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The Samaná Peninsula on the island of Hispaniola in the Greater Antilles was inhabited by some of the first settlers of the insular Caribbean (Credit: Dave Carr/Getty Images)

The Humanization of the Caribbean Sea—Arrival of the First People

In this post (the second in my series on the humanization of the Caribbean Sea) I trace the origin of the first people to settle the vast, island-filled tropical marine system that we now call the Caribbean Sea. This was the first step in the modification by humans of this pristine seascape—the last region of the Americas to be exposed to the presence of humans. As I will argue in my next post in this series, this humanization process began considerably earlier than most of us might appreciate.

Populating the Fringes of the Caribbean Sea—The ‘Mainlanders’

This story has its origins roughly 20,000 years ago when humans from Asia first managed to penetrate south past the immense glacial ice sheets that clothed much of North America. After an interval of about 5,000 years—equivalent to roughly 200 human generations—descendants of these Ice Age travelers appeared in Central and South America. Over the next 8,000 years these continental ‘mainlanders’ settled territory that fringed a vast sea that would have appeared empty and impenetrable at the time.

Venturing Into a Mare Incognitum—Archaic Age Voyagers

Starting around 7,000 years ago something changed, and some of these mainlanders—Archaic Age people who fashioned tools by flaking and grinding stone and who lived by hunting, gathering, and fishing—took to venturing into a mare incognitum in their single-hulled, paddle-propelled, dugout canoes.

Historical illustration of a dugout canoe used by pre-European settlers in the Greater Antilles islands of the Caribbean Sea. Source: Girolamo Benzoni (1565) La historia del Mondo Nuova

Early on these journeys were likely accidental—it is easy to imagine a group of fishers becoming lost at sea during a storm and finding themselves on an unintentional and fraught drift voyage into the unknown. Later such voyages would have been more purposeful, with their crews intentionally seeking new lands for various reasons.

We will likely never know exactly what precipitated this bold, new exploratory sea-voyaging phase that ended an 8,000-year land-based hiatus. Perhaps some of these early explorers were endowed with a set of genetic traits that predisposed them to take risks and wander. Or maybe they were escaping conflict within overpopulated mainland communities that had outgrown their endemic ‘big game’ food resources. In this respect, we know that for several thousand years Archaic Age mainlanders co-existed with a remarkable variety of giant South American Pleistocene land mammals such as elephant-like gomphotheres, huge ground sloths, heavily armored glyptodont armadillos, and hoofed notoungulates and litopterns, all of which they eventually drove to extinction by overhunting and destruction of their forest habitats. It is also possible that some of these people were fleeing the inundation of their coastal settlements caused by catastrophic rises in sea levels that followed the melting of the Pleistocene ice sheets. Another possibility is that it just took a long time for these people to accumulate over the course of generations sufficient coastal seagoing knowledge, technology, and experience to have the confidence to risk sustained journeys of discovery in open seas in quest of new opportunities.

Humans hunting glyptodont armadillos after arriving in South America. This likely played a role in their extinction. Image © Jorge Blanco (2015) and Jorge Carrillo‑Briceño See:

Whatever the circumstances, these early pre-historic seafarers undertook remarkably brave voyages. They would not have been able to see any off-shore islands from their launching points on the mainland, which ruled out the prospect of safer, shorter-distance island-hopping exploration. Also, they had to negotiate hundreds, even thousands, of kilometres of open ocean after losing sight of land, all the while contending with strong winds and currents.

The evidence from the archaeological and paleoenvironmental research currently available suggests that these Archaic Age voyagers settled the Caribbean arc of islands independently from either end. That is, one group entered from the north via the Greater Antilles islands of Cuba, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico and then, over the next several thousand years, dispersed into some of the smaller islands in the northern Lesser Antilles. At roughly the same time, it appears that another group dispersed northwards into the Lesser Antilles from the south.

Caribbean Sea showing main islands of the Caribbean archipelago including the Greater and Lesser Antilles arc of islands. Source:

Their dispersal routes would have been dictated by the dominant oceanographic and weather patterns of the Caribbean which, at that time, were largely comparable to today.

