The shell mounds of the pomeroon by William Walker
Stabroek News
October 28, 2001

Every trip begins with an idea - a tribe of taxi drivers, two medical students in a mini-bus, the loveliness of the Pomeroon, the shell mound at Kabakaburi, Mr Brittle almost loses his suede shoe...

It was while browsing in a travel bookshop in the Chelsea district of New York City back in the late 1990's that the narrator of this account quite by chance came upon a curious book entitled Among the Indians of Guiana by Everard im Thurn.

The party reaches the shell mound at Piraka.

The tales contained therein were most engrossing as our English official and explorer fearlessly navigated the interior of that "rich and beautiful empire of Guiana" between the years 1875 and 1883. At one point im Thurn, a meticulous chronicler of flora and fauna, mentions in great detail and with first-hand knowledge the existence of numerous mounds of shells left by Amerindians in the environs of the Pomeroon river.

So it was having settled in this fair land some five years hence I returned one evening to those same pages by a lamplight courtesy of the local power company, and had a sudden notion to set out on an admittedly much more humble adventure to visit these mounds and give you, dear reader, some idea of their nature and present-day condition.

It was a bright Saturday morning that the narrator along with my travelling companion - a young man by the name of Chetram Persaud - a resident of the Pomeroon, headed west along the coast of Demerara in a small mini-bus to the port of Parika. The driver of the bus was evidently on some kind of illegal medication as he drove at such a pace as to appear to have no regard for his or his passengers' safety. By the grace of the Almighty we arrived in Parika on the Essequibo river and made a quite uneventful crossing to the landing at Supenaam. At this point we were almost torn apart by a tribe of taxi drivers pulling us and our belongings in all directions in a frenzied effort to carry us the 38 miles to Charity.

We eventually decided on one meek-looking fellow who when we arrived at Anna Regina, mid-way in the journey, said this was as far as he was willing to convey us. This set off a terrible row between himself and Mr Chetram who is at the best of times a most highly-strung fellow, and it was only with soothing words that I managed to smooth things over. But we quickly boarded another mini-bus and discovered the presence of two young medical students from Queens University, Belfast here on a trainee posting at, of all places, the Suddie Hospital. Introductions were quickly made and the party got on swimmingly.

Messrs Glen Clarke and Ian Bickle seemed to be wilting in the tropical heat having only just landed here a fortnight ago. But they were brave souls and readily accepted an invitation to come along on our little adventure. Their presence would end up being of considerable benefit as will soon be revealed...

It would be appropriate at this time to examine further Everard im Thurn's writings on what he called 'shell mounds' and which he compared to the kitchen middens existing in parts of England. There are in fact many such similar mounds dotted along the eastern seaboards of both South and North America. In Guyana the locations do not exist east of the Essequibo.

Back in 1883 im Thurn listed eight "as being presently known - five of which are in the neighbourhood of the Pomeroon, and one on the Morucca river... a river that runs into the sea side by side with the Pomeroon... Further from the sea and some distance up the Pomeroon two mounds lie close together at Sireeki and Warrapana... the fourth is at the mission house at Cabacaboori; and the fifth is a mile or two further up on a small side stream called Piracca."

Im Thurn had visted the Piraka site in December 1878. The Guyanese anthropologist Denis Williams who has conducted extensive excavations at many of the mounds listed at least thirty between the Essequibo and Orinoco.

It was decided that we would visit the site at Kabakaburi along with the one at Piraka and then on the following day take a boat ride up the Moruka river to survey the mound at Waramuri. The Sireeki and Warrapana mounds were described by local people as being variously "some distance away" or "a good walk" and we had been advised that when an Amerindian talks in these terms one could be assured the trip would likely be beyond the capacity of soft city folk such as ourselves, whose only difficulties lay in occasionally crossing a blocked-up drain in Georgetown.

