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Archaeological investigation of a prehistoric settlement site on a Caribbean island. (Credit: Scott Fitzpatrick, CC BY-ND)

The Humanization of the Caribbean Sea—Ceramic Age Prehistoric Colonists Exploited the Abundant Ocean Resources Surrounding Their Island Homes for Thousands of Years

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“All human groups have some notion of what constitutes a proper meal. Cultural values determine which resources are considered appropriate foods (cuisine), and these must meet the biological requirements of survival and procreation (diet).” Carlson & Keegan (2004, page 103)

In my previous post in my series on the humanization of the Caribbean Sea I discussed how the first humans to settle the insular Caribbean—prehistoric, Archaic Age people—made extensive use of the ocean resources associated with their new island homes. They were quite capable of hunting marine megafauna, including manatees and green sea turtles, potentially driving local populations to extinction.  And they harvested marine fish and invertebrates, sometimes in substantial quantities.

Archaic Age people occupied many of the islands of the Caribbean archipelago until about 2,500 years ago when a second wave of migrants —pottery-making farmers known as Ceramic Age people—dispersed into the Caribbean Sea from South America.  These people almost entirely replaced the original inhabitants and their way of life and settled new islands for the first time, including many smaller islands in the Lesser Antilles.  They lived in permanent villages, modified their island landscapes for the purposes of horticulture and agriculture, and became more populous than their predecessors.

In this post I discuss how, like their Archaic Age precursors, these new colonists pursued a way of life that was highly dependent on the exploitation of the abundant ocean resources surrounding their island homes. 

Ongoing Exploitation of Ocean Resources by Ceramic Age Colonists

In 2004 Lee Newsom and Elizabeth Wing published On Land and Sea – Native American Uses of Biological Resources in the West Indies.  In this authoritative book they comprehensively summarized the findings, up to the early 2000s, of the archaeological analyses of plant and animal remains uncovered in kitchen refuse middens at many prehistoric settlement sites throughout the Caribbean archipelago.  Their work showed that ocean-based animals were a dominant component of the diet of Ceramic Age settlers (see, for instance, Appendices A-D in their book).  This conclusion is further supported by more recent investigations of Ceramic Age midden deposits on Caribbean Islands (see for instance Fitzpatrick, 2015).

We can now be certain that Ceramic Age people harvested a plethora of marine animals from nearshore ocean habitats.  These included fish such as groupers, snappers, parrotfish, surgeonfish, triggerfish, wrasses, and grunts harvested from coral reef and mangrove environments; conchs and sea urchins from seagrass beds; top shell snails, nerite snails, star shells and chitons from the rocky intertidal and shallow subtidal; oysters and clams from mangroves; fish like mullet, snook, bream and tarpon from estuarine habitats; sea turtles captured while nesting on sandy beaches or hunted in coastal waters; fish including tuna, herring, jacks, needlefish and flying fish from nearby pelagic waters; and monk seals hunted from their rocky haul out sites  They supplemented their ocean-based diet with land crabs, rodents, fruits, tubers, seeds, and cultivated manioc, maize, and sweet potato. 

Ceramic Age Exploitation of the Abundant Ocean Resources Associated with Small Islands

Ceramic Age people discovered many of the smaller islands in the Lesser Antilles for the first time and chose to establish permanent settlements on such islands even though they possessed little in the way of arable land and terrestrial food resources. What attracted them was the largesse of the surrounding pristine ocean environment.

Small Caribbean islands often possess disproportionately large expanses of accessible and varied ocean habitats. Such islands would have been particularly appealing to colonists in terms of their potential to provide a local and predictable source of food to sustain a permanent settlement on an ocean-based diet. In essence, these small islands functioned as tiny patches of terra firma from which the productivity of the surrounding expanse of ocean could be readily extracted.

A fascinating case study of Ceramic Age exploitation of the ocean resources surrounding small islands is provided by Christina Giovas who analyzed the faunal remains from middens at two settlement sites, Sabazan and Grand Bay, on the tiny 32 km2 island of Carriacou in the Lesser Antilles (Giovas, 2016). These sites were settled for the first time in the Ceramic Age and were occupied continuously between about 1,600 and 600 years ago.

