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Zooarchaeological samples. From left to right: ancient duck bones, shells of marine snails and charred plant remains. Photo by Kristen Grace, Florida Museum of Natural History.

The Humanization of the Caribbean Sea—Prehistoric Settlers Significantly Changed Their Ocean Environment Over Thousands of Years. Did This Mark the Start of the Anthropocene in the Caribbean Sea?

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“…wherever humans have trodden, the natural environment is somehow different, sometimes in barely perceptible ways, sometimes in dramatic ways” Balée & Erickson (2006, page 1)

In my previous blog post in my series on the humanization of the Caribbean Sea I discussed how the prehistoric Ceramic Age people who largely replaced the original Archaic age settlers of the Caribbean islands pursued a way of life that was highly dependent on the exploitation of abundant ocean resources. As these people colonized previously undiscovered islands, and as their population grew, the intensity and geographic extent of their extraction of marine resources increased accordingly.

I also noted that, in an ecological sense, the Archaic and Ceramic Age colonists of the Caribbean Islands constituted an invasion of the pristine Caribbean oceanscape by an intelligent, highly adaptable, and predatory alien species. I asked 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 this post I begin to examine these questions.

Reconstructing Prehistoric Human Impacts on the Ocean Environment of the Caribbean

A young trailblazing American zoologist and archaeologist, Elizabeth Wing, was among the first to rigorously study the extent to which the prehistoric settlers of the Caribbean islands changed their ocean environment. Wing came to the University of Florida sight unseen in the mid-1950s with little more than a suitcase and a huge passion for zoology (Marchese, 2020). This was less than a decade after the University began accepting women, so the academic climate was not particularly accommodating to women at the time, especially those wishing to pursue scientific field work, which was considered ‘too dangerous’ for women.

Nonetheless Wing thrived and became one of the first woman to earn a PhD in Zoology at the University. Her specialty was deciphering the fragmented animal remains uncovered during archaeological digs in the Caribbean, a pursuit known as zooarchaeology. She then went on to become a leading proponent of a new scientific discipline—environmental archaeology—which weaves together archaeology, anthropology, botany, zoology, ecology and geology to understand how past humans interacted with the natural world.

Dr Elizabeth Wing examining zooarchaeological specimens in 1971 at the Florida Museum of Natural History
Dr Elizabeth Wing examining zooarchaeological specimens in 1971. Source: Florida Museum of Natural History archives

In one study, Wing, and her son, Stephen, carried out a painstaking analysis of animal fragments uncovered in pairs of Ceramic Age midden sites occupied hundreds of years apart on five different Caribbean islands—Puerto Rico in the Greater Antilles, and St. Thomas, St. Martin, Saba, and Nevis in the Lesser Antilles (see map)(Wing & Wing, 2001). They discovered clear differences in the characteristics of the marine foods eaten by the settlers living at the earlier sites (occupied between about 1,900 and 1,350 years ago) and the later sites (occupied between about 1,500 and 600 years ago) on each island. This allowed them to reconstruct the state of the ocean environments near each of those sites at the time they were inhabited.

They found that the people living at the earlier occupied sites on each island were eating lots of coral reef fish, particularly large predatory fish such as groupers. In contrast, those living at the later occupied sites were eating significantly less reef fish, much of which consisted of smaller herbivorous and omnivorous species, and considerably more pelagic fish that lived beyond the reef, such as tuna, jacks, and flying fish. The change in the size of reef fish being eaten over time was striking. For example, the average weight of reef fish eaten during the early occupation of the St Thomas site was about a kilogram, with some weighing as much as 18.5 kilograms; the average size of reef fish eaten about 800 years later was around 100 grams.

A dietary shift of this sort has all the hallmarks of overexploitation of ocean resources. The earlier settlers focused on exploiting the abundant fish on nearby coral reefs, preferentially targeting large predatory reef fish which were readily available and provided large packets of food in return for the effort expended in capturing them. The abundance of large reef fish also meant they had little need to journey beyond the reefs in their canoes to catch pelagic fish. On the other hand, people living at the same sites hundreds of years later were fishing in a changed ocean environment. There were fewer coral reef fish, and these consisted mostly of smaller herbivorous and omnivorous species; large predatory reef fish were rarer.

