The question of who actually discovered the Caribbean is a mystery that has been perplexing anthropologists for centuries. When Columbus arrived on Hispaniola in the 15th Century, he encountered the Taíno, an Arawakan-speaking people who came from the Orinoco Delta of present-day Venezuela, emigrating as early as 400 BCE. While it is often assumed that the Taíno were the “original” inhabitants of the Caribbean, particularly the Greater Antilles, other peoples had already been living there for several thousand years.
These little-known first inhabitants of Hispaniola are known as the “Archaic” peoples, characterised by their usage of stone tools (the “Ceramic Age” of the Taínos was defined by their creation of ceramics). The term Archaic covers a diverse group of prehistoric peoples whose languages and names for themselves are unknown. However, a recent discovery by a team of Italian and Dominican archaeologists on the Dominican Republic’s secluded Samaná Peninsula, could change our understanding of who they were and where they came from. That discovery has revised our knowledge of who actually discovered the Caribbean.
“El Pozito” (Spanish for “little well”) is a rare settlement belonging to these little-known first inhabitants of Hispaniola. It is also the Dominican Republic’s biggest “Archaic” discovery in half a century. To the untrained eye, the site – a grassy mound surrounded by lush vegetation 2km inland from capes Cabrón and Samaná – might not seem like anything more than an idyllic spot for a picnic. However, after surveying the area and finding a natural spring nearby, seasoned archaeologist Alfredo Coppa knew to dig deeper.
For two and a half weeks in September 2021, Coppa’s team from Sapienza University of Rome, with investigators from Santo Domingo’s Museo del Hombre Dominicano, combed a 12meter by 12meter area of virgin turf, which had been untouched by agriculture. Digging just 20cm below the surface, gently prodding the moist, coffee-coloured earth for signs of past civilisations, they found a trove of polished stone hammers, pestles and axes, conches and other tools used by the Archaic people.
The most significant finds are the mariposoid, or butterfly axes, which were likely used for felling trees to make canoes and oars. Coppa and his team also found a small ceremonial well (35cm in diameter), with 12 stone pestles buried inside, barely used save for some plant residue. This led the team to believe these settlers were also ritualistic – a ground-breaking revelation considering how little is known about their way of life. A few Archaic settlements have been uncovered around the Caribbean but this is among the most promising to date. This paucity of evidence has made it difficult to prove who actually discovered the Caribbean.
While carbon dating has yet to be done on El Pozito, Coppa believes it to be around 2,000 years old (Late Archaic Age), based on the objects he’s found so far, but he’s hoping the settlement is much older than that. El Pozito is tucked away at the end of the Samaná Peninsula, a 30-mile verdant strip of land in the country’s north-east that juts into the Atlantic Ocean.
Coppa theorises that these Archaic people may have reached Samaná from Puerto Rico, the closest nearby island about 200 nautical miles to the east, though he says more research is needed. But the bigger questions are: Which continent did they come from? To whom are they related? How did they interact and trade with others? And what happened to them?
According to the book Sapiens author Yuval Noah Harari, the first seafaring society may have developed on the Indonesia archipelago 45,000 years ago. It would take another 39,000 years or so for homo sapiens to discover the Caribbean – the last region of the Americas to be settled by humans, and the first to be colonised by Europeans. While 6,000 years ago is relatively recent for archaeologists, evidence is scarce because almost nothing organic survives the tropics. The humid climate, volcanic soil and rising sea levels – not to mention agriculture, development, looting and indifference – breaks down and swallows up bones, settlements and objects, posing a challenge to Caribbean archaeology. But that’s precisely what makes the field – and this discovery – exciting.
“The Archaics are the actual discoverers of the Caribbean, but they’ve received the least attention from archaeologists,” said Dr Reniel Rodríguez-Ramos, professor of archaeology at University of Puerto Rico in Utuado. For centuries, texts by Spanish and Italian travellers, such as Bartolomé de las Casas, a missionary from Seville who became a Dominican friar, were the only “evidence” archaeologists had about these non-Taíno peoples, and these observers often described them in unsophisticated terms.
The Caribbean archipelago is not visible from land (apart from the island of Trinidad, which can be seen from Venezuela), nor was it ever part of any continent. This means these first settlers took a chance when they ventured into the Caribbean Sea, which was unusual to do back then, say archaeologists. “These people had to be explorers,” said Rodríguez-Ramos in answer to why they would be so daring. “There was no big population pressure to move back then. No need to jump into a canoe and risk their lives to come here. That’s what navigators do. These are sea people.”
It was long assumed that the Archaic people were either ancestors to, or mixed with the Taíno. However, DNA analysis now tells us that the first settlers were genetically distinct, despite evidence that the two groups coexisted for centuries. This surprised experts. “When two groups meet you usually find mixture. It’s almost entirely absent from the Caribbean and we are wondering why that is,” said Dr Kathrin Nägele, a Caribbean-specialised archaeogeneticist from the Max Planck Institute.
On a final note, I should add that El Pozito is purposely not geotagged (so you can’t find it in Google maps). This has been done in order to protect it from looters who sell archaeological objects to tourists on the black market.
As an aside, I thought this story was fascinating because, after living in Puerto Rico for over 40 years, I had never heard of the Archaic peoples. It seems I am not the only one.