A Pre-Columbian Survey of the Caribbean

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
This essay seeks to enlighten its readers about the common myth that Christopher Columbus discovered the Caribbean but just simply "rediscovered" it for Spain. It goes indepth ito the lifeways of various indigenous groups their migration and colonization of the Caribbean region long before the arrival of columbus or any other European adventurer.

Submitted: March 03, 2012

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Submitted: March 03, 2012

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A Pre-Colombian Survey of the Caribbean

They came before Columbus! The former statement best describes the main purpose of this essay. It is believed that Christopher Columbus first discovered the Caribbean for the Western World in 1492 and, by extension that was the beginning of its history. This misconception can be attributed through the concept of subjugated knowledge and the role that pedagogy plays in the furthering of misunderstandings and misinformation being transmitted. Archaeological science debunks all controversial theories on the origins of civilization in the Caribbean and sheds light on the truths and facts.

Long before the arrival of the western world in the Caribbean, people migrated and colonized the region. Many factors contributed to these phenomena, with one such factor being the geographical structure of the region, which would incorporate; climate, currents and Trade Winds, topography, flora and fauna and the proximity of the islands in the region to South and Central America. It would also factor in inter-regional migration and colonization. This list of geographical factors has to be taken into account for understanding how and why migration and colonization of the Caribbean by the various indigenous groups was possible.

First on the list to be discussed would be the issue of the climate of the Caribbean. The Caribbean region is located south-east of the Gulf of Mexico and North America, east of Central America and North of South America. The Caribbean is a tropical region and consists of two seasons, the wet and dry season. This type of tropical climate is similar to that of Central America which lies fully within the tropics, and South America that shares the same climatic change of the wet and dry season, which would make adapting to the Caribbean region simple. With permanent settlements becoming more common and human groups were making the transition of hunting and gathering to agriculture, climate would have been ideal for this change[1]. It would have created the necessary conditions for farming the types of crops they consumed prior to their arrival into the region. Some of the crops would have already existed in the Caribbean such as provision crops (cassava, sweet potatoes, etc.).

In the case of the Ortoiroids that migrated from the Guianas of South America to Ortoire in East Trinidad, because of the close proximity of South America and the Caribbean, especially Trinidad would have experienced similar climate. As in the case of Trinidad where the dry season runs from January to June, around this same time the Guianas in South America would be experiencing similar weather making it easy to traverse the seas between island and continent, making migrating possible.

Apart from the Climate that assisted in the initial migration and settlement of indigenous groups in the Caribbean, wind currents and ocean currents can be introduced as the most important aspect of the ease of migration during the early centuries and introduction of the Caribbean facilitating its inhabitation by the pre-Colombian people and also every other group of people which followed after.

Within this geographical area which can be identified as the Atlantic zone, a complex system of wind system exists. Arriving from the north blow the westerlies and mid-latitude depressions, which gust from the north east. They blow from the north-east or south east due to the fact that they do not directly blow towards the equator but are redirected by the rotation of the earth. Through archaeological studies done by various organizations and also explorations done and recorded in the past by Iberian sailors of Africa and also Columbus’s landfall in the Caribbean the migration of pre Columbian people to the Caribbean can all be explained and made relevant to these wind patterns.

Due to the propensity of the of the north-east trades to gust from north to south it was easy for voyages to be made, but made return trips much more challenging. Most of the pre-Colombian people travelled to the Caribbean from South America this could have been aided by these favourable wind systems pushing them straight up the archipelago of the Caribbean.

Ocean currents similar to wind currents played a crucial role in allowing easy movements throughout the Caribbean and also connecting it to the “old world.” These oceanic currents facilitated movement of pre-Colombian people from the interior of the Amazon and other parts of South America to the north pushing settlers up into the archipelago of the Caribbean. With reference to Saladoid migration, archaeological evidence points to the likelihood of direct jumps from South America to the northern Caribbean, reaching as far as Puerto Rico.[2]

The great equatorial current which flows from the African coast to the American coast is in the Atlantic Ocean. On entering the Caribbean region, the oceanic currents pushes in an anti-clock wise direction to the Gulf of Mexico following the south equatorial current which flows along the coast of South America into the Caribbean. This theory has been described by Thor Heyerdahl in 1969 with reference to movements linking the African coast to the South American coast to the Caribbean.

