Official Publication of the St Lucia Hotel & Tourism Association


ianoulouThe Spanish called them 'Caribes', the fierce people.  By the time that Europeans arrived on the scene, the "Caribs" had conquered all of the Windward Islands.  Of these, St. Lucia was the most beautiful, and was named Ioüanalao, island of the iguanas, in the language of the native Carib Indians.

The Caribs were so fierce that they repulsed almost all efforts by Europeans to settle on their islands.  Their reputation was reinforced by the story they told of their conquest of the Island Arawaks who were already living on these islands.  The Caribs said that they ate the Island Arawak men and took their women as wives! 

The Island Arawaks were no longer around by the time Europeans arrived, and all we know of the Caribs comes from the stories that Europeans recorded.  Yet what is the whole story of these people who lived in St. Lucia for a thousand years before any written record?  The answers must come from archaeology.

There has been a recent resurgence of archaeological investigations on St. Lucia prompted by the interest and passion of the island's Archaeological and Historical Society (AHS). The AHS, one of the oldest cultural heritage organizations of the entire West Indies, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.  The Society has brought together a team of archaeologists from the Florida Museum of Natural History (FLMNH) and the Faculty of Archaeology of Leiden University in the Netherlands. The team has revived work that has essentially been in abeyance since the 1980's. A significant amount has been done in a short time period, but much work remains to be done in the near future.

This research is important not only for the cultural heritage of St. Lucia but also for that of the West Indies in general because the island played a key role in the pre-Columbian history of the Windward Islands. Its importance comes primarily from the extensive occupation by the Amerindians who lived in St. Lucia from approximately AD 200 until well into the period of European colonisation. As a result of the extensive occupation there are numerous archaeological sites on the island.  St. Lucians take a great interest in the history of their homeland, and the interest and cooperation of people in the local communities has greatly enhanced our research. 

Ciboney, Arawaks, and Caribs

The story that the Ciboney, a supposedly Stone Age people, were the first to arrive on St. Lucia's shores has never been confirmed.  In fact, Ciboney is a misnomer that originated from Spanish encounters with the peoples of Cuba after 1492.  Furthermore, there is no archaeological evidence that anyone occupied St. Lucia before the Island Arawaks, who arrived about 1800 years ago.  On other islands, especially in the northern Lesser Antilles, remains of people who used ground-stone and conch-shell tools have been found.  It has often been assumed that these people were hunter-gatherers but it is more likely that they managed a variety of plants and cultivated others in their kitchen gardens.  As yet, the archaeological remains of these peoples have not yet been identified on St. Lucia, but on St. Vincent and Martinique there are tantalizing hints of their presence.

It was a canoe, hewn from the log of a Ceiba (or Kapok) tree, which carried perhaps 30 paddlers to Anse Noir near Vieux Fort.  The paddlers were Island Arawaks who are thought to have come from the Orinoco River valley and the northern Guiana coast.  The earliest settlements of the Island Arawaks have been dated to 400 BC in the northern part of the Antillean archipelago, but for some unknown reason they seem to have reached St. Lucia around AD 200.  Was St. Lucia by-passed during the initial migrations, or are there earlier sites that remain to be discovered?  Remnants of the first settlers can be found at Grande Anse on the east coast and at Anse Noir in the south where large villages were established.

Theirs was a rich culture.  They produced some of the most elaborate ceramic vessels ever made in the Americas and used a wide range of plants that they grew in kitchen gardens next to their houses and in gardens in the forest at some distance from their villages.  They lived in large round or oval houses made from wood with thatched roofs. Petroglyphs found along the Balembouche River in southern St. Lucia could be evidence of a ceremonial life. Ceremonial objects include three-pointed objects made of shell, coral and stone.  These objects are called zemis; a name that also applies to the spirits that they worshiped. The presence of vast quantities of exotic materials at these early sites is evidence that the Island Arawaks were part of extensive exchange networks encompassing neighbouring Caribbean islands but also the South American mainland.  Not only were valuables such as semi-precious stones - used for the manufacture of beads and pendants - widely exchanged among the islanders but also commodities such as clay for their pots and flint to be used as knives and scrapers. A dynamic relation between the islands and with the mainland was thus established involving a great mobility of people and goods.  

