First things first: the Caribbean’s First Peoples

The Caribbean’s First Peoples shaped our landscapes, language, and culture — and across the region, our indigenous heritage remains within reach, if you know where to look

Romney Manor petroglyphs, St Kitts. Photo by Nik Wheeler/Alamy.comCaguana, Puerto Rico. Photo by Michele Falzone / Alamy.comWooden zemis, Jamaica. Photo by courtesy The National Gallery of JamaicaWooden zemis, Jamaica. Photo by courtesy The National Gallery of JamaicaCaracol, Belize. Anton Ivanov / Shutterstock.comCaracol, Belize. Photo by Karagrubis/iStock.comCarib Territory, Dominica. Photo by Derek Galon / artphotographyservices.comNappi, Guyana. Photo by Pete Oxford

Long, long, long before the first Old World visitors arrived in the Caribbean at the end of the fifteenth century — triggering the huge demographic and cultural shift that shaped the region’s modern history — the islands of the Antilles were home to hundreds of thousands of indigenous peoples. The Caribbean’s Taíno (sometimes called Arawak or Lucayan) and Carib populations were devastated by war, disease, and forced labour inflicted by early European colonists. But the heritage of these First Peoples persists: in their DNA, still detectable in the modern-day populations of islands like Puerto Rico, in place names like Jamaica and Tobago, in cultural practices — and also in archaeological sites and artifacts found across the region. And, of course, they are still with us: there are small but thriving Carib (or Kalinago) communities in Dominica,
St Vincent, and Trinidad, the indigenous population of Guyana is growing, and in countries like Jamaica and Cuba there’s a recent interest in identifying and celebrating elements of First Peoples’ culture that have quietly survived the centuries.

 

Romney Manor petroglyphs • St Kitts

Petroglyphs — images carved into rock — are among the most durable of archaeological remains, depending on the hardness of the original rock surface. Across the Caribbean, indigenous petroglyphs have been found at dozens of sites, marking significant locations like places for religious rituals or river fords, or simply recording directions for travel, or major events otherwise lost to recorded history. The Carib petroglyphs near Romney Manor in St Kitts are a particularly accessible example. St Vincent’s Layou Petroglyph Park preserves the largest known petroglyph in the Antilles, and the island’s indigenous rock art has been recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. And of the numerous examples in Guyana, the Aishalton petroglyphs, in the south Rupununi savannahs, are the most spectacular: 686 carvings have been counted here, together with the stone tools originally used to carve them.

 

Caguana • Puerto Rico

Near the town of Utuado, in west-central Puerto Rico, the Caguana ceremonial ball courts are one of the Caribbean’s most important archaeological sites. Dated to around 1270 CE, the area contains more than two dozen bateyes, or courts for playing batey, a ball game believed to have originated in Central America, brought to the Antilles by migrating peoples. Scholars suggest the balls were made of solid rubber, hit by teams of players using their hips, limbs, and special racquets. Surrounded by rings of carved stones, the courts at Caguana are thought to have been used by the Taíno for religious rituals, dances, and astronomical observations as well. Managed by the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, the site also includes a museum and botanical garden featuring plants like cassava and sweet potato, important Taíno crops.

 

Wooden zemis • Jamaica

Among the artistic treasures preserved in the National Gallery of Jamaica is a series of extraordinary wooden Taíno carvings, whose purpose and history still excite debate among scholars. Commonly referred to as zemis — ritual objects dedicated to ancestral spirits — these carvings, dated to as early as the thirteenth century, owe their survival to their concealment in dry mountain caves. The most famous Jamaican zemis, found in 1792, have long been exiled in London, at the British Museum. The examples in the National Gallery of Jamaica’s collection, discovered only in the 1990s, are a ritual stool, an ornamented staff, and two utensils associated with the ingestion of cohoba, a hallucinogenic substance.

 

Caracol • Belize

The Caribbean region’s most dramatic indigenous sites are probably the ruined Mayan cities and temples near the coast of Central America — such as Caracol, eighty miles south-west of Belize City. Hundreds of structures cover an area of over seventy square miles, and in its heyday the city had a population of more than 100,000. Caracol assumed its present extent in the seventh century CE, but by 900 CE the great city full of palaces, temples, and monuments had collapsed. The most famous of the city’s ruins is also its largest: Canaa, also known as the Sky Palace. Caracol (Spanish for “snail”), of course, is not what its original inhabitants called the place. Interpreting Mayan glyphs found carved in stone, archaeologists have reconstructed the city’s name as Oxwitza, meaning “Three-Hills Water.”

 

Carib Territory • Dominica

Established by British authorities in 1903, reaffirmed at the country’s independence in 1978, Dominica’s self-administering Carib Territory on the remote east coast is the home of the island’s small Kalinago community, which survived centuries of colonial rule, preserving its community bonds and traditional life. Governed by an elected council and chief, headquartered in the village of Salybia, the population of approximately three thousand remains relatively isolated, but welcomes visitors interested in Kalinago history and culture. Traditional crafts like intricate basketwork are sold across the island, and the community’s skilled boat-builders, like the Stoute family, still make seaworthy dugout canoes similar to the ones in which their long-ago ancestors explored and settled the Antilles.

 

Nappi • Guyana

Near the foothills of the Kanuku Mountains that bisect Guyana’s Rupununi savannahs, the Makushi village of Nappi is still a predominantly agricultural community. Nappi is also famous in Guyana as a centre for balata craft: miniature figurines depicting Rupununi fauna and traditional village life, meticulously crafted from the rubber-like latex of the balata tree, Manilkara bidentata. Craft from Nappi’s balata workshops even feature in Guyana’s national art collection, displayed at Castellani House in Georgetown. More recently, with the opening of the community-run Maipaima Eco-Lodge, Nappi has become a centre for eco-tourism, allowing access to the extraordinary wildlife of the surrounding savannahs and forests — like other indigenous villages in the region, such as Surama, Annai, Wowetta, and Yupukari, all of which host visitors at rustic guesthouses, offering traditional Rupununi hospitality.