The oceanography of the Caribbean Sea is dominated by the Caribbean Current that streams westwards out of the Atlantic Ocean, surges through the narrow gaps afforded by the chain of islands forming the Lesser Antilles, and flows northwestwards through the Caribbean Sea at a brisk clip of between 1.5 and 2.0 knots. It then becomes the still swifter Yucatán Current that squeezes through the gap between the Yucatán Peninsula and Cuba. From there it flows northwards through the Gulf of Mexico and loops eastwards through the Florida Straits.

Main surface circulation features in the Caribbean Sea (Nof, 2000)

Weather-wise, the Caribbean is dominated most of the year by the prevailing easterly Trade Winds that sweep east-to-west through the region.

The place of origin of the colonists who entered from the north is not entirely clear. Archaeological and genetic evidence, together with modern-day computer simulations of possible sea voyages, point to possible jumping off points in the Yucatán Peninsula, northern Central America, and northern South America, and it is quite likely that there were inputs from some or all these regions at various times.

The grim reality faced by those departing from the Yucatán and northern Central America was the strong Yucatán Current they had to traverse on their way to Cuba. Computer simulations show that if they found themselves on an unintentional voyage and simply allowed themselves to drift with the current, they had an extremely high risk of being swept north into the Gulf of Mexico and then east through the Florida Straits into the oblivion of the Atlantic Ocean. But the chances of successful landfall in Cuba were much higher if they elected to follow a more directed easterly bearing and could sustain paddling speeds of more than 3 knots for five or six days.

Paradoxically, those seafarers departing from staging points in northern South America probably had a greater chance of reaching the Greater Antilles despite those islands being much more distant. This is because they could hitch a ride on the Caribbean Current with the easterly trade winds at their back. Simulations suggest that crews unfortunate enough to find themselves on an unintentional drift voyage from South America would make landfall in the Greater Antilles in around a month with a small—3 to 10%—chance of making it alive. Once the route became better known, though, a crew on a directed voyage from South America had a good chance of successfully completing the trip in about a week by maintaining a northward bearing and paddling at a reasonable 3 knots. On the other hand, paddling eastwards against both the Caribbean Current and the easterly trade winds may have been inherently less appealing and potentially beyond the seafaring technology of the time.

The jumping off point for Archaic Age people dispersing into the Lesser Antilles from the south was the island of Trinidad. Today, Trinidad is 10 km from Venezuela, but during the Ice Age it was connected to the mainland by a land bridge. It appears that people from the Orinoco River basin of present-day Venezuela moved into Trinidad 9,000 or so years ago, either by traipsing across a still existent land bridge, or negotiating a short stretch of sea.

But this was the easy part. When these settlers gazed off into the distance from the northern coast of Trinidad all they would have seen was empty ocean—the closest island, present-day Grenada, is separated by 140 km of open ocean. This challenging barrier resulted in a 3,000 year pause in further migration. However, by around 6,000 years ago the Trinidadian settlers had learned to traverse this windy, current-filled stretch of water, and had begun to colonize Grenada. They swiftly commenced to modify the Grenadian landscape by burning forests, as revealed by a spike in charcoal levels found in sediment cores taken from a lake on the island. From Grenada these people rapidly colonized in steppingstone fashion many of the islands of the Lesser Antilles as far north as Antigua.

The Second Wave—Ceramic Age Settlers

The Caribbean archipelago remained the realm of these Archaic Age settlers until about 2,500 years ago when a second wave of migrants with a distinctly different culture from the Archaic Age people began to disperse into the Caribbean Sea from South America. These were pottery-making farmers known as Ceramic Age people.

There is debate over whether these people colonized the Greater and Lesser Antilles chains of islands from south to north in nearest neighbour fashion—often referred to as the stepping-stone hypothesis—or first settled the islands in the more distant Greater Antilles before spreading into the southern islands—the southward route hypothesis. The weight of evidence from radiocarbon dating of archaeological sites currently seems to favour the southward route hypothesis, with the ceramacists choosing to settle the larger and more productive islands of the Greater Antilles first.

