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Natural Setting | Paleoindian | Archaic | Woodland | Mississippian | Caribbean Prehistory
European Exploration | American Independence and Westward Expansion | The U.S. Through the 19th and 20th Centuries

The National Historic Landmark Theme Study (Haag 1963) noted the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the United States Territory of the Virgin Islands were prehistorically a part of a much larger Caribbean culture area. The prehistoric sequence of the Caribbean culture area is divided into three major units.

Caribbean Prehistory

Paleoindian | Mesoindian | Neoindian
Further Reading | National Park Units

To learn more about the dates used in this website, click on one of the two links below:

 

For a table showing the relationship between actual years ago and radiocarbon years (rcbp), CLICK HERE .

Paleoindian
13,450 to 7,900 Years Ago
(11,500 to 7,000 rcbp)

MORE ON THE WEB:

A Settlement Survey For Prehistoric Archaeological Sites on Grand Cayman
(Site describing research into the earliest arrival of people into the Caribbean islands)

The earliest recorded prehistoric site for the Caribbean cultural area is the El Jobo site in Venezuela, which has been dated as roughly contemporaneous with the Clovis period in North America. Gordon Willey (1971) assumes that this culture is an offshoot of the North American Big Game Hunting (concentration on the hunting of Pleistocene megafauna) tradition.

Although the Lesser and Greater Antilles were home to various types of extinct Pleistocene megafauna, such as the giant ground sloth (Megaelocsus), no actual cultural artifacts have been identified for this time period 14,000 to 8,900 years ago (12,000 to 8,000 rcbp) for the Caribbean Islands. Some authors have treated the occurrence of Pleistocene megafauna and an acknowledged lower sea level of nearly 20-meters that could facilitate travel between the northern coast of South American and the Antilles during the Paleoindian period as positive conditions for Paleoindian occupation (Veloz Maggiolo and Ortega 1976).

No pre-7,900 year ago (7,000 rcbp) sites were noted in the 1963 theme study for either the Greater or Lesser Antilles islands (Haag 1963:337).

 

Mesoindian
7,900 to 2,000 Years Ago
(7,000 to 2,000 rcbp)

 

The cultures of the Mesoindian period of the Caribbean area were considered roughly equivalent to North American Archaic hunting and gathering cultures. This period was believed to begin about 7,900 years ago (7,000 rcbp) and ended for most of the Lesser and Greater Antilles about two thousand years ago. A people referred to by the early Spanish as Ciboney, utilizing a Mesoindian life style, continued to exist in extreme western Cuba until historic times. This period was characterized as representative of a hunting and gathering people, who increasingly became dependent on the littoral zones of the islands for subsistence (Willey 1976).

The first noted Mesoindian occupation in the Antilles was the Banwari culture, a small animal-hunting and shellfish-gathering phase from Trinidad around 7,900 years ago (7,000 rcbp), which appeared to have possibly moved up the Lesser Antilles to Puerto Rico, Hispaniola, and Cuba over time. Most of the sites excavated from this period are related in some manner to the utilization of shellfish. However, this might be due to a sampling error, since most of the past archeological work in the Antilles has concentrated on the coastal environment. The Banwari phase was noted for coastal shell midden sites, which yielded fresh water and salt water shells of Neritina virginea and the conch, Melogena, and, predominately, crab remains, bones of deer, peccary, small mammals, and fish. The stone tools consisted of ground stone pestles, manos, grooved axes, celts, and chipped projectile points and tools. The points were also made of bone, as were needles and fishing spears (Harris 1976).

Twice during the Mesoindian period from 5,420 to 4,500 years ago and 3,800 to 2,800 years ago (4,700 to 4,000 rcbp and 3,500 to 2,600 rcbp), sea levels lowered, destroying the shellfish environments of the islands and causing a depopulation of coastal areas. The lack of sites from these periods may also be explained by the idea that, as the sea level dropped, the shellfish beds retreated and with this retreat followed the prehistoric peoples who subsisted on them as a major source of food. Therefore, sites for these two periods, if they exist, may now be underwater. One site of the Mesoindian period has been found in the the U.S. Virgin Islands at the Krum Bay site.

In the islands of Cuba, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico, where the greatest concentration of Mesoindian sites are found, these period sites tended to be coastal shell middens with artifact assemblages generally similar to the Banwari culture found on Trinidad. Dr. Irving Rouse (1970) defined the Mesoindian period for the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico as having two distinct series, the Ortoiroid, known principally from the South American mainland, with scattered finds of artifacts in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico to the Mona Passage; and the Casimiroid series. The Casimiroid was further subdivided into the Courian subseries of Cuba, Haiti, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, and the Redondan subseries of Cuba (Righter 1992).

The 1963 theme study proposed that "the first peoples arriving in the Greater Antilles did not filter through the Lesser Antilles to reach this goal. It seems much more probable that the smaller islands may have been by-passed and bigger islands, such as Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and Cuba, occupied first" (Haag 1963:333). However, as noted above, any change in sea levels may have destroyed many of these early sites if occupation was oriented toward the coastal environment.