So with our itinerary set as firmly as it could be in a country full of glorious uncertainties we boarded our speedboat for the scenic ride up the Pomeroon. Our two medical students having heard about the most excellent craftwork and wicker furniture being made in the area stopped at an address they had been given. An elderly gentleman hobbled out on the landing and Mr Bickle proceeded to tell him how his son-in-law, a technician in the hospital, had given him the address. The poor man became most distressed believing his daughter's husband to be mortally stricken with some tropical disease and only after considerable explanation was assured of his well-being. Much relieved he invited us into his workshop and Messrs Bickle and Clarke were most impressed by the handiwork stating their intention of purchasing some furniture for shipment back home on the next ship leaving Port Georgetown.

And with that we bade farewell and set off up river to Kabakaburi.

It is with little hesitation that I say the Pomeroon is one of the loveliest rivers in Guyana. Not too wide to be impersonal but still wide enough to afford an agreeable vista, its banks are lined with numerous well-kept abodes and flourishing gardens. The littlest of children merrily frolic in its deep waters, their parents seemingly unafraid for their safety. The menfolk mostly support their households by subsistence farming of ground provisions and fruit and the aforementioned nibbi furniture and craft which sell for exorbitant prices in the capital but barely provide an income to the local producers. Hunting for wild meat such as labba (coelogenus paca), tapir (Tapirus americanus) and the occasional wild cow provides some relief. But all in all it is a hard life for the inhabitants.

Arriving at Kabakaburi Mission we were greeted by the most agreeable Paul Rubens who delivered us to the pastor. It is the custom in these parts that visitors should first make a courtesy call on either the village captain or the local pastor before making any sorties in the area. Poor Father Ignatius Jacobus was not well having fallen from a ladder the previous day whilst picking oranges, and he took some time to arise from his day bed in the little shop he operates. What was noticeable was the somewhat skeptical attitude taken by most residents to three hot-looking Europeans in their midst, like aliens from another planet.

But once the purpose of our trip was explained the inhabitants were most helpful and sent us on our way with tangerines and other gifts from the forest. Despite his ailing back Father Ignatius Jacobus was very personable and we imbibed some local drink called Busta which comes in six exciting flavours before setting off on the short walk to the first shell mound.

Im Thurn believed that the shell mounds were "(1) made not by the resident inhabitants of the country but by strangers; (2) that these strangers came from the sea and not from further inland; and (3) that these strangers were certain Island Caribs who afterward took tribal form in Guiana as the so called Caribisi."

The question of how long ago this occurred was not addressed by im Thurn at the time. He discovered "at a depth of three feet from the surface... the stem of a tobacco pipe of European manufacture which is conclusive evidence that this mound at least was added to after Europeans first reached America."

But Denis Williams in his thorough excavations and with the advantage of carbon dating puts the period starting anywhere around 7230 years ago for the Piraka site. This was at a time, give or take a few thousand years, when sea levels were some three metres below present day Georgetown. The shore lay up to 10km further out to sea with rivers cutting through coastal grass savannahs. Trinidad was separated from the South American mainland by a shallow lagoon. Williams notes from the excavation of 17 skeletons at Piraka that their bodies "were oriented in the direction of the setting sun" in accordance with Warrau cosmology. "All the skeletons had been gilded on the heads and legs before having been shrouded in a flexed or tightly flexed position and cremated" - a distinct feature of Warrau burial rites. He notes that the emergence of the mounds between 7000 to 3300 before present "just overlaps the arrival of Arawak and Carib languages on this coast."

We walked up a small hill and past a gently decaying house with some wicker magazine racks stacked up in one corner. And we had arrived at the mound. It was at first sight rather disappointing and for a moment the party stood around surveying the magnificent avocado tree at its summit. The mound is really an addition to the side of a hill which runs up from the water and as such is not very obvious. Im Thurn had deduced - it seems erroneously - that the position of this mound and the one at Waramuri "in strong positions on two of the very few hills in the district," and the others which "all stand in swamps, on islands of firm ground which might easily be defended" are an indication that the creators were strangers in a hostile country.