The Island Arawaks lived in the Windward Islands until around AD 1450.  After that date the pottery that they made disappears.  It is commonly believed that they were killed by the Caribs, but this belief has yet to be confirmed.  The problem is that although we know that Caribs were living in the islands when Europeans arrived, no one has yet identified an archaeological site that is indisputable Carib!       

The name Carib conjures images of people feasting on human flesh, yet there is no reliable evidence that these people were cannibals.  Cannibalism was certainly a component of their fierce reputation, but it was also used by the Spanish conquerors as a means to justify the enslavement of native West Indians.

The Caribs had a more dispersed form of settlement with small villages centered on a group of related women.  Men married into the community and lived separated from the women in a men's house (carbet).  They practiced manioc agriculture, and made large pottery vessels in which they cooked casiripe.  Also known as "pepper pot," casiripe is a kind of stew made by squeezing the bitter manioc root.  Bitter manioc roots contain toxic levels of cyanide, and it is only through grating, squeezing, and drying that the starch from the root becomes edible.  By boiling the juice the cyanide is released, and then meat, vegetables, and chilli peppers are added to the juice.  The stew was eaten using the stiff bread baked from the cassava flour.  A by-product of processing the root is nowadays used to make tapioca.

The Caribs were keen strategists.  While the Taino (Island Arawak) peoples of the Greater Antilles rapidly succumbed to the Spanish invasion, such that their culture was suppressed by 1520, the Caribs survived until the late 17th century, and a small settlement survives today on Dominica.  Their dispersed settlement pattern and their ability to unite warriors from different islands helped them to stave off the British and French who sought to establish colonies on their islands.  They repeatedly pitted the French and British against each other, and it was only after these European competitors established peaceful relations that they were able to uproot the indigenous Caribs.  In the end, the Caribs were herded off to St. Vincent whence the last remaining were shipped off to Central America.

First Encounters with the Past

St. Lucia played a central role in the first systematic study of Caribbean prehistory. The AHS was one of the first cultural heritage organisations in the islands, and it has continued to serve the people of St. Lucia through its daughter organisations - the St. Lucia National Trust and the St. Lucia National Archives.

Beginning in the late 1950s the AHS "Trouble Chasers" ranged across the island to investigate places at which Amerindian and historical artifacts had been found.  Their findings attracted professional archaeologists from the United States who worked with the Trouble Chasers in excavating the sites they had discovered.  From the very beginning, the members of the AHS recognized the need for formal training in conducting scholarly research, and attached themselves in ways that led to formal training for their members. The results of their work were summarized by the Reverend C. Jesse in his 1968 publication, The Amerindians in St. Lucia.  The legacy of these first investigators includes frameworks for describing the major traditions of the Lesser Antilles.  However, the questions that they came to address of St. Lucia seemed answered, and professional research in the Windward Islands virtually ended in the early 1970s.  Carib artefacts had been identified, and Island Arawak pottery was fitted to existing schemes.  Yet both of these conclusions have since been rejected.  Moreover, with the exception of an expedition to St. Lucia by a team of archaeologists from the University of Vienna in the mid-1980s, nothing further was done.  It is these ancestors in whose footsteps we follow.

Current Archaeological Investigations

Our pickup truck bounced along the road from Vieux Fort to Balembouche passing vehicles with signs demanding "Fill the Holes Lagan." The new road is under construction, and the old road is torn to shreds.  While those who had come before us based their efforts on known sites, we have sought to find sites that were as yet unknown.  Five miles up the road we stopped in the village of Saltibus.  In the schoolyard, preserved on the ground in the inner courtyard, there was a dense scatter of Amerindian pottery.  Here, miles from the coast, Island Arawak Indians (we use the compound name to distinguish them from the Arawak peoples of South America) had established a village about a thousand years ago.  A similar situation pertains to Parc Estate.  Again, miles from the coast, Island Arawak pottery, which dates to a thousand years ago, is today dispersed over the surface of a large pepper plantation. 

