But what of the indigenous people? And, without the great monuments of the Central American mainland to the west, what do most tourists know of the region’s prehistory?
When Columbus arrived in 1492, the Caribbean was, in fact, densely populated. The first settlers had probably reached the region before 5000 BC, living as fishers and foragers – though leaving little more than scatters of flint flakes as evidence of their presence. Then sometime after 400 BC, the local ‘agricultural revolution’ began, with horticulture, permanent settlements and pottery.
Peter Drewett of London’s Institute of Archaeology, Brian Bates of Longwood University in Virginia, and staff and students from H. Lavity Stoutt Community College in the British Virgin Islands have spent the last six years working on a major prehistoric dig at Belmont on Long Bay. The site has now become the first officially recognised archaeological site in the British Virgin Islands. Though there is more work to be done, Peter Drewett here summarises what has been learnt from the site so far about the Caribbean before Columbus.
Fishers and foragers
Belmont lies in the British Virgin islands on the northern fringe of the Caribbean. It was first settled around 2000 BC. These first settlers were fishers and foragers, who had not yet learnt to make pottery. They probably came from South America, but it was not until the third year of our dig that we found the evidence. A layer of windblown sand had sealed their settlement beneath the later village site we were excavating. A hearth made of blocks of local volcanic tuff was associated with two, apparently deliberately buried, ovate multi-purpose stone tools of c. 600 BC (shown below) – all we could expect, perhaps, from what was probably only a short-stay camp used by fishers and foragers moving about the islands in their canoes.
The manioc cultivators
The first permanent settlement began sometime after 400 BC, when horticulture and pottery-making spread rapidly across the Caribbean. Who was responsible? Although some people may have moved from Florida to the Bahamas, virtually everywhere else was resettled from lowland South America, perhaps mainly from the upper reaches of the Orinoco basin and coastal Venezuela. Saladoid pottery – named after the type site, Saladero, in central Venezuela – provides the key evidence. It is painted red and white or incised with cross-hatch decoration. Its spread across the Caribbean is linked with evidence for horticulture and the construction of large communal round-houses. Particularly important was the introduction of a staple starch derived from manioc tubers which could be made into cassava flour.
The first village
The first horticulturalists to settle at Belmont were descendants of these Saladoid pottery peoples. About AD 600 they built their first communal round-house on a level sandy area between an earlier sand bar and a degraded cliff line to the south. To the west is the distinct conical shape of Belmont Hill, and to the south of this is Belmont pond, in prehistoric times an open marine inlet. The village would have consisted of further (as yet unexcavated) round-houses built around an open courtyard used for ceremonies. The main round-house excavated was some 15m across, the evidence being two concentric circles of post-holes. Later, perhaps around AD 900, this single large round-house was replaced by two smaller ones of 8m and 10m in diameter. Manioc cultivation was the basis of the village economy, with protein coming almost entirely from the sea, as there were no land mammals on the British Virgin Islands in prehistory.
The prehistoric villagers also used stone. They brought boulders, perhaps from the storm beaches at the foot of Belmont Hill, onto the site and smashed them. Suitable fragments were then used for tools.
We also found many spindle-whorls in the village (see photo on opposite page). They were probably for making cotton thread. One of the gifts offered to Columbus by the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean was cotton. It was clearly an important exchange item in prehistory, as it grows well on the dry islands but poorly on some of the wetter ones. Although used in decorative ways, it was the essential raw material for making hammocks.
Predicting the hurricane season
Excavating at Belmont, we realised that the village had its own sunset earlier than the area around, for during the summer season the sun set behind Belmont Hill (depicted above). The sea to the north and the hills to the south remain in bright sunlight while the village is in shade. Also, looking from the village on midsummer’s day, the sun appeared to set directly over the apex of the hill. The prehistoric inhabitants must have noticed such a dramatic event. It is uncertain whether or not the village was built on this exact spot because of the astronomical significance of Belmont Hill. What is certain is that the phenomenon brought power and prestige to the village and its shaman because it could be used to predict the seasons. Knowing when midsummer’s day was, the villagers knew when they were moving from dry to wet season, the time to plant. Perhaps even more important, they could predict the arrival of the hurricane season, a time when even today whole villages are devastated.
Midsummer’s day was almost certainly marked by ceremonies within the village, the shaman using drugs (a snuff known as cohoba) to commune with the gods of Belmont Hill. Pairs of stones aligned on the hill seem to mark spots from which the sun appears to set directly over the apex (see photo, above). Beside one of these stones we found a spatula (pictured opposite) of a type used to induce vomiting prior to taking plant-based drugs. An empty stomach speeds up and enhances the effect of the drugs. Close by was a triton shell modified to be blown as a trumpet. Around these objects was an arc of pots, including one with the interior heavily pitted, perhaps the effect of collecting ritual vomit over many years. The sunset over Belmont Hill was recorded on a pot and incised on a ceramic disc.
Feasting at the ball game
If we are right and the site became a special place of ritual, this might partly explain why, around AD 1200, the village, or perhaps only part of it, was replaced by one or more ceremonial ball and dance courts (see photo above). The one we have excavated so far is 10-12m wide and perhaps 20-25m long. It was aligned directly on Belmont Hill, and the fact that the sun was again significant is shown by a sun disc cut into one of the stones on the edge of the court (see photo above right). These courts were no doubt used for a variety of public rituals, including ones involving dance, but there are also ethno-historical records of a ball game. This was played by teams of 10-30 players, both men and women (though always in separate games). Opposing teams occupied each end of the court and the aim was to keep the ball in motion by bouncing it off the ground using any part of the body other than hands and feet. Both intra- and inter- village games took place. The games were often associated with dances and other ceremonies, and were occasionally played before public decisions were made.
The ball games and other ceremonies probably drew people from wide areas who came together to forge alliances, exchange goods, find husbands and wives, and resolve disputes. Individuals and groups may have gained prestige and power by providing feasts and by destroying and discarding exotic items. Around the ball court we excavated heaps of broken pots and dumps of shell and fish bones, which certainly suggested great feasts. Complete pots and various exotic items appear to have been deliberately discarded – a whale rib, an unused polished axehead with unique pelican-head carvings, and finely polished and drilled diorite beads. The success and prestige of those who controlled the site may have lasted several hundred years, but then the site was suddenly abandoned.
Europeans arrived in the British Virgin Islands during Columbus’ second voyage in 1493. It is unlikely that after the long Atlantic crossing the crew were a particularly healthy lot, and from the start Europeans introduced diseases to which the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean had little or no resistance. How many people died in the Caribbean as a result of European contact we will never know, but our excavations have not unearthed any European goods of the period. Was it already abandoned? Certainly, by the time the Dutch set up a small trading station on Tortola, there appear to have been no indigenous people around.
This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 2. Click here to subscribe