And now to the all important contents of the mound at Kabakaburi. Needless to say there were bounteous amounts of small snail-like shells delicately striped in black and white. Williams identified these as zebra nerite (puperita pupa) which attaches itself to the roots of mangrove swamps. Our Mr Chetram also recalled that up to only a few years ago he had travelled with two Amerindians who had eaten shellfish raw from the water. Scratching at the surface of the mound small fragments of bones appeared. First a vertebrae and then various longer bones. It was at this point that we employed the services of the medical students who while identifying them as parts of a mammal were reluctant to conclude them to be human.

We were invited by our second guide, Maurice Bennett to meet his aging father Canon John Peter Bennett of the Anglican church and a historian of the Arawak people. Among other things, he has written an Arawak/English dictionary which was published by the Walter Roth Museum. His son explained how Kabakaburi got its name: across the river there had grown a type of wild lily called the jotoro (diefenbachia paludicola) which gives off an itchy type of milk. The Arawaks had thus called the place kabo kabura or the place of the itching bush. He also related the strange tale of the sunken Dutch treasure chest which for years was attached by a chain to a silk cotton tree but was too heavy to retrieve. To this very day the chest is said to be at the bottom of the river despite an attempt by a team of Israeli divers to locate its whereabouts.

Paul Rubens helpfully agreed to escort us to the site at Piraka and after a short ride up river and entering a small creek not more than eight feet wide, thickly covered with forest canopy we started off on foot having been given assurances that it was a distance of at most a mile. But as you may know a mile on a smooth road is very different from a mile balancing on fallen trees and navigating swamps. We passed through clearings where local inhabitants were setting fires in preparation of planting cassava. (Little boys trailed along with their catapults with which they fire young guavas at the bird life. Then we descended into a dank marshy depression lined with locust trees and covered in leaves and mora seeds decaying gently on the forest floor. The going got rather tough and it was shortly after, while Mr Brittle was commenting to our guides that the walk was much like joining the circus, that his foot slipped on a narrow log and he plunged up to his right knee in thick primordial mud. He managed to suck out his foot with a brown suede shoe quite unsuitable for the unexpected trip and took the mishap in good stride.

We gained some higher ground and eventually were walking on a wide track used by tractors to pull lumber for a nearby grant. There was no signpost and to the untrained eye no landmark, but the two guides suddenly turned left. We followed through a thicket of young trees for about 100 yards and there in front of us was a small mound not more than 8ft high and perhaps 20ft across. It was again not impressive but for a fleeting moment came that feeling one gets at historic sites; a keen sense of how this site might have been thousands of years back before Europeans set foot on the Americas and changed everything; when tribes of hunter gatherers roamed the rivers in search of that day's meal and brought it back to this very site before discarding the empty shells on the mound.

So with this flight of fancy perhaps this is a good point in which to leave the reader - hopefully full of many questions that I will attempt to answer in next week's conclusion which includes a macabre discovery of human remains... a dinner of boiled plantains... and an eventful trip to the Moruka river.

An ancient teeth grinder - the narrator drinks cassiri - Messrs Bickle and Clarke bid farewell - RCA Channel 8 - the coconut estates of the Lower Pomeroon - butterflies and 'old witches' in the Moruka river - the mound at Waramuri Island- homeward bound...

The narrator of this tale left you, dear reader, last week at the precipice of the Piraka shell mound, one of thirty in the region created by Amerindian tribes many thousands of years ago.

... So there we were, Mr Chetram, our three guides, and our two medical students - Mr Clarke and the rather muddy Mr Bickle. The mound at Piraka is at most only 20ft across and 8ft high and due to the extensive excavations performed there in 1985 by archaeologist Denis Williams it now resembles a miniature volcano. Williams removed 17 skeletons from the site, one of which, the guides informed us, he managed to extricate whole and carry away in a makeshift coffin.

