If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

WATCH: Pre-Colonial Caribbean

Website: https://www.oerproject.com Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/OERProject/ Twitter: https://twitter.com/OERProject. Created by World History Project.

Video transcript

Here at the World History Project, we talk a lot  about the networks that connected communities   across both land and sea. We've highlighted some  of these networks such as those in the New World, the Silk Roads, and the Indian Ocean trade routes.  In fact, we've metaphorically described the Silk Roads and Indian Ocean networks as an archipelago  of trade, comparing trading spots to a group of islands. But there's an important network that  existed in the Caribbean Sea that included   multiple literal archipelagos. First, we should  define what we mean by the pre-colonial Caribbean. We'll start with the geographical scale of the  Caribbean. This includes more than 7,000 islands in the Caribbean Sea as well as the other  landforms that touch this body of water. The larger islands in the Caribbean are  grouped together as the Greater Antilles. The group of smaller islands to the  south of these are the Lesser Antilles. In terms of time, pre-colonial  refers to the history of the region from the earliest migrations starting about  15,000 years ago and up to the late 15th century. Caribbean history spans thousands of years in a  large geographical area with a lot of diversity. For example, the size of the islands ranges from  Cuba, which is as large as the state of Tennessee, to Islas Mujeres, which if you rode your bike  around the whole thing would take less than an hour. Some islands have dry desert-like  environments, while others have rain forest. Some have high mountain ranges, while others are at  or below sea level. Then there's the wide variety of plant and animal species, but the region's  people also share a lot of characteristics. Why? Well partly, this is because the region was  connected through a series of overlapping networks much like Afro-Eurasia's interconnected networks  of the 13th and 14th centuries. So what do we know about the people in the societies that  lived in this region for thousands of years and how did they build networks of exchange  across the aquatic highway of the Caribbean Sea and wider Atlantic Ocean? Hi, I'm Sharika  Crawford, a professor of Latin American history at the U.S. Naval Academy, and in order to answer  these questions, I turned to two experts, Dr. Corinne Hofman and Dr. Jorge Ulloa Hung who  will help us answer these questions. I'll start with the basics. When  were the Caribbean islands settled and where did these early communities  migrate from? It is important to understand the possible connection of two different moments of the migrations to the Caribbean islands. For example, in the early moments in the  5000 BC, you have really important connection, not only with South America, you have an important connection now with Yucatan or Central America. And for example, the early communities enter for  two ways of migration to Central America to the   directly to, especially to Cuba, Puerto Rico,  and another big islands, and you have another corridor of migration from South America for this  first moment of migration. And then the second one which is to be dated more like 2500 years ago, and  until now we see in fact the major movement coming from South America and probably eastern South  America, so we'll have to think about indeed Venezuela or the Guyanas maybe. So we know that  there were at least two major migrations from the mainland of Central and South America, and we  also have evidence of these migrations from the archaeological record such as the similarities of  tools used by people living on different islands. What else can the archaeological record tell us  about how these pre-colonial societies lived? Well as an archaeologist, we are learning more and more  on how the indigenous people lived in the islands, and also with the the advancement of techniques  of course we can get inside into their food ways, into their diet, into how they interacted  with their environment, how they were fishing, how they were trading, how they were transporting  materials, and that is the wonderful thing about archaeology. That it is not a written history, but  it is a history which is in the soil, and the soil has to be opened like a book and that is how we  discovered that people were building, for example, how they were building their houses with wooden  posts. Sometimes they were round. Sometimes they were oval. They were sometimes-they were five  to eight meters in diameters, but we also found much larger houses up to 90 meters in diameter.  People were burying their deceased kins or family members in the houses, sometimes outside  the houses. These burial practices you describe make me curious about belief systems in the  Caribbean. Jorge, can you tell us more about how these beliefs changed from the early migrations to  the later ones? It's not homogeneous. For example, belief system at the beginning of this community entered in the Caribbean island, this belief system is more related with the mainland  society, with this more equalitarian society. They believe more in ancestors, and they offers-  many offerings to their ancestors in the burials,   and you have a special space to bury on his  ancestor in the middle of the community especially in the early moment of this society. And in the  late moments, you have more conceptualized and more symbolized belief system. You have a  kind of mythology. You have a belief in icons or beans. This kind of beans is like a god,  and this god has a different powers, and   this power is related with the owner of the icons.  