The Saltibus and Parc Estate sites contradict much of what is accepted for Island Arawak archaeology.  The conventional wisdom is that people were dependent on the sea, and that sites in the interior were the product of activities such as hunting or cutting large trees for canoe making.  Yet here we had people living in the interior of the island.  They exploited good soils for their agriculture and captured the resources found along the river in the valley below and along the ridge lines.  Iguanas, crabs, crawfish, rice rats and other animals of the interior provided the protein they needed in the absence of marine fishes.

Time and again we have found evidence that Amerindians used the interior of the island for a variety of purposes.  Certainly they went to some areas for very specific purposes, but they also established villages and hamlets far from the sea.  One might expect such behaviour, especially given modern land-use practices, but until our survey was initiated the use of the interior of these islands was unrecognized.  In six weeks we doubled the number of known archaeological sites by looking in places both on the coast and in the interior where no one had looked before.  What is most important is that by surveying new areas we are finding evidence of a wide range of Amerindian behaviour.

The best known archaeological site on St. Lucia is at Pointe de Caille.  The site has been visited by virtually every archaeologist who has come to the island, and it was excavated extensively by the team from Vienna.  The site is of special interest because it yields evidence of all of the cultures that occupied St. Lucia (with the possible exception of Caribs), and the shells and bones of the animals that they ate are also preserved at the site.  In contrast, most of the sites on St. Lucia have only pottery and stone tools.  In addition, the site has deposits that are more than a meter deep, which is also unusual for the island.  It is a place that is worth protecting as the embodiment of a significant part of St. Lucia's cultural patrimony.

The area of Balembouche, in the southwestern part of St. Lucia, is unique. The river snakes its way through a landscape resounding with spiritual vibrations. Humbled by the stony gaze of faces from the past staring unblinkingly from the heights of the ravine, our team waded against the onrushing stream.  These petroglyphs are the artistic creation of the Amerindians who lived along the level terraces above the deeply crevassed ravine.  In one of these fields the ground is littered with brilliant red flakes of jasper (red flint), and other pieces of worked stone.  Dozens of ground-stone artifacts (axes, adzes and stones for hammering, pounding and pecking) were discovered here in the past when potatoes were cultivated on the land. These in the absence of metal tools, ground-stone axes and sharp flakes of flint provided the native peoples with the cutting tools they needed.

Many of the objects used in the past were made of perishable materials.  Because of their durability pottery and stone artefacts are the materials that we find most commonly on ancient sites.  Stone artefacts yield clues to the objects made from less durable materials, and pottery decorations provide a means for identifying different cultures and establishing a chronology.  In this regard St. Lucia is of special importance.  The later period of prehistory throughout the Lesser Antilles is named Troumassoid after pottery discovered at the Troumassée site, and the final occupation of these islands is recognized by the Choc style of pottery decoration.  The Choc style is very distinctive and includes finger-indented rims, clay masks and figurines, clay stamps for applying designs using plant dyes, and large footed griddles for baking cassava bread.  At one time it was thought that the Choc style was produced by the Caribs, but we now know that it was the Island Arawaks who made these pots.

The Future

We have just begun our work. Most books repeat the myths of  "peaceful Arawaks" and "man-eating Caribs", but these are just-so stories told to support the attitudes of the Europeans who continued to stream to these shores.  Substantial portions of the island remain archaeologically unknown. Our horizons have been expanded by recognizing the multi-facetted Amerindian landscape. Our understanding of Island Arawak and Carib cultures is emerging at a rapid pace though. Our search for the first inhabitants of Ioüanalao continues.

Authors: Dr. Corinne Hofman and Dr. Menno Hoogland are Professors on the Faculty of Archaeology at Leiden University, The Netherlands.  Dr. Bill Keegan is Professor and Curator of Caribbean Archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History, Gainesville, USA.  All three have been directing archaeological studies throughout the West Indies for the past 25 years.


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