The ever energetic Mr Chetram leapt into the depression and found the same shells - zebra nerite as seen at nearby Kabakaburi, in addition to long bones of all descriptions. First three hip joints, and then a few vertebrae, fibulae and what looked like part of an elbow surfaced. Messrs Bickle and Clarke were kept employed identifying the various parts and were now firmly convinced that these were human remains. Fragments of a human skull also came to the surface. But perhaps the most macabre discovery was of an upper jaw with teeth still intact. The molars were all perfectly ground flat as if the owner had been a chronic teeth grinder. The find caused one of our guides to become rather quiet and it did seem to be an all too powerful dose of humanity. After all this was once a person who lived right here many centuries ago.

But the question remained what kind of person? Someone who suffered a natural death and was ceremoniously buried by his or her own tribal peers or a rude victim of cannibalism whose bones had been nonchalantly tossed on this ancient rubbish heap much like those of a chicken after a satisfying repast?

Our 19th century explorer im Thurn was rather keen on the second notion and just for some light entertainment let us examine more of his writings. Im Thurn was quite convinced that Caribs from the islands were the creators of these mounds. He based this on the absence of mammal bones, indicating that the creators were unfamiliar with the territory. "Indians, capital hunters as they are at home, cannot hunt in a strange country: even only fifty miles from their homes I have known them declare ignorance of the country as an excuse for their failure to obtain game," he wrote. "The natural inference from these facts is that the mound makers were strangers who were driven by their ignorance of the country to feed upon what they could most readily procure - that is upon mollusks and fish."

Im Thurn also cited the almost entire absence of pottery as demonstrating that the tribe must have been far from home where traditionally only such implements would be used.

He argued that the bones found there were scattered about at random and at the mound at Siriki there was found "one human skull, in twenty seven pieces, which was afterwards fitted together and proved to be prefect but for a hole in the top apparently made by some such implement as a stone hatchet." As for the long bones "they had been broken... evidently to allow the marrow, of which all Indians are very fond, to be extracted." So the Guyanese custom of mashing bones obviously has deeper roots than previously thought, if Mr im Thurn is to be believed!

It is of course common knowlege that there were many hostilities between the Caribs and other tribes, including the Warraus and the Arawaks. Even to this day all three tribes tend to live apart from each other. Our guide Ruben Peters said that Piraka used to be Carib country but they moved up river to St Monica's Mission and left the area to the Arawaks. Residents in Moruka say whenever there are any altercations it often involves members from different tribes.

Im Thurn lived in a time when the generously embellished accounts of 'red cannibals' would have played well in the drawing rooms of 19th century London society.

But the more diligent studies of Denis Williams should be acceded to. He notes that twelve of the bodies at Piraka were laid with their heads facing the setting sun which in Warrau cosmology is the direction of the Land of the Dead: "... a human skull placed atop a few post cranial bones evidently represents a celestial /terrestrial (head/foot) symbolism of respectable antiquity," which is echoed in an archaic petroglyph on the Orinoco." Williams notes that the Lokono Arawak name even to this day for the Warrau is Tivitives denoting eaters of shellfish.

The present day Warrau (in Venezuela) prepare the dead "by interment in a canoe furnished with victuals and hunting equipment, sometimes with a mirror resting on the head of the deceased. Warrau on the Amakura river place the deceased in a canoe in the middle of the house and move on... contemporary Warrau store their human skeletal remains in a prescribed manner. After disposal of the flesh, membranes, etc, the post cranial bones are placed according to size in a basket decorated with coloured beads, care being taken to ensure that the skull doubled as a lid of the basket which then was placed in the roof of the house... Alternatively the corpse was shrouded in a hammock and interred in a sitting position."

So the scattered bones that im Thurn talked about are more than likely relics of elaborate burial rituals and not evidence of cannibalism.

It was time to head back and as is often the case the return walk was not nearly so treacherous, although mention must be made that Mr Bickle did re-dip his foot in the primordial swamp and it was only a few strides later that he realised his suede shoe had been left behind.

