Were Guyanese Amerindians first Bajans?
By Norman Faria
October 12, 2003
THE history books will have to be written about Barbados - at least when it comes to dating the earliest habitation of the Eastern Caribbean island.
Recent discoveries by British archaeologists at a former Amerindian village site in the island's northern St. Peter Parish show that the first Bajans lived there as early as 2000 B.C.
Current thinking is that the earliest presence was between 200 BC and 400 AD. To test the new dating, the British scientists took pottery shards and skeletal remains with them to Britain for carbon dating.
Historians say the Eastern Caribbean islands were first settled by Amerindian native people from South America. They got to the islands by rowing large ocean-going canoes.
Leader of the University of London team which worked on the St Peter site and others in the island over the years, Dr, Peter Drewitt, said in a lecture at the Barbados Museum, that the jumping off point for the Amerindian explorers was "the Orinoco Coast". This is a general area which comprises the present day Venezuelan coastline and its environs including parts of Guyana.
When asked by this writer if among those who first settled in what was to be later named Barbados, were people, or their descendants who came from present day Guyana, Dr. Drewitt replied that it was possible. Even if they didn't set sail from Guyana directly, there would have been movements of people along the coast including westwards to present day Venezuela and they could have left from there, he observed.
Of the everyday life of the native peoples in the 166 square mile coral island before the European peoples arrived, Dr Drewitt said they were farmers and fisherfolk.
In 1400 AD shortly before Columbus visited the Caribbean, the island had, he estimates, a total of 50 to 60 villages with 300 to 500 people in each one. They farmed manioc, maize and cassava and fished in both inshore and offshore waters for shells and fish.
Because the island is of soft coral formation, it did not have any hard stone such as granite. The native peoples therefore had to carve tools out of shell material, mainly conches. Among the examples of tools found at the sites were some made of harder material brought up from the neighbouring islands of St. Vincent and St. Lucia which were formed from volcanic activity.
Despite the Amerindians' resourcefulness and creativity, life wasn't a Garden of Eden. They didn't, for example, live too long by modern day standards.
"You would be seriously old at age 30. Most of the burials we found were people in the 35 to 40-year old age bracket," said Dr. Drewitt.
Why was that? Surely, at that time, there was plenty of wildlife on both land and sea in addition to agriculture produce. Dr. Drewitt disclosed that on some of the skeletons, most of the teeth were gone and their jaw bones were abnormally thin. This suggested that there was malnutrition generally.
"It could also mean that the Amerindian settlement became overcrowded, with the population unhealthy and unable to properly sustain themselves, causing the inhabitants to move away from the island," he said.
"If this is correct," he continued, "then it helps to explain how the Amerindians could have been easily wiped out by the new European diseases which arrived about 200 years later."
The population could also have been decimated by slave-gathering raiders from neighbouring islands which were settled earlier by Europeans than Barbadians. When the first oranised European settlers came to Barbados in the 1600s, it was uninhabited.
Dog skeletons were found with several of the human remains. Dr. Drewitt explained: "Dogs were probably used, as they are today, as pets and to retrieve downed game such as birds. Perhaps the dogs were also revered for religious purposes to replace the jaguar found in South America. The way the dogs were buried is similar to the way jaguars are ritually buried in South America."
What about cannibalism? There have been reports out of the U.S, which strongly indicate that Hopi and Pueblo tribespeople in the South West U.S. ate human flesh. Tests were done on coprolite, or centuries-old dried lumps of human faeces. They were tested for myoglobin, a protein found in high concentration in human heart muscle. The protein could only enter the digestive system by eating. Seven test samples proved positive.
The British scholar, who has written a book on Barbados' first settlers, dismissed the theories that the Amerindians were cannibals. "There is no direct historical evidence (of this). There is no archaeological evidence in the Caribbean that human remains were butchered or chopped up for human consumption."
Meanwhile, the recovered items from the former village sites in the island include clay pots and axe heads. They will be housed in the Barbados Museum. The preservation there of the reminders of the first Bajans is similar to what has been done at the commendable exhibits at the Walter Roth Museum in Georgetown.
(Norman Faria is Guyana's Honorary Consul in Barbados)