 10 cm long stone as a fine-grained, acid, extrusive igneous rock (i.e., it was erupted out of a volcano), and possibly, dacite with slight hydrothermal alteration. The lapidary trade, i.e. importation of precious stones, is one of the defining characteristics of Saladoid culture throughout the Caribbean. So it is quite possible that this stone was imported from the Lesser Antilles by the Saladoid inhabitants of Blanchisseuse for their cohaba rituals on the central plaza.

Each Saladoid village usually had a central plaza, the scene of meetings and ritual activities, including cohaba rituals. As part of their ritual displays, Saladoid men would inhale hallucinogens and vomiting spatulas were often used to induce vomiting as a method of purification during these ceremonies. Previous archaeological surveys conducted at Blanchisseuse in the late 1990s suggest that areas where sparse quantities of pottery were found might have been the site of the central plaza while areas with the heavier quantities of pottery might have been the residential areas.

In south Trinidad, archaeological research has concentrated on Gandhi Village, a site first discovered quite accidentally by former Caroni workers in 2003. Excavations in both 2003 and 2006 yielded an assortment of Saladoid pottery characterised by red painted decorations as well as European imported ceramics and bottles. In addition to ground surveys and field walking, in March 2006 Gandhi Village was subjected to an array of state-of-the-art techniques such as resistivity and global positioning system (GPS) surveys. Perched on the top of hill approximately 26 metres above sea level, Gandhi Village with its commanding view of the surrounding countryside of southwestern Trinidad was apparently an important pre-Columbian hilltop settlement inhabited by the Saladoids. Hilltop settlements are commonplace throughout the Caribbean as are coastal settlements. Hilltop settlements seemed to have had a defensive function, as their panoramic view enabled Saladoid inhabitants to spot potential threats from afar.

By actively engaging in archaeological projects in Blanchisseuse, Gandhi Village and elsewhere in Trinidad and Tobago, the UWI Archaeology Centre seeks to actively provide archaeology students with valuable ‘hands-on’ field and laboratory experience. Moreover, these projects generate a fount of knowledge, enriching and broadening our understanding of past Amerindian societies in Trinidad and Tobago – arguably the most culturally and ethnically diverse in the entire Caribbean.