We stopped at a little village where the ladies were relaxing under a shed covered in thick troolie leaves (Manicaria saccifera) while a squawking red and blue macaw wandered around the territory of his yard. Mr Chetram offered me some of the local drink called cassiri contained in a five-gallon plastic drum and surrounded by a multitude of fruit flies. The pinkish liquid was positively bubbling with fermentation and it was with some hesitation that I took a modest sip from the calabash. The taste was not unlike Somerset cider... but not really. With that accomplished, and lingering worries about the liquid's effects upon the narrator's bowels we headed back to the boat and out on the Pomeroon now darkening in the late afternoon sun.

Sadly Messrs Bickle and Peters had made earlier arrangements for lodgings at Lake Mainstay, so they returned to Charity while we were to spend the night at Mr Chetram's parents' home at Abrams Creek.

Eddie Chetram, a man in his late sixties, had lived almost all his life beside the river, and as we sat outside he pointed to the homes he had built across the water for some of his eight sons. The wicker furniture business had been good then and the future seemed bright. Sadly two of his eight sons had sold out and left for the coast looking for a better life. The father was sad, probably hoping he would have had a comfortable old age with all his children around him. But instead he has to work and despite a bad knee that causes him walk with an exaggerated step he still takes his farm produce to Charity market. That day he had just retuned with much less than he thought he would have received for a boatload of oranges.

There is not a farmer in the world who does not complain about his lot, but listening to this old man one realised that these were indeed hard times. Bananas ($4 per lb), sweet cassava (barely $5 per lb), large oranges ($4 each), plantains ($6 per lb), and copra ($8 per lb) - all had seen drops to more than half their price only two years ago, to the point where it hardly was worth the cost to carry the produce to market. "If you are not careful these days, fire can go out from under your pot," Mr Eddie concluded.

It was a hard lesson in the economics of rural poverty and as the sun set and darkness cloaked the river a depression descended which belied the beauty of the day. As Hindus this was a holy time of Navratri for the Persauds, so dinner was a simple bowl of boiled plantains consumed in front of a blinking television powered by a generator which often went off-key dimming the lights in the old house.

Residents of the Pomeroon who seldom get newspapers are only afforded one television station - RCA Channel 8. Saturday night consisted of a request show for songs with lyrics such as, 'Who let the dogs out?' This was followed by a weekly review of the news. Local officials either proudly trumpeted their very minor achievements or defended themselves against vague corruption charges. One report heralded the donation of $10,000 to pave a track from the main road to a local primary school - a distance all of 15 feet. Handshakes and handing overs. Minister Sawh exhorted the local farmers to plant even more crops as part of the country's drive towards prosperity. It sounded somewhat hollow after listening to Mr Eddie. At one point Mrs Persaud pointed to the boy reading the news and exclaimed, "me and he father went to school you know!"

So there we sat in the living room, the elderly Mr and Mrs Persaud and a hyperactive puppy snapping at our feet. Blessed sleep came swiftly and the morning sun erased the previous night's malaise. Mr Eddie picked flowers from his garden and went off to pray. Mr Chetram's brother arrived with his boat and a 15hp engine that would serve if somewhat slowly for our day's journey to Moruka. We set off with waves of goodbyes and a bag full of oranges, and were soon passing Charity wharf and heading out to the mouth of the Pomeroon 22 miles away.

The houses were far more substantial than those up river and at times were almost palatial. The Alphonso brothers' coconut estates included a well manicured cricket ground. The wild mangrove trees (Rhizophora mangal) that line the banks had in places been cut low into neat hedgerows hiding piles of empty coconut shells. Behind these were the first rows of generous coconut plantations dating back to the 1800's.