Mesoindian period sites are generally open camp sites of small shell middens found on or near the coast. The faunal material recovered consists of fresh and saltwater shellfish and remains of fish and sea and land mammals. There currently is no basis from the available information on these sites to indicate seasonal use of marine and land resources. Although the sites were almost entirely oriented toward the maritime environment, there appears to be a heavier reliance on land-based hunting resources in the earlier part of the Mesoindian period than in the latter part.

The Mesoindian tool assemblage consists of stone tools, such as flake points, awls and knives. Ground stone celts, manos, and axes are also found. In addition, modified conch shells made into vessels and plates are found. It should be noted that Puerto Rican sites tended to produce more ground stone tools than similar sites in Cuba or Hispaniola.

Generally, in comparison with areas surrounding the Antilles, the Cuban material was stylistically more closely related to material from eastern Venezuela (Rouse 1970); whereas, the Hispaniola and Puerto Rican material seemed to be associated with material from Central America (Alegría et al. 1955; Rouse 1970). Therefore, it is believed that origins for settling the Caribbean were multiple, as opposed to a single source of origin for the Mesoindian cultures of the Antilles; or, there may have been a single culture with differing manifestations related to different environments.

Preceramic
Subcultures

MORE ON THE WEB:

Cultural Pluralism and the Emergence of Complex Society in the Greater Antilles
(On-line article tracing Taíno roots back through the Archaic or Casimiroid traditions)

Casimiroid Culture 6,900 to 4,500 years ago (6,000 to 4,000 rcbp)
The Casimiroid Culture has been proposed to have originated from Lithic or Archaic period cultures from either the Yucatán or Central America. It is presumed the people of this culture migrated by sea from the mainland to western Cuba via a Mid-Caribbean chain of islands, which is now submerged. They spread eastward through Hispaniola Island, where the earliest known sites of this culture are dated at about 6,900 years ago (6,000 rcbp). Recent investigations in a rock shelter on Mona Island have uncovered a Casimiroid-like assemblage of lithic tools, with an appropriate radiocarbon date of approximately 4,380 rcbp (4,975 years ago). Only one Puerto Rican site, the Cerrillo site in the extreme southwestern part of the island, exhibits Casimiroid-like lithic artifacts. The implications are that the Casimiroid culture came into the western end of the Greater Antilles and spread eastward only as far as extreme western Puerto Rico.

Casimiroid sites are generally noted for lithic artifacts manufactured of fine grained flint. These include core tools, blades, burins, awls, and scrapers, in addition to anvils and hammerstones. It is believed that the sites on Mona Island and western Puerto Rico date from the Barrera-Mordán Complex from 6,600 to 4,500 years ago (5,600 to 4,000 rcbp). Little information is known on subsistence base of the Casimiroid culture.

Ortoiroid Culture 6,900 to 1,800 years ago (6,000 to 1,800 rcbp)
While the Casimiroid was a lithic culture that migrated from west to east through the Antilles, a contemporary lithic culture, the Ortoiroid, was the result of migration of another lithic culture from northern South America, north up the Lesser Antilles to the Virgin Islands, and thence westward into Puerto Rico. The earliest dated Ortoiroid culture site in Puerto Rico is the Angostura site, which is dated at about 6,900 years ago (6,000 rcbp). Rouse has proposed a Corosan and Krum Bay subseries of lithic period sites for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, respectively.

Krum Bay Subseries 3,800 to 2,300 years ago (3,500 to 2,200 rcbp): The Krum Bay subseries artifact assemblage is characterized by fairly fine-grained basalt flake tools, hammerstones, shell picks, partially ground stone celts, and beads and pendants of stone, bone, and shell. Krum Bay sites tend to be open habitation sites located near the shore. Subsistence remains indicated shellfish gathering, fishing, and hunting of birds and turtles were the major sources of food. The Krum Bay Subseries is noted on St. Thomas and St. John (Virgin Islands National Park), United States Virgin Islands, the north coast of Puerto Rico, and Vieques Island (Caño Hondo site) off the southeast coast of Puerto Rico.

Coroso Subseries 3,200 to 1,800 years ago (3,000 to 1,800 rcbp): The Coroso subseries was identified as a lithic or preceramic culture as early as the 1930s by Rouse. Sites tended to be located on all the coasts of Puerto Rico, in caves and at shell middens. Recent work indicates occupation also occurred in the interior of the island. The artifact assemblage of the Coroso subseries is characterized by hammerstones, pebble chop-pers, flake tools, shell scrapers, shell plates, and pebble grinders. Subsistence data indicates the early part of the Coroso culture saw a more generalized diet of turtle, crabs, fish, and shellfish, leading to a more specialized diet of shellfish in later times. Significant sites of the Coroso subseries are Cueva de María la Cruz (Loíza Cave), Cayo Cofresí, Coroso site, and Playa Blanca. Inhabitants lived on or near the coast, in both open and cave sites. Burials were placed underneath shell middens by digging through them until reaching subsoil.


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