Grand Bay coast on the southwest tip of the island of Carriacou. (Photo by Scott M. Fitzpatrick (

The prehistoric people who discovered this small island would not have been impressed by the steep hilly terrain and obvious lack of arable land. Nor would they have been impressed by the lack of large land animals. They would have quickly realized that the small natural populations of birds, land crabs, iguanas, lizards, bats, and snakes would not feed them for long. What they would have found attractive, though, was the bounty of the adjacent pristine ocean. Carriacou is surrounded by extensive seagrass beds and coral reefs and possesses mangrove forests, salt ponds, sandy beaches, and rocky shorelines; a stone throw beyond the reefs lie deeper pelagic waters. In prehistoric times these habitats would have been much more productive and biodiverse than they are at present and would have offered the new colonists a rich and predictably stable ocean resource base.

Satellite image of present day Carriacou. A line of coral reefs extends more than 16 kilometres off the east coast of the island and a series of fringing and patch reefs are present on the northern, eastern, and southern sides.  Extensive sea grass beds are present in lagoonal areas behind the reefs. These habitats were probably present prehistorically and would have been much more productive and biodiverse than now. Source: Schill, S. R. et al. (2021). DOI: 10.3390/rs13214215. Available via license: CC BY 4.0

Giovas’ analysis showed that, apart from land crabs and introduced agouti and opossums, almost everything Ceramic Age Carriacouans ate came from the surrounding ocean. Marine resources generally comprised 90 per cent or more of their diet, and they made good use of all the available marine habitats. They dined on snails and chitons from the rocky intertidal; fish from coral reefs and nearshore waters; queen conch and sea urchins from seagrass beds; clams, oysters, and mussels from mangrove forests; sea turtles nesting on sandy beaches; and tuna from offshore waters. This ocean-based way of life supported the two villages studied by Giovas, plus at least 9 or 10 other contemporary villages on the island, for a millennium. (In my next post on the humanization of the Caribbean Sea I discuss how the human exploitation of the ocean resources surrounding the island of Carriacou could have been sustained over such a long period of time.)

Feasting on Green Turtles

The archaeologist, Lisabeth Carlson, provides another fascinating case study of the importance of ocean foods in the diet of Ceramic Age colonists of a small island.  Carlson carried out a detailed investigation of Coralie, a settlement site on the small 20 km2 island of Grand Turk located 160 km north of Hispaniola (Carlson, 1999; Keegan & Carlson, 2008). Coralie was first settled about 1,300 years ago.

Satellite image of present-day Grand Turk Island.  The Coralie site is located on the western shore of North Creek, the lagoon at the north end of Grand Turk. 

What makes Carlson’s study especially interesting is that Coralie was the original site of settlement on Grand Turk. The animal remains she found are thus representative of what these first settlers extracted from a pristine marine environment that had been evolving undisturbed by humans for thousands of years. Carlson discovered abundant remains of marine animals including green turtle, shark, barracuda, grouper, snapper, grunts, Queen conch, gastropods, including nerites, top shells, and tiger lucines, as well as spiny lobster and sea urchins.  Ninety-four per cent of all the animal food the Coralie people consumed came from the ocean, complemented with a garnish of land crabs, rock iguanas and a now extinct tortoise.

The 25 or so permanent residents of Coralie were particularly attracted to green turtles which were by far their preferred food, compromising a massive 77 per cent of their diet.  Their decision to make green turtles the main component of their diet was sensible—green turtles were abundant, easy prey, and each animal provided a large amount of nourishing and tasty protein and fat for the least expenditure of energy. Carlson’s detailed and fascinating investigation of the Coralie site allows us to go back in time more than a millennium and envision the central role of the green turtle in the life of these people.

Turtles were hunted in shallow coastal waters, probably as they swam from their sleeping areas on coral reefs to their daytime feeding grounds on seagrass meadows.  Puncture holes in the remains of some green turtle carapaces attest to the use of harpoons hurled from canoes (Carlson, 1999; page 112 in Colten and Worthington, 2014). It is likely that turtles were also captured using nets. The turtle hunters were not too fussy about size, targeting juveniles and small and large adults alike.

