Dr. Basil Reid reinterprets the
History of the West Indies

University of the West Indies
lecturer and archeologists
takes a critical look at early Caribbean history...

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Pre-Columbian and the early colonial history of the West Indies was shaded by colonialism and Eurocentric thinking, and many of these misrepresentations continue to be popularized in today's history books.

Using archaeological evidence, like the discovery of Banwari Man/Woman in San Francique (southwestern Trinidad near Penal), Dr. Basil Reid has debunked many of these myths about native Caribbean peoples, and the early history of the West Indies.

Dr. Basil Reid West Indian History 

In 1969 the discovery of Banwari Man/Woman by the Trinidad and Tobago Historical Society added a very human dimension to establishing Trinidad as the first point of migration into the Caribbean archipelago.

And it is with this exciting discovery in mind, and Dr. Reid's determination to share current academic knowledge with the general public, that we begin our conversation about Trinidad's place in the early history of the West Indies...

In your book you don't use traditional terms like 'Neolithic People', 'Stone Age Man', 'Carib Indian' or 'Arawak Indian' when describing Banwari Man/Woman and subsequent waves of Amerindians, but rather you describe these early Caribbean immigrants as Archaic People. Why is this, and what is the difference?

Carib, Arawak, sacred rock artDr. Basil Reid: The term 'Neolithic People' usually refers to the people from most recent period of the Stone Age, after 10,000 years ago, and is invariably used in relation to Old World archaeology. 'Archaic', which pertains to the transition period between hunting/gathering and farming, is more commonly applied to the Caribbean.

Caribbean archaeologists sub-divide the Archaic People into two groups. The first group, called Ortoiroids, migrated from northwest Guyana, and colonized Trinidad and Tobago to Puerto Rico from 5000 BC - 200 BC; while the second group, called Casimiroids, originated in Belize in Central America and settled both Cuba and Hispaniola from 4000 BC - 400 BC.

Carib, Arawak, sacred rock artRegarding the history of the West Indies:
What was it about Banwari Trace that prompted the Trinidad and Tobago Historical Society to begin sample excavations there?

Dr. Basil Reid: I am unable to definitively answer the question as to what prompted this discovery. What is more important is that the indefatigable work of the Trinidad and Tobago Historical Society led to the discovery of one of the oldest sites in the Caribbean.

University of the West Indies students working at a dig in St. John, south TrinidadHowever, Banwari Trace may not be the only site in Trinidad dating to 5000 BC. I am presently working on the site of St. John, which is about 5 km from Banwari Trace. This site is also Ortoiroid and preliminary radiocarbon dates obtained in the 1990s suggest that St. John may be as old as Banwari Trace.

Regarding the history of the West Indies:
Was Trinidad still connected to South America when the Ortoiroid peoples first settled Trinidad?

Carib, Arawak, sacred rock artDr. Basil Reid: Trinidad was already an island in 5000 BC, 7,000 years ago, when Banwari Trace was occupied. Trinidad became an island between the end of the Pleistocene and the beginning of the Holocene, approximately 12,000 years ago. During the Holocene, because of rising temperatures and melting glaciers, sea levels around the world rose considerably creating the Columbus Channel that now separates Trinidad from the South American mainland.

Regarding the history of the West Indies:
The Banwari Trace site was inhabited over a period of some 4000 years. The middens seem to be full of fresh water shellfish in quantities we no longer see in Trinidad. What made this site so attractive to these Archaic Peoples that they would return here repeatedly over such an extended period?

Carib, Arawak, sacred rock artDr. Basil Reid: The presence of rivers, wetlands, Gulf of Paria (west of Trinidad) and an abundance of forests encouraged Archaic Peoples to occupy Banwari Trace. They were able to obtain a great variety of foods from these resource habitats, such as mammals, shell food, fishes and plant materials.

Regarding the history of the West Indies:
How many people would you estimate were in these groups that used the Banwari Trace site? Is there any evidence that indicated whether they were small mobile family groups taking advantage of a seasonal commodity, or where they more permanent settlers?

Carib, Arawak, sacred rock artDr. Basil Reid: We are yet to estimate the Banwari Trace population. Pre-colonial populations can be estimated from midden sizes, and carrying capacity analysis so this may very well be an issue for scholarly attention in the future.

