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Taino Today, Part 4: Recent Discoveries at Cinnamon Bay Show Presence of Early Indigenous Culture

Taino rock carvings (petroglyphs) can be found at Reef Bay on St. John. (Photo by Ken Wild)

During the first week of January, Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. vetoed six bills. Among them was Bill Number 33-0364, which sought to create a Virgin Islands Indigenous Tribe identification card for those who identify as Taino, Carib, Kalinago or any other Caribbean indigenous group. It was a setback for Maekiaphan Phillips, a St. Thomas woman who has been pushing for tribal recognition from the Virgin Islands government for eight years.

Phillips is the “kasike” (“cacique” in Spanish) or “chief” of the Guainia Taino Tribe of the Virgin Islands, the first named chief in the Virgin Islands in hundreds of years. “We thought it best to link our tribal name to our Taino brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico; Guainia also links us back to the Amazon and Venezuela,” she said.

For those who are unfamiliar with the term “Taino,” it refers to “the Arawakan-speaking peoples of the Caribbean who arrived from South America over the course of 4,000 years,” according to an article in National Geographic.

Currently in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba and now the Virgin Islands, the term “Taino” is generally preferred over the term “Arawak.”

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This is the fourth in a series about Taino culture and history as it relates to the Virgin Islands.

One of the “must-do” things for visitors when they come to St. John is to hike the Reef Bay Trail to see the petroglyphs – rock carvings left by Taino people at the base of a waterfall.

The predecessors of the Taino people are known to have existed at a site in Lameshur Bay since around 840 B.C., according to Ken Wild, an archaeologist with the Virgin Islands National Park.

Ken Wild stands in an archaeological excavation near the site of the cottages at Cinnamon Bay Campground. (Photo by Kelsey Perrigo)

Wild, who has been based on St. John for 23 years, has worked on archaeological studies on the island since the early 1980s. He’s accustomed to finding Taino sites, dating from around A.D. 900 to 1450, in numerous locations, but over the last three months, he and a team of archaeologists from the Southeast Region of the National Park Service have found a trove of artifacts of a type that he’s never encountered on St. John.

Wild and his colleagues made many of their discoveries in November and December of 2020 while conducting a survey at Cinnamon Bay Campground on St. John.

“We were excavating and we were finding incredible things, I’m guessing from between 100 and 500 A.D. There are layers three feet deep of ceramics – red, black, orange – some that are thin like porcelain,” Wild said. We’ve found a bowl with food remains, probably fish, somebody’s dinner. It’s exciting!”

The campground’s facilities were destroyed by Hurricane Irma in September 2017; one of the things delaying the rebuilding has been the completion of a survey outlining archaeological resources.

Many artifacts have been found near these cottages destroyed by Hurricane Irma. (Photo by Amy Roberts)

The newest site was found near the heavily-damaged, concrete “cottages,” the overnight units located close to the entrance to the campground. “Now we know where we need to do the archaeology,” Wild said. “We will write a new chapter in St. John’s history.”

Wild believes the artifacts come from the Saladoid period, not named for a particular culture but for a style of pottery that is believed to have originated near the Orinoco River in what is now Colombia and Venezuela. The indigenous people who made the pottery are thought to have migrated to the Lesser Antilles, and then to Puerto Rico and Hispaniola, between 500 B.C. and A.D. 500.

The discovery helps prove “People have been on our island for a long time, and have been coming and going from here consistently,” Wild said. The discovery might provide further insights regarding common ancestry among people throughout the Caribbean.

A Taino artifact (NPS photo)

Saladoid pottery has also been found on St. Thomas, particularly in the Tutu area, and on St. Croix at Salt River, the site of Columbus’ first encounter with indigenous people in what is now the U.S. Virgin Islands.

In January 2020, Kaare Rasmussen, a Danish chemist, made a presentation on St. Croix co-hosted by the St. Croix Archaeological Society and Friends of the National Park. Rasmussen spoke about his analysis of 42 samples of pottery found in the Virgin Islands by a Danish archaeologist, Gudmond Hatt.

Hatt made his discoveries in the 1920s before carbon dating was invented. The samples were part of a collection held in Denmark that had languished since World War II when Hatt fell out of favor because of his sympathies toward the Nazis.

Rasmussen’s tests “indicated that the civilization at the Spratt Hall location started in A.D. 550 and the one at Cruz Bay [found at the location of what is now the Julius E. Sprauve School] in A.D. 200. He added that the decline of the culture on all the islands was probably around A.D. 1100,” according to an article in the Source.

Wild said archaeologists don’t yet know if the people who made the Saladoid pottery were predecessors of the Taino culture or were an entirely different culture; still, he’s excited that the recent findings at Cinnamon Bay seem to extend the timeline for human habitation on the island and may establish connections among earlier inhabitants.

(Photos attributed to NPS and Ken Wild)

Recent genetic studies suggest that there were two major waves of migrations through the Caribbean, according to an article in the New York Times in December 2020.

“The first human residents of the Caribbean appear to have lived mostly as hunter-gatherers, catching game on the islands and fishing at sea while also maintaining small gardens of crops,” according to author Carl Zimmer. “The genes of the oldest known residents of the Caribbean link them with the earliest populations that settled in Central and South America.”

Zimmer wrote that the absence of genetic material from these “Archaic Age” people makes it difficult to establish their connection to people who lived in the Caribbean around 500 B.C.

“About 2,500 years ago the archaeological record shows there was a drastic shift in the cultural life of the Caribbean. People started living in bigger settlements, intensively farming crops like maize and sweet potatoes. Their pottery became more sophisticated and elaborate. For archaeologists, the change indicates the end of what they call the Archaic Age and the start of a Ceramic Age.”

Archaeologists have often assumed that changes in pottery style indicate changes in culture, often spurred by the arrival of new populations at a particular time, but Zimmer cites DNA studies that indicate otherwise. “There’s a genetic continuity through those drastic cultural changes. It appears that the same group of people in the Caribbean went through a series of major social changes that archaeologists have yet to explain,” he wrote.

Zimmer cites the work of Dr. David Reich, a geneticist at Harvard University, who along with fellow geneticists “discovered family ties that spanned the Caribbean during the Ceramic Age. They found 19 pairs of people on different islands who shared identical segments of DNA – a sign that they were fairly close relatives. In one case, they found long-distance cousins from the Bahamas and Puerto Rico, separated by over 800 miles.”

By carbon dating the artifacts recently found by the team of archaeologists from the National Park Service, scientists may be able to confirm possible links among island inhabitants through time, particularly when the artifacts are compared to others that have been found at Cinnamon Bay.

Although the carbon dating process is expensive – around $500 per item – Wild is planning to run tests on the samples he found. He’s expecting results within a few weeks.

Over the years, Wild and teams of students have discovered many more recent artifacts, including those made of gold and mother of pearl. Perhaps the best-known artifacts are Zemis, faces of humans and animals that are thought to represent spirits.

Wild has published a scholarly work, “A Timeline of Taíno Development in the Virgin Islands,” based primarily on work at Cinnamon Bay which is available on the Virgin Islands National Park website. It contains many excellent photos of his discoveries.

For those who want a pared-down version, the park’s website presents the following outline:

“Humans first arrived in the Virgin Islands about 2,500 to 3,000 years ago from South America. This time period is called the Archaic Age. The oldest site found on St. John is just off the beach at Lameshur Bay.

“South Americans settled the island about 1,300 to 2,500 years ago and their villages have been found at Cinnamon Bay, Coral Bay, Caneel Bay and Lameshur Bay.

“There was a population explosion about 1,000 to 1,300 years ago. Prehistoric villages were established on most of the beaches of St. John.

“The development of Taino culture occurs around 500 to 1,000 years ago. The site at Cinnamon Bay defines classic Taino culture in the Virgin Islands.”

As Wild and his colleagues make further discoveries, he’s eager to share them with the public, but that will have to wait for now. “We want to get people out here and get them involved, but right now, it’s a construction site, and we’re dealing with COVID.”

For those who wish to get a better sense of the scope and beauty of Taino artifacts that have been found in the Caribbean, there’s a little-known but extraordinary collection in Haiti that is documented in this video. Kathy and Jean-Claude Dicquemare have collected more than 5,000 items that range in time from 1000 B.C. through the arrival of the Europeans. The couple has been working to establish a museum near Cap-Haitien. More information is available on their website.

This is the final installment in a four-part series. See the other installments here:

Taino Today Part One: Descendants Challenge Outdated Extinction Theory

Taino Today, Part 2: Phillips Seeks to Raise Awareness of Taino Ancestry

Taino Today, Part 3: The Phillips Family Has Gained Recognition

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