Carlson also deduced that there was a green turtle nesting beach on Coralie at the time of first settlement which would have provided another source of turtle meat.  Large females were likely captured at night while laying eggs by turning the animals onto their backs to immobilize them until they could be hauled back to the village.

It is quite likely that captured turtles, even harpooned individuals, were stockpiled alive for a time to even out the food supply.  Some were probably kept alive for a few weeks by placing them on their backs in the shade and regularly splashing seawater over them.  Others could have been kept alive for months in corrals constructed in shallow water where they were fed mangrove leaves, a technique documented by early Spanish explorers of the Caribbean. 

When needed the turtles were transported to a butchering area within the settlement where the green fat, blood and any eggs were removed.  The plastron was then cut off from the rest of the body and the turtles roasted whole in their carapaces in metre diameter cooking hearths constructed of rock and conch shells.  Some turtle meat was also dried and smoked over small fire pits as well as cured in the sun using the island’s natural salt deposits. Preserved turtle meat was probably routinely traded with larger settlements in the Greater Antilles.

But the Coralie people did not live on green turtle alone.  Carlson concluded that fish comprised about 15 percent of their diet.  These were caught using hook and line and traps and roasted or preserved along with turtle meat.  Many kinds of marine invertebrates were also consumed.  Conch and sea urchins were gathered by wading into the seagrass beds and gastropods were collected from the rocky intertidal.  Although marine invertebrates formed only about two per cent of their diet, they must have been a pleasant change from turtle and fish and a useful source of food to fall back on during hard times. 

To What Extent Did the Prehistoric Settlers of the Caribbean Islands Alter Their Surrounding Ocean Environment?

The considerable amount of evidence gathered over the last 60 or so years by Caribbean archaeologists clearly shows that the prehistoric settlers of the Caribbean islands were heavily dependent on ocean resources for their survival, often to the extreme.  For thousands of years they foraged, hunted, and fished large quantities of a huge variety of marine biota from surrounding ocean habitats.  The extent and intensity of these activities ramped up during the Ceramic Age as more islands became colonized and populations increased.

In an ecological sense, these prehistoric human colonists constituted an invasion of the pristine Caribbean marine ecosystems by an intelligent, highly adaptable, and predatory alien species.  To what extent did their engagement with a pristine ocean change that environment?  Were their numbers too low and their hunting and fishing technologies too primitive for them to have had any significant impacts on marine animals and the ocean environment?  Or were they ‘ecologically noble’ ancient people—natural conservationists who learned to live in harmony with their environment (see for instance Nadasdy, 2005).  Or did these invaders assume the role of a novel keystone species and change the structure and function of Caribbean marine ecosystems in significant ways?

In my next post on the humanization of the Caribbean Sea I begin to discuss these questions.


Carlson, L. A. (1999). Aftermath of a Feast: Human Colonization of the Southern Bahamian Archipelago and its Effects on the Indigenous Fauna. PhD Dissertation, 281 pages. University of Florida.

Carlson, L. A., & Keegan, W. F. (2004). Resource depletion in the prehistoric northern West Indies. In S.M. Fitzpatrick (Ed.), Voyages of Discovery: The Archaeology of Islands (pp. 85-107). Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

Colten, R. H., & Worthington, B. (2014). Faunal remains from the Archaic and Archaic Ceramic site of Vega Del Palmar, Cuba. Journal of Caribbean Archaeology, 14, 23-49.

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

Giovas, C. M. (2016). Though she be but little: Resource resilience, Amerindian foraging, and long-term adaptive strategies in the Grenadines, West Indies. Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology, 1-26.

Keegan, B., & Carlson, B. (2008, Spring). Mother Sea Turtle. Retrieved March 19, 2021, from Times of the Islands:

Nadasdy, P. (2005). Transcending the debate over the ecologically noble Indian: Indigenous peoples and environmentalism. Ethnohistory, 52:2, 291-331.

Newsom, L. A., & Wing, E. S. (2004). On land and sea: native American uses of biological resources in the West Indies. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press.

Schill, S. R. et al. (2021). Regional high-resolution benthic habitat data from Planet Dove imagery for conservation decision-making and marine planning. Remote Sensing 13(21), 1-35, DOI: 10.3390/rs13214215.