These changes in the abundance and structure of coral reef fish populations were almost certainly the outcome of hundreds of years of sustained human exploitation of the nearby reefs and were accompanied by an increased human population at these sites. The later inhabitants had to adapt to changing environmental and demographic circumstances by venturing more frequently into deeper waters to exploit pelagic ocean resources to meet their food needs.

Prehistoric Depletion of Ocean Resources on Jamaica

The research by Elizabeth Wing and her colleagues helped catalyze a host of other zooarchaeological studies that kept turning up evidence that the prehistoric settlers of the Caribbean islands altered the ocean environment through their fishing, foraging, and hunting activities. For example, environmental archaeologists have documented the depletion of ocean resources during the Ceramic Age at a location on the southwest coast of Jamaica (Keegan et al., 2003) (Fitzpatrick & Keegan, 2007). They discovered a 1,200-year-old midden filled with the remains of West Indian top shells; a great variety of conchs, including large queen conch; large coral reef fish including snapper, grouper, hogfish, and parrotfish; large mangrove dwelling fish such as the common snook; and sea turtles. Jamaica is unusual in that it appears to have not been occupied by humans until about 1,400 years ago. This midden thus gives us a glimpse of what the first Jamaican settlers extracted from their pristine ocean environment.

Satellite image of the island of Jamaica, West Indies
Satellite image of the island of Jamaica (Google Earth)

At a neighbouring site 250 metres away, researchers uncovered a younger 600-year-old midden that told a completely different story. Top shells were all but absent and there was a 75 per cent decline in the abundance of conch species, particularly large individuals of the queen conch. Fish remains were still abundant, but they were mostly derived from small fish. The remains of new kinds of food items were present such as hutia, a kind of rodent, birds, tortoise, crocodile, and iguana. The diet of these people had thus changed dramatically over the course of 600 years, with a drastic reduction in the ocean component and a significant addition of terrestrial animals.

This shift was probably necessitated by centuries of localized overexploitation of ocean resources driven by a growing population. Large coral reef fish, sea turtles, top shells and conch had become depleted in the nearby reef, seagrass, and rocky intertidal habitats. A contributing factor may also have been long-term changes in the physical characteristics of the coastal marine environment due to the conversion of land to agriculture that resulted in increased sedimentation of the seagrass and reef habitats.

The End of the Grand Turk Turtle Feast

Lisabeth Carlson, whose work I discussed in my previous post (Carlson, 1999; Keegan & Carlson, 2008)) found evidence that the pristine green turtle population of Grand Turk island was overexploited by the Coralie settlers during the Ceramic Age. She discovered that the incidence of green turtle remains in middens decreased over time, and the largest animals were present in the earlier deposits. This suggests that the green turtle population associated with the island progressively declined and that younger animals were hunted as the bigger, older ones became scarcer, clear signals of overhunting. After about 400 years, turtles, as well as large fish, were rare in the midden deposits suggesting that the Grand Turk turtle feast had largely come to an end and that large carnivorous fish had also been overexploited. By this time, the Coralie settlers had turned their attention to another ‘big game’ food source that dwelled on the island and that they had hitherto ignored—a native species of tortoise. It is unclear how long this food source lasted but this tortoise no longer exists on Grand Turk and is extinct throughout the Caribbean islands.

A well-preserved carapace of the now extinct Grand Turk tortoise once widely distributed on Caribbean islands.
A well-preserved carapace of the now extinct Grand Turk tortoise. These remains were found in the sediments of a blue hole on Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas. Source: Crawling Out of History: The Grand Turk Tortoise by Bill Keegan, Betsy Carlson and Michael Pateman in

How could a small population of perhaps 25 permanent Coralie residents decimate the local green turtle population to such an extent? A study of the hunting and fishing strategies of people living in a Miskito Indian village in Nicaragua done in 1968-1969 provides some modern context (Nietsclunann, 1972). Green turtles were found to contribute about 70 per cent of the animal portion of the diet of the 1,000 or so villagers that lived there, which is about the same proportion as for the people of Coralie. The Miskito villagers ate 819 turtles during the year—equivalent to about 35 tonnes of meat and a little less than one turtle per person per year.

These data suggest that the prehistoric Coralie villagers hunted at least 25 green turtles per year to meet their food needs. They would also have hunted additional turtles for trade in turtle meat with other islands. For the sake of argument let us assume, conservatively, that 50 animals were killed on average each year. On the face of it, this may not seem like a lot of animals, but the impact increases rapidly over time. After 10 years about 500 animals would have been exploited, and after a century 5,000 animals. The removal of individuals at this rate from a local population of an extremely slow growing, long-lived species was evidently sufficient to lead to overexploitation and the complete demise of the nesting green turtle population on Grand Turk.

Prehistoric Depletion of Ocean Resources on Tobago

On the island of Tobago there are indications that prehistoric settlers were overexploiting their ocean resources starting as far back as the middle of the Archaic Age (Steadman & Jones, 2006). A study of animal remains at a site occupied between 3,000 and 2,800 years ago showed that the Archaic Age settlers were eating sea turtles, tuna, large carnivorous fish, parrotfish, terrestrial reptiles, birds, and large, native, pig-like mammals known as peccaries, weighing up to 40 kilograms. Work at another site 3.8 kilometres away, this time a large Ceramic Age village occupied between 1,700 and 900 years ago, revealed that these people had a much different diet. Sea turtles, parrot fish and carnivorous reef fish were much less abundant, and peccaries had nearly completely fallen off the menu. The remains of large numbers of fish from mangroves and estuarine habitats were present and tuna remains were much more abundant.

Satellite image of the island of Tobago in the Caribbean.
Satellite image of the island of Tobago (Google Earth)

This suggests that by the time the Ceramic Age people had established themselves on Tobago the peccaries had been nearly extirpated, and populations of sea turtles and large reef fish were depleted. The new arrivals compensated for this by expanding their fishing efforts into mangroves, estuaries, and pelagic waters to meet the food demands of their larger population. One could argue that this dietary shift was not caused by resource depletion but by different fishing and hunting methods used by the Archaic and Ceramic Age people, or by different food preferences. However, I find it difficult to imagine a large population of Ceramic Age people on Tobago passing up high value meals of sea turtles, large reef fish and peccaries if these resources were readily available.

How Did the Prehistoric Ceramic Age Settlers of the Island of Carriacou Sustainably Exploit Ocean Resources for a Millennium?

In my previous post I discussed a fascinating study by Christina Giovas (Giovas, 2016) on the exploitation by Ceramic Age people of the ocean resources surrounding their tiny island of Carriacou in the Lesser Antilles. Almost everything these people ate came from the surrounding ocean, which comprised 90 per cent or more of their diet. This ocean-based way of life supported the two villages studied by Giovas, plus at least 10 other contemporary villages on the island, continuously over a period lasting from about 1,600 to 600 years ago. What is interesting about this study is that, unlike what has been revealed from zooarchaeological studies on many other Caribbean islands, Giovas uncovered minimal evidence that these people overfished and depleted the ocean resources they so depended on throughout their thousand-year occupation of Carriacou. Why were they able to sustainably exploit their ocean resources for a millenium? Giovas considered this question in detail and offered several potential explanations.

Archaeological dig over a midden deposit at Grand Bay, Carriacou in the Lesser Antilles, West Indies.
Partially excavated 5 × 5 metre trench over a midden deposit at Grand Bay, Carriacou showing four raised “sample” squares. The material in the squares was intensively sampled to recover the remnants of bone and shell for zooarchaeological analysis. The remains of queen conch shells recovered from the dig are scattered around the excavated area. Photo by Scott M. Fitzpatrick in Fitzpatrick et al. (2014) in reference list below.

Firstly, she suggested that the ocean environment around Carriacou was particularly resilient in prehistory, which enhanced its ability to absorb the impacts of long-term harvesting by the Ceramic Age settlers. This could have been because the starting point of human exploitation involved a pristine ocean ecosystem that was exceptionally productive, bioabundant, and biodiverse relative to many other regions in the Caribbean Sea. Even at present, the ocean habitats surrounding Carriacou, which lies on the productive Grenadine Bank, are considered particularly rich and diverse, comprising extensive coral reef, seagrass, mangrove, and rocky intertidal habitats. One can only imagine how diverse and productive these habitats were in prehistory before any form of human extraction occurred and when pollution and human-induced climate change were absent. This may have provided the ocean ecosystem of Carriacou the resiliency to withstand considerable anthropogenic disturbance and resist change to a less desirable state over the course of a thousand years of human exploitation.

Map of the Grenadines which lies on the shallow, rich and biodiverse Grenadine Bank.
Map of the Grenadines south to the island of Carriacou with inset of the Lesser Antilles. Carriacou lies on the shallow (down to 100 metres depth), rich and biodiverse Grenadine Bank, the area in white on the map. Source:

But Giovas discovered evidence that human agency may also have been involved. Her analysis revealed that the foraging and fishing behaviour of the prehistoric settlers of Carriacou wasexceptionally diverse—they exploited a very wide range of fish and invertebrate species from all the available ocean habitats, as opposed to targeting a few high-value species intensively. In doing this, they spread the impacts of their exploitation over many species and habitats, thus helping to sustain the functional diversity of the ocean ecosystem over time. Their foraging and fishing behaviour also exhibited flexibility. For instance, Giovas discovered that as the natural abundance of larger fish declined, the villagers responded by putting more effort into foraging snails and chitons from the rocky intertidal and queen conch from seagrass beds, rather than further depleting fish stocks. Once again, this behaviour would have helped maintain the functional diversity and resilience of the ocean system.

It is also possible that the size of the prehistoric human population on Carriacou was always small enough to cap the overall scale of exploitation, perhaps due to limited potential for larger scale agriculture on account of limited land area and low rainfall. If so, this would have further contributed to longer-term ocean resource sustainability. Currently, however, there are no reliable estimates on human population numbers on prehistoric Carriacou to test this hypothesis.

An intriguing question is whether these prehistoric people deliberately fostered a diverse and flexible exploitation strategy with the intent of managing their ocean resources sustainably. Or did they adapt unconsciously to changing circumstances? If the former, this would imply that these people developed and applied traditional knowledge to better manage their ocean resources. This would entail an understanding of the biology and ecology of the marine animals they were exploiting and the use of management strategies such as limits on the amount harvested, restrictions on catch size, and restrictions on access to prescribed areas to allow stocks to recover. Ethnohistorical research on the traditional knowledge of the prehistoric indigenous people of the Caribbean islands is poorly chronicled at present, so it remains an open question as to whether the prehistoric island settlers of Carriacou used such knowledge to manage their ocean resources.

When Did the Anthropocene Start in the Caribbean?

It is unlikely we will ever be able to fully reconstruct the extent of prehistoric human impacts on the ocean environment of the Caribbean islands. This is because much of the evidence is no longer available, covered by thousands of years of accumulated sedimentation, lost to coastal erosion, inundated by rising sea levels, hidden beneath volcanic deposits and, more recently, sealed over by asphalt, concrete, and buildings. Furthermore, it is no easy task to reconstruct past environments from the discoverable fragments of bone and shell left behind by these people.

Despite all this, archaeologists have managed to find and thoroughly study hundreds of Archaic and Ceramic Age sites throughout the insular Caribbean and a clear picture has emerged. We can be certain that these prehistoric Caribbean islanders depended heavily, sometimes almost exclusively, on ocean food resources and that they foraged, fished, and hunted a remarkable variety of marine species over thousands of years. We also have compelling evidence that these activities did indeed alter local ocean ecosystems at many sites, especially as population numbers increased during the Ceramic Age. If we accept this, then we must accept that the markers of anthropogenic change, and thus the start of the Anthropocene in the Caribbean Sea (using an ecological rather than geological marker for the start of the Anthropocene), extends back some 6,000 years or more into the Archaic Age.

We should not be surprised by this. As discussed here and in my previous blog posts, these prehistoric settlers were quite capable of hunting ocean megafauna such as manatees to the point of extirpating local populations; denuding shellfish from tracts of rocky intertidal habitat; removing massive numbers of queen conchs from seagrass beds; decimating local populations of green turtles; and fishing coral reefs intensively enough to alter the abundance and size distribution of reef fish.

We must also bear in mind that the prehistoric human settlers of the Caribbean islands impacted the ocean environment in a more indirect way. As soon as they settled islands, and sometimes before islands were permanently settled, they began creating humanized landscapes (Siegel et al., 2015; Fitzpatrick & Giovas, 2021). Native forests were cleared for fuel and building materials and burnt to make way for horticulture and agriculture. The resulting sedimentation undoubtedly had an early impact on seagrass, mangrove, and coral reef ecosystems, altering their biodiversity and productivity.

Given all this, I believe we must reject the notion that the footprint of the prehistoric settlers of the Caribbean islands was too light to visibly impact the ocean environment. The evidence to hand suggests otherwise. Like humans everywhere, these prehistoric people were agents of change (Balée & Erickson, 2006). Wherever they showed up, their activities altered the marine environment, and the amount and pace of change were proportional to their population size.

Although the basic story is clear, we must be careful not to overgeneralize the relationship between prehistoric humans and the ocean environment of the Caribbean islands. The archaeological evidence shows that there was considerable variability in the scope of human impacts on ocean habitats. Ocean resources were not exploited to the same extent on all islands, or even on various sites on large islands. The extent of alteration of the ocean environment was dependent on factors such as when an island was settled, the length of human presence, the size of the population present, the specific cultural food preferences of the settlers, the natural abundance of preferred ocean foods, and, as discussed in the Carriacou example above, the natural resilience of the exploited marine ecosystem and, potentially, the diversity and flexibility of their foraging and fishing behaviour.

Furthermore, the scale of humanizing influences of these indigenous settlers was constrained by the technologies of the day. They were limited to foraging, fishing, and hunting for ocean resources from the shore or from paddle-powered canoes, so their impacts would have been mostly localized around their settlements and would not have extended much into pelagic waters. The ocean environment of the Caribbean Sea on a regional scale thus probably remained reasonably intact and functioning in a largely natural way throughout the pre-Columbian period.

As I will discuss in my next blog post, the first Europeans who ventured into the Caribbean most certainly saw it that way—they encountered an ocean that looked to them to be incredibly flourishing, impressive, and bursting with resources.


Balée, W., & Erickson, C. L. (2006). Time, complexity, and historical ecology. In W. Balée, & C. L. Erickson (Eds.), Time and complexity in historical ecology: Studies in the neotropical lowlands (pp. 1-20). New York: Columbia University Press.

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.

Fitzpatrick, S. M., & Giovas, C. M. (2021). Tropical islands of the Anthropocene: Deep histories of anthropogenic terrestrial-marine entanglement in the Pacific and Caribbean. PNAS 118 (40) e2022209118, 1-10.

Fitzpatrick, S. M., Kaye, Q., Kappers, M., & Giovas, C. M. (2014). A decade of archaeological research on Carriacou, Grenadine Islands, West Indies. Caribbean Journal of Science, 48 (2-3), 151–161.

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Keegan, W. F., Portell, R. W., & Slapcinsky, J. (2003). Changes in invertebrate taxa a two pre-Columbian sites in southwesteern Jamaica, AD 800-1500. Journal of Archaeological Science, 30, 1607-1617.

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Siegel, P. E., Jones, J. G., Pearsall, D. M., Dunning, N. P., Farrell, P., Duncan, N. A., . . . Singh, S. K. (2015). Paleoenvironmental evidence for first human colonization of the eastern Caribbean. Quarternary Science Reviews, 129, 275-295.

Steadman, D. W., & Jones, S. (2006). Long-term trends in prehistoric fishing and hunting on Tobago, West Indies. Latin American Antiquity, 17(3), 316-334.

Wing, S. R., & Wing, E. S. (2001). Prehistoric fisheries in the Caribbean. Coral Reefs, 20, 1-8.