A Brief Overview of the Pre-Columbian History of the Indigenous Peoples of Trinidad and Tobago
The following information was adapted from:
- Arie Boomert (1996) The Prehistoric Sites of Tobago: A Catalogue and Evaluation. Alkmaar, The Netherlands.
- Peter Harris (N.d.) “Culture-Histories of Trinidad and Tobago: The Amerindian Community”, St. Augustine, Trinidad: UWI Archaeological Centre (unpublished mimeograph).
The population of Tobago consisted of small-game hunters, fishers, collectors of wild vegetable foods, fruits and edible shells. Sites can be found around Southwest Tobago, dating to about 4875 years Before Present, or in the third millennium BC (Boomert, p. 23)
In Trinidad, sites can be found which date as early as 6,000 BC. The earliest archaeological finds for both Trinidad and Tobago are pre-pottery and pre-agriculture (Boomert, p. 23). The people of this period are referred to in the archaeological literature as “Pre-Ceramic”, given that they apparently did not make pottery. Most of the tools for this period consisted of stone flakes with a cutting edge, and water-rolled stones used for grinding. In addition, their tools may have consisted of basketry, and items made from wood, reeds, and various fibres, but these would not have survived the climate and hence there are no surviving examples of such artifacts. Given the proximity of settlements to water, archaeologists surmise that the canoe may have been in use (Harris). There appears to have been continuous settlement between 6500 and 4000 BC, and some evidence in rising waters in areas and a concomitant move inland.
The Middle Pre-Ceramic period (BC 4000-1000) is characterized by settlement in areas of sandy soil, where cashew trees and tobacco could possibly have grown. Artifacts consist of handstones, pestles, axes made of stone (Harris). One site dating roughly to this period can be found on the rim of the Pitch Lake in La Brea, Trinidad. The stone implements are, for the most part, not of local origin, which strongly suggests that the area was frequented by non-local groups as well (Harris).
The Late Pre-Ceramic period (BC 1000-AD 0) shows the presence of two peoples using different implements. Sites for this period, of which four have been found in east Trinidad, appear to show longer-lived settlements lasting several generations.
In the first century AD, Tobago was invaded by what were probably Arawakan-speaking, pottery-making Amerindians who added cassava cultivation to the indigenous subsistence economy. They came via Trinidad and from the mainland of South America (Boomert, p. 23).
In the period of AD 200/250-750, the First Ceramic Culture, pottery remains show “trade, intermarriage and other forms of dense interaction between both islands [Trinidad and Tobago] as well as the Lower Orinoco Valley in this period” (Boomert, p. 24). There is also evidence of interaction between Trinidad and Grenada and St. Vincent, plus intensified cultural ties between the Amerindians of Tobago and the islands of the Lesser Antilles in the period AD 1100-1200 (Boomert, p. 24). Moreover, this period shows the presence of people with gardens, cassava processing and pottery technology. Pottery is highly decorated in this period and suggests that it may have had some ritual importance. Apparently, three related peoples were present in Trinidad: 1) those with a painted pottery tradition (labeled Saladoid by archaeologists), with origins in the central Orinoco region; 2) those with pottery showing fine-line incised decorations (Pre-Saladoid), possibly originating from the Colombian coast or the Central Amazon; and, 3) those using broad-lined incised and modeled pottery (Barancoid), originating from the neck of the Orinoco delta, “a strong centre with wide influence”, according to Harris. This period shows increasingly structured social organization, with signs of more elaborate religious rituals and signs of elite class formation (see Harris).
From AD 650 there are changes which archaeologists have felt necessary to label as the Second Ceramic Culture. There is evidence of Pepperpot, a stew of cassava juice, meat and/or fish, having become a staple of the diet. This material culture continued largely until the arrival of the Europeans. Archaeologists have identified at least four separate peoples in this period, in terms of material culture.
In the period of AD 1150-1350/1400, evidence shows a close cultural relationship between Tobago and the Windward islands (Boomert, p. 25). Boomert explains the import of these finds:
“Analysis of the ethnohistoric sources enabled the reconstruction of the Island Carib pottery complex which could be shown to be closely related to that of the present Caribs (Kalina) of the coastal zone of the Guianas. Indeed, this represents the region which, according to various Island Carib myths, was their original home. Pottery resembling the Koriabo complex of the Guianas, i.e. the ceramic tradition which most likely formed the precursor of the Kalina complex of Historic times, has been found in St. Vincent and various other islands of the Windwards. This…complex can be taken to be ancestral to the Island Carib ceramics of the contact period” (Boomert, p. 25).
The Warao of eastern Venezuela are a dominant presence for several centuries, well past the arrival and settlement of Europeans. This fact is not demonstrated on the map showing the distribution of indigenous groups in Trinidad, as found on this site.
It is roughly estimated that the Amerindian population of Trinidad numbered 40,000 at the time Europeans first arrived in 1498 (for more population statistics, click here). This seems to have declined to just over 1,200 by the early 1800s, assuming that the statistics of the time can be relied upon.