Little Compass RoseCaribbean Compass   August 2005
Amerindian Seafarers/Discoverers
by Norman Faria
Details about the early exploratory voyages of the region's indigenous peoples and their boats in the Caribbean may be found in two monographs. One is Desmond V. Nicholson's "Pre-Columbian Seafaring Capabilities in the Lesser Antilles" (published in Proceedings Documents of the 6th Congress of Pre-Columbian Studies of the Lesser Antilles, Guadeloupe, 1976). The other is Dr. R.T. Callaghan's "Passages to the Greater Antilles: An Analysis of Watercraft and the Marine Environment" (thesis at University of Calgary and provided to this author during a conference in Barbados in approximately 1990).
Aside from their different geographical foci, the two contributions differ in terminology and generalized description. Callaghan uses more scientific terms. Nicholson's work is more generalized and more easily read, though clearly based on equally serious sources.

Nicholson's time frame for aboriginal exploration in the Caribbean is far earlier than Columbus' arrival. He writes: "Early evidence of man in the circum-Caribbean area is found at Muaco, Cucuruchu and Taima-Taima in Venezuela at just under 15,000 BC. Saladoid Amerindians from Venezuela entered the Lesser Antilles at about the time of Christ and had voyaged as far as Puerto Rico by 120 AD."
The Lesser Antilles is the chain of islands from Trinidad up to the Virgin Islands area; the Greater Antilles are the larger islands to the north, including Hispaniola.
Nicholson, a former Director of the Antigua National Museum, writes that it was easier for the indigenous peoples to travel by canoe at that time than it would be today. The sea level was lower, so there were many more islands and the present islands were larger. "So there was no need to make long sea passages," he argues.

He also posits that because the high pressure area, which controls the tradewinds, must have been much farther south during the early days, the tradewinds would have been farther south. This meant more ideal canoe rowing conditions than exist today.
The earliest sea-going craft were rafts and coracles, according to Nicholson. But as the native peoples' shipwrights developed stone tools, canoes could be more easily dug out from large tree trunks. Dates of 5,400 to 4,600 BC have been placed on an Archaic site in Trinidad where crude stone axes, with stone obtained from what is now Guyana, were found in situ. Later, gouges and celts (chisel- or axe-like tools) of large mollusks (mainly Strombus) from the Caribbean were used.

Trading started. "To gather enough plants and animals to support themselves and their culture, these people (mainly inhabitants in what is today Venezuelan and Guyana - N.F.) had to travel far afield," writes Nicholson.
He continues: "They brought with them a sophisticated ceramic complex and a reasonably sophisticated skill in river navigation. This river culture, the product of necessity, easily became maritime."
Nicholson hypothetically places the larger exploratory canoes at 68 feet in length overall, with a beam of seven feet after the water treatment and splaying (widening) out of the topsides. It was made from the trunks of either Red Mahogany, Red Cedar or the Silk Cotton trees. "There were probably four men to a thwart, two paddling and two resting probably 48 paddlers and a captain who sat in the stern with a larger steering paddle. With 'passengers' (a chief and women and children for example) on board, together with trading goods and plant saplings, under an amidships waterproof canopy made of leaf mats, the gunwales were low in the water. They were 'raised' with a cane closely woven and covered with gummy or resinous substances."

The canoes could easily be driven without energy loss at 12 knots. With 24 men paddling at a time, eight knots could be maintained for long periods of time, says Nicholson. Barbados, to the east of the island chain, was reached after paddling for a longer period than between the islands on the north-south axis.
There were no sails. Nicholson says these were introduced to the indigenous peoples by a shipwrecked friar, one Father Blasius, in 1605, though Callaghan (in a separate interview with the author) noted that the early explorers had no need of sails because of the short distances, the efficiency of the paddled canoes, and the fact that spars, sails and ropes took up room and weight which could be better utilized with trade goods and plant saplings and animals.

"They were capable seamen they were not at the mercy of the winds and currents as is often postulated by prehistorians. the first expansion into the Antilles must have been systematic and intended. The Caribbean then, was an area settled by competent seamen, and cultural solidarity in any interacting area was