Squeezed between these estates owned by landowners such as B&E Stoll Ltd at Enterprise, Van Sluytman and Dilip Singh, were small shacks inhabited mostly by large Amerindian or African Guyanese families. Little had changed here since im Thurn had gone up the river 120 years ago. Even with the advent of the outboard motor, many residents still paddle around in canoes. It was Sunday morning and boats were full of little girls dressed in elaborate pastel-satin dresses on their way to the various churches. Meanwhile we were busy navigating colonies of coconut husks bobbing on the river. At villages such as Martindale, Stealing Hope and Hackney the river is wider than upstream and comparable to the width of the Demerara around Soesdyke. As you pass the Akawini and Wakapau creeks and approach the river's mouth, the banks curve in the most graceful arc like some grand boulevard in a European city and the river opens up into the wide Atlantic whose horizon merges in the far distance with the huge blue sky.

At this juncture it was just us our little boat and the big rolling sea. Fortunately the waves were not too large as the tide was still falling and we crossed the sound in perhaps half an hour and turned into the quite hidden entrance of the Moruka river two or three miles up the coast. The Moruka is barely 15ft wide and is covered immediately after its entrance with arches of wild mango trees from which vines hang down over the still water. The roots of the trees stand out of the water like long fingers planted on a table. We stopped at a small shop and had a cold drink while watching some ladies scoop out the white meat of the coconut shell in preparation for making copra.

Then we set off again as butterflies yellow and brilliantly blue (possibly Morphos) lazily crossed our path flitting in and out of the shadows on their way to their own destinations. Startled 'Old witch' birds (Crotophagus ani) flew from bank to bank ahead of us, their black wings giving off a sheen of turqouise in the sunlight. And then forest relaxes into savannah with tall thick grass and palm trees. A chicken hawk watched us from an old tree stump, an alert kiskadeee (Lanius sulphuratus) alighted on a stem of grass, an otter rolled shinily in the water's edge. More families paddled past watching with curiosity at these outsiders. We looked back in equal amounts of curiosity.

The savannah returned to forest and we turned down a side creek which became even narrower and soon found ourselves pushing the boat over a fallen tree. Little boys passed on their way to their favourite fishing spots paddling with the ease of drawing breath as their corials glided over the dark water. For them a boat is their bicycle.

We eventually arrived at Waramuri and stepped out onto the hot blinding white sand that ascends from the river to cover the land. The shell mound was much larger than the two from the previous day; probably about 30 feet in height and 100ft in diameter. At its summit lay a wooden cross - one of its arms leaning into a pit that Denis Williams had excavated years earlier. The neat pits were at least eight feet deep and by now overgrown with weeds.

Williams estimated that this mound evolved perhaps a thousand years later than the one at Piraka, and the Warrau population "subsisted for the next seven hundred years almost entirely on a diet of the Mangrove Land Crab (Ucides cordatus) available in unlimited numbers on the extensive inter-tidal mudflats surrounding them." Fresh water came from a perennial spring which to this day serves the local population. But with sea levels rising the mud flats became submerged forcing inhabitants to move to areas such as Sand Hill. There, the shell fishing lifeway came to an end in a brackish environment not long after 5230 years before present [BP]." Two thousand years (3300 BP) later the mounds of the Pomeroon were complete.

Arrow cane and guava trees were growing splendidly on the Waramuri mound and as we descended we noticed a turtle shell recently gutted along with some empty plastic bottles. Even without shells, the mound is still considered a place to throw waste thousands of years later. We passed the Anglican church with its congregation singing away and the brand new school and health hut. Progress of a sort, but there are few opportunities for the young people save following the life of their forefathers. At the only little shop in the village MP Pierre and Sons, two teenagers were sharing out vodka from a little Chubby bottle.

It was getting late and we headed back to the sea. The tide was now fully out and despite being a mile off-shore the boat's engine was dragging in the mud. We paddled out further for perhaps half an hour and by then the waves were rolling in, washing over the bow and pitching the little boat this way and that. With the vessel taking in some water concern rather than fear would best describe our emotions, but these were soon allayed as we gained the mouth of the Pomeroon.

Our journey was done and the prospect of home's bed and home cooking helped to hurry the boat through the water.