The north equatorial current flow from the east to the west colliding with the south equatorial current which flows east-south-east; this powerful current as stated before may have allowed for the easy movement of pre Colombian migration. The scholar Ivan Van Sertima (1976) has theorized that these currents played an integral part in establishing African contact in the Americas in a pre-Colombian era. The pattern of currents and winds in the Atlantic and Caribbean therefore, implemented a tremendous impact on the nature of discovery, settlement and trade.

Another important factor to consider when studying pre colonial migration is flora and fauna. This refers to plant and wildlife respectively. The indigenous plant and wildlife of a geographical region is often referred to as that region’sfloraandfauna. This would of course influence on their diet and the type of lifestyles they would be able to live. The Ortoiroids used to in particular hunt animals such as the manatee which is indigenous to Trinidad. An islands flora and fauna would determine how well the peoples would have been able to adapt. Most Islands are also consists of a variety of bird species such as the Saladoids who were also largely involved in hunting land animals such as the iguana and various species of turtles. Most groups were also very dependent of the sea and rivers not only for transport but as a food source. Fishing could be seen apart from agriculture as their main food source.

The flora and fauna of Trinidad would be the same as that of Venezuela since it is the only Caribbean island resting on the South American plate. There are native species of animals such as Iguanas and hawk-billed turtle’s that would be indigenous to both regions. Unique migratory birds would have influenced the migration of the groups from South America to the Caribbean region, e.g. the Grenada dove and the Guadeloupe woodpecker. These birds would migrate to South America at a certain point in the year and would have signalled to the indigenous groups that there is land masses where the birds are coming from.

From the different elements that assisted Pre-Colonial migration such as climate, flora and fauna, trade winds and oceanic currents, early inhabitant’s such as the Ostionoids and the Casimiroids from South and Central America respectively would have enjoyed the bountiful ecosystems. Similar conditions at the region would have made it very adaptable for both groups. The Guianas as well as Belize would share the same forested areas as Trinidad and Cuba. Food sources such as birds and mammals like the manatee and fishing would have made their transition from their homelands to the Caribbean a smooth one. Adapting to their new homes these two indigenous groups were able to effectively colonize the Caribbean.

Culturally evolved from the Saladoids in the Lesser Antilles, named after the site Troumasse in St Lucia were the Troumassoids reach in the Leeward Islands and Guadeloupe. The Tainos were the natives of the northern Caribbean from AD 1200- 1500 that had evolved from the Ostionoids. These are just two examples of native Caribbean people that migrated to geographic regions in close proximity termed jumping island to island. These two groups are also examples of indigenous peoples that origin is that of the Caribbean. Due to the similar geography of the neighbouring islands migration and settlement were possible new territory. This process was also aided by both the oceanic and wind current wind which exists in the Caribbean. The climate of the region was the same and so was its basic landscape and vegetation growth.

Another important factor that would have influenced migration and eventual colonization of the Caribbean would be the proximity of the islands to each other. The islands, especially in the Lesser Antilles are very close to each other, this would have made it easier for indigenous groups to migrate up the archipelago. Groups such as the Saladoids and Ortoiroids have traversed throughout the Lesser Antilles from Trinidad to as far as Puerto Rico on account of this factor. Because of the proximity of the islands trade between the islands became possible. Lapidary trade, which was the trading of exotic stones, was practiced by the Saladoids. One aspect of colonization of the Caribbean is the linkages formed between the islands and trade is one such linkage.

Caribbean geography may have been an important aspect to factor in when dealing with pre-colonial migration and colonization but it would not have been the only reason. Tensions between indigenous groups have been a proven factor for entering the Caribbean. Though it may not have influenced migration as much as geography, it is important to note to help gauge the effect that geography had on the movement of indigenous groups from continent to Caribbean.

Pre-colonial migration and colonization of the Caribbean has been made possible through the means of Caribbean geography. Various aspects of geography was analysed such as climate, wind and ocean currents, flora and fauna and proximity of the islands with specific examples of indigenous groups given to explain how it had been possible groups to have migrated to and colonized the Caribbean.



[1] Basil A Reid: Myths and Realities of Caribbean History. University of Alabama Press, 2009. p 14, 15.

2 Basil. A. Reid: Myths and Realities of Caribbean History. University of Alabama Press, 2009. p104


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