Fate of the Archaic Age Settlers

Whatever path they took, the Ceramic Age migrants established themselves on islands already occupied by Archaic Age people and eventually colonized some islands for the first time, including Jamaica and the Bahamas. The original inhabitants seem to have vanished almost completely soon after the arrival of the newcomers, with the Archaic way of life persisting in just a few isolated pockets in western parts of Cuba for another 1,000 years or so.

Recent analysis of ancient DNA gleaned from the bones of prehistoric individuals unearthed from burial sites in The Bahamas, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, Curaçao and Venezuela shows that a rather small amount of DNA from Archaic Age people—less than 2 per cent— was present in Ceramic Age people. For reference, this is about the same amount of Neanderthal DNA now present in people of European or Asian background. The newcomers, it seems, did mix, but not extensively, with the original settlers, and quickly supplanted them, perhaps violently, with introduced diseases potentially playing a role. The ceramicists eventually became the ancestors of the Taíno people who occupied many of the Caribbean islands at the time of European contact.

Population Estimates

Estimates of the total population of the Caribbean archipelago during the Ceramic Age vary widely, from tens of thousands to millions. Recent DNA analysis suggests that between 10,000 to 50,000 people lived on the large islands of Hispaniola and Puerto Rico when the first Europeans arrived. This is smaller than previous estimates, some based on the narratives of early European explorers to these island

An Interconnected Archipelago

DNA analysis also shows that the ceramicists did not lead an isolated existence trapped on their insular worlds. On the contrary, the Ceramic Age Caribbean was a very interconnected realm. The numerous islands in the archipelago, both large and small, were linked by a busy canoe-borne maritime highway stretching some 2,500 km from the Yucatán and Cuba to Trinidad and the South American mainland. This facilitated a lively interchange of goods and culture as well intermarriage and the exchange of genes across widely physically separated island populations.

Potential for Environmental Modification by These Pre-Historic Settlers

Some of the questions I will consider in my next posts are:

How did the pre-historic settlers of the Caribbean archipelago adapt to living on their insular environments which were very different from the continental mainland they came from in terms of size and resources?

To what extent did these people modify their island landscapes and surrounding seascapes?

Some References

Bérard, B. and Biar, A. (2021). Indigenous navigation in the Caribbean Basin: a historical, ethnoarchaeological and experimental approach to the Caribbean-Guyanese kanawa. Archaeonautica 21, 239-244.

Callaghan, R. T. (2003). Comments on the mainland origins of the Preceramic cultures of the Greater Antilles. Latin American Antiquity, 14(3), 323-338.

Carlini et al. (2022). Damaged glyptodontid skulls from Late Pleistocene sites of northwestern Venezuela: of hunting by humans? Swiss Journal of Palaeontology 141:11.

Cooke, S. B., Davalos, L. M., Mychajliw, A. M., Turvey, S. T., & Upham, N. S. (2017). Anthropogenic extinction dominates Holocene declines of West Indian mammals. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics, 48, 301-327.

Fernandes, D.M., Sirak, K.A., Ringbauer, H. et al. A genetic history of the pre-contact Caribbean. Nature 590, 103–110 (2021).

Fitzpatrick, S. M. (2015). The pre-Columbian Caribbean: colonization, populations dispersal, and island adaptations. PaleoAmerica 1(4), 305-331.

Levi, E. (2022). A rare archaeological discovery on the Dominican Republic’s secluded Samaná Peninsula could unlock the mystery behind the Caribbean’s little-known Arawak past. (Online) Available from: (Accessed on 20 March 2023)

Napolitano, M. F., DiNapoli, R. J., Stone, J. H., Levin, M. J., Jew, N. P., Lane, B. G., . . . Fitzpatrick, S. M. (2019). Reevaluating human colonization of the Caribbean using chronometric hygiene and Bayesian modelling. Science Advances, 5. doi:eaar7806

Napolitano, M. F. et al. (2020). Archaeologists determined the step-by-step path taken by the first people to settle the Caribbean islands. (Online) Available from: (Accessed on 20 March 2023)

Wilson, S. M. (2007). The Archaeology of the Caribbean. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press