However, the depth of the artifacts clearly suggests that the Ortoiroid people occupied the area for thousands of years. The site may have been a major permanent settlement from which generations of Archaic People hunted, fished and collected food.

Regarding the history of the West Indies:
As the first settled humans in both Trinidad and the Caribbean how significant was the discovery of the Banwari skeleton?

Carib, Arawak, sacred rock artDr. Basil Reid: The discovery of Banwari Man/Woman has added an important human dimension to continuing research at Banwari Trace. Physical anthropologists suggest that the remains may be those of either a man or woman 20 to 30 years. It is hoped that in the near future, additional research on these remains will be carried out.

Regarding the history of the West Indies:
What motivated these early people to consider canoe voyages to trade with other West Indian islands? How did these first explorers know these islands were even there? It seems almost suicidal to set off in a small canoe and head off into the unknown?

Carib, Arawak, sacred rock artDr. Basil Reid: People tend to underestimate the navigational skills of the early natives of the Caribbean. Trade was an integral part of their culture as it not only provided their communities with commodities but also helped to build alliances.

Tobago is only 22 miles from Trinidad while Grenada is only 65 miles from Tobago. Once Grenada was reached, other islands such as St. Vincent, St. Lucia, Barbados, Dominica etc. could easily be accessed by boat.

Pre-colonial, Caribbean native mariners were able to understand over time the close association between the presence of islands and heavy cloud cover. Many learned how to navigate by using the moon, stars as well as the rhumb lines traced by flocks of migrating waterfowls.

Carib, Arawak, sacred rock artThe Caribbean Sea is only 350 miles wide. Traversing this space would not have been a major challenge considering the pre-colonial mariners in the Pacific colonized several island chains sometimes thousands of miles from one another.

Regarding the history of the West Indies:
Have there been any recent discoveries or new insights from the Banwari Trace site, or about the presence of these Archaic Peoples in Trinidad?

Dr. Basil Reid: No new discoveries have been made lately. But bear in mind that Banwari Trace has not been extensively excavated, so future archaeological projects may unlock other narratives about the first West Indians, Banwari Man/Woman.

Dr. Basil Reid's book, Myths and Realities of Caribbean HistoryRegarding the history of the West Indies:
In your book, "Myths and Realities of Caribbean History", which we found very interesting, you debunk 11 myths. Which would you say are the most significant in regards to the way we think about Caribbean history, and Trinidad history?

Dr. Basil Reid: In addition to early Caribbean migrations, some of the other myths discussed in the book include the correct usage of the terms 'Arawak Indian', 'Carib Indian', and 'Ciboney', the accuracy of claims of Island-Carib cannibalism, Columbus's diary, and syphilis.

In fact, I consider all of chapters of the book to be important as they capture key characteristics of Caribbean pre-colonial societies before and during Spanish contact.

As a born Jamaican who identifies himself as 'Trini to the Bone', what aspects of Trinidad and Tobago do you find most interesting? And what do you encourage friends to see and do when they visit?

Dr. Basil Reid: Yes, I am 'Trini to the Bone' because I love this country tremendously. I love Trinidad's ecological diversity as reflected in the North Range, Caroni, Nariva and South Oropouche wetlands.

Fort James Plymouth, TobagoI have been to the Wild Fowl Trust in Pointe-a-Pierre and Asa Wright Nature Center in the Northern Range, and I really liked what I saw.

In addition to Caroni Bird Sanctuary and Nariva Wetlands Reserve, I actively encourage friends to visit the Queen's Park Savannah and National Museum in Port of Spain, where they can see artifacts from many of Trinidad's archeological sites. Tobago's attractions are also quite considerable. Prime examples include the Tobago Museum at Fort King George, Fort James in Plymouth and the Main Ridge Nature Reserve.

Dr. Reid, thanks for the interview.
"Myths and Realities of Caribbean History" was not only an interesting read, but it significantly altered our perception of terms like, "Caribs" and "Arawaks", and changed our understanding of the early history of the West Indies.

         Related Topics...       
Caribs, Arawaks, the First Trinidadians
Caribbean Cannibal Stories
The Christopher Columbus Story
Early Tourism in Trinidad
Trinidad and Tobago History

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