Petroglyphs, Reef Bay Trail, St. John Virgin Islands

The Origin of the Tainos

Civilization has existed in the Caribbean for thousands of years despite the Euro centric assumption that the "New World" was discovered in 1492. The peopling of the Caribbean is not the product of a single discovery; its history is not mirrored in the narrative of a single expedition. Rather, it has been a lengthy process of assimilation and conquest. The arrival of the Europeans was a harsh and drastic example of this process. Many different groups have migrated to and within the Caribbean. Cultures have dominated, and cultures have submitted. With each new migration the Caribbean culture evolved. The culture continues to change, even today, with recent continental gentrification. Each influx brings new characteristics, oftentimes at the expense of the rich traditions of the past. The tropical paradise for which the Caribbean is known serves only as a backdrop to the colorful tapestry of cultures, which have constructed the history of the region.

The First People to Settle in the Caribbean
The first people to settle in the Caribbean most likely came from Central America and settled in Cuba and Hispaniola. Archeologists and ethnologists call them the Casmiroid. They lived in the upland savannas of what is now the nation of Belize and survived primarily by hunting. They gradually migrated to the river valleys where they could fish and gather plant foods, which grew in abundance in this rich and fertile environment. They then began to make seasonal trips to the coast where they learned to exploit the resources of the sea. It was from these coastal camps that the migration to the islands of the Caribbean began about 6000 years ago.

The trade winds and the major ocean currents in the Caribbean generally favor east to west and north to south travel, however there is a phenomenon known as the Cuban countercurrent which is a west to east current south of Cuba, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico. The Casmiroids took advantage of this current to cross the approximately 125 miles of open water between Yucatán and Cuba known as the Yucatan Passage and later to cross the narrower Windward Passage between Cuba and Hispaniola.

Cuba and Hispaniola are the largest islands in the Caribbean and as such have resources that are not available on the smaller islands. Here the Casmiroids could enjoy a rich environment similar to that of their ancestors on the mainland. The interior of the islands offered access to hunting and fresh water fishing. The forests and river valleys offered an abundance of wild fruits and vegetables. Sloths (which were hunted to extinction), manatees, crocodiles, waterfowl, land crabs and turtles could be hunted in the mangrove swamps and river estuaries, and the numerous bays and offshore reefs provided an abundant supply of fish and other seafood. The compatibility of this large island environment with the traditional lifestyle of the Casmiroids probably explains why they never traveled further east to the smaller islands of the Caribbean such as St. John.

The First People to Inhabit St. John
Beginning around 2000 BC, a second group, called the Ortoiroid by present day Archeologists, migrated to the islands of the Caribbean. Their lived in South America in the area of the Orinoco Delta and later migrated to the coastal sections of Trinidad when that island was still part of the mainland.

The South Equatorial current flows from Africa eastward to South America. Off the coast of Guyana the current is deflected to the northward by the force of the Orinoco River flowing into the sea. This phenomenon is even more pronounced in the summer when the Orinoco is in flood from upriver rains. The Ortoiroid used this current to facilitate their travel northward throughout the Lesser Antilles. From the northern Leeward Islands they rode the easterly trade winds across the Anegada Passage into the Virgin Islands, and by 1000 BC they had settled Puerto Rico where, for the first time they faced another culture, the Casmiroids, on the other side of the Mona Passage.

The Ortoiroid were a coastal people. Their settlements were small and widely dispersed and they survived mainly on the resources provided by the sea. Ortoiroid artifacts include barbed spearheads made of bone, ornaments made from perforated animal teeth, and tools made from stone, bones and shells. In 1986 a team of archeologists uncovered charred whelk shells from an Ortoiroid settlement in 770 BC at Lameshur Bay. The find was verified by carbon dating.

The Ortoiroids used different areas of St. John for different purposes. The finding of whelk shells at Lameshur Bay shows that this was a site where the inhabitants collected and prepared seafood and is referred to by archeologists as a procurement site. Grootpan Bay was a manufacture site dedicated to the fabrication of stone tools. The actual village was located at Salt Pond Bay.

The Mona Passage between Puerto Rico and Hispaniola served as a natural barrier separating the Ortoiroid and Casmiroid peoples. The two cultures existed independently until the arrival of a new wave of immigrants.

The Emergence of the Taino
About 500 BC, a new wave of Native Americans, also originally from the river valleys of South America, made the difficult ocean crossing between Trinidad and Grenada, 80 miles to the north and out of sight of land. From there, they proceeded up the island chain arriving on St. John around 20 AD. (White on red ceramic artifacts distinctive of this new culture, dating between 20 AD and 600 AD, were found in Reef Bay and Coral Bay.)

Like the Europeans who came to the islands 2,000 years later, these settlers did not find their newly discovered territory to be unoccupied. The Lesser Antilles, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico were already inhabited by a coastal people, gatherers and fishers who lived in small and widely dispersed settlements. And like Columbus and the Europeans, the newcomers overwhelmed the pre-existing culture they encountered.

These newcomers were the ancestors of the Tainos. They are known as Los Archaicos (Ancient Ones) to today's Taino descendants and are called Saladoids or Pre-Taino by today's academic community.

The Taino Ancestors were more advanced than the Ortoiroids. They cultivated the land whenever possible and carried on an extensive and far-reaching trade. (Archeological digs have uncovered gemstones and shells with drawings of animals only found on the South American mainland.) They fabricated ceramic pottery, and made tools and weapons out of shells and stone.

The ancestors of the Taino easily defeated and replaced the existing population of the islands, whose settlements were sparsely populated and widely dispersed. They encountered different conditions when they crossed the Mona Passage. The inhabitants of Hispaniola possessed better weapons and had a larger population. They were able to defend their culture against the invaders who remained on the eastern coast of Hispaniola in an apparently uneasy state of coexistence.

The Pre Tainos underwent a Dark Age between 400 and 600 AD. They no longer carried on long distance trade and their ceramics and artwork became less sophisticated. This period of cultural stagnation ended around 600 AD resulting in a new and revitalized culture, which expanded into Hispaniola and eventually replaced and absorbed the Casimiroids of the Greater Antilles. Casmiroid and Pre Taino cultures blended together and the result was the formation of a new people, the Taino.

According to Taino myth the Tainos originated in caves in a sacred mountain in Hispaniola. Modern research has now shown that this myth is essentially correct. Although influenced by trade and hereditary and cultural ties to both Mesoamerica and South America, the essence of Taino culture evolved locally in eastern Hispaniola and then spread westward to Cuba, Jamaica and the Bahamas and eastward to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

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