This is a reason if you have a powerful god, a powerful icon, you have at the same time a power.  You have at the same time social power. You have at the same time social influence over your community. So  the archaeological record can help us understand how these communities shared beliefs, how they  acquired food, and how they built their homes. Another thing that archaeology can tell us  is how indigenous Caribbean peoples got the other things they needed. Trade goods such  as jade and ceramics were transported from island to island on dugout canoes, and  these items crisscross the Caribbean Sea. Can you tell us what other items were traded  between the islands and also between the mainland and the islands? So yeah and then  there's also, for example, another trade item which we have been finding is for example teeth  from dogs that were made into pendants and that were traded across the islands. We have also found  teeth coming from mammals like jaguars or tapirs for example, and we've seen that they were coming  from the South American mainland. So all in all, there has been an enormous trade, an exchange  going on between the islands, between the Greater Antilles and the Lesser Antilles but also between  the islands and the mainland of South America, so there was a continuous flow of mobility and  exchange between these islands going on from the first colonizations till really 1492. The  archaeological evidence tells us a lot about the networks of exchange and interaction between these  islands in the pre-colonial period. What about interactions after 1492 when Columbus and the  Spanish arrived? I think that the Spanish really tapped into the networks that were existing in among the indigenous peoples in the Caribbean and that is one of the reasons why they could expand  so fast and into the other islands but also into other parts of the Americas. First, the indigenous  peoples clearly had a role towards the Spanish as   translators, as guides. exchanging their knowledge  and that rapidly changed into a situation where the indigenous peoples were enslaved, were  put into work, into gold mines, into pearl fishery, and were put into the encomienda system where  whole indigenous villages in fact were put under the rule of the Spanish leaders. Some indigenous  Caribbean societies voluntarily helped the Spanish, while others were forced to labor for them.  There were also some indigenous groups like the Kalinago who resisted Spanish control.  Can you tell us more about this resistance? Yes. In the Lesser Antilles, we see the Kalinago  persistence against the Spanish colonization for about 150 years. The coast of South and  Central America were already colonized and settled really by the Spanish. The Lesser Antilles  were still sort of stronghold for the Kalinago people, which were people probably composed also  of the indigenous peoples who were fleeing from the Spanish in the Greater Antilles and on the  other hand also from the South American mainland. A final question, in your opinion how do the  colonial interactions with indigenous peoples in the Caribbean contribute to a new global history?  So from on the first years of colonization, we see what has later been labeled the Columbian Exchange,  where we see foodstuffs and other products going back and forth from the Americas to Europe  and to other parts of the world. So I think that is really one of the major changes. In fact, it  was the beginning of a true globalizing world, connecting all the continents with each other. You  can really label it as the beginning of the true globalizing world. Of course, globalization is a  term that it has been used in many other contexts, but if we are looking really at opening  of all the continents to each other and exchanging goods and people and diseases  and everything else yet, then it is really 1492. The arrival of European colonizers after 1492  disrupted a maritime system of migration trade and cultural exchange that had existed for millennia.  The societies of the Caribbean developed diverse beliefs and technologies, and they interacted  across extensive sea networks connecting the islands of the Caribbean with the two  mainlands of Central America and South America. The violence of the Spanish conquest destroyed  so much and killed so many that historians and archaeologists today must rely on techniques like  isotope analysis to reveal who these people were, how they lived, what they believed,  and how they connected with each other. However, indigenous culture did not disappear  with colonization. The Caribbean people and their culture have persisted. We can find it in  Caribbean foods that were shared around the world and in the fusion of cultures and beliefs that  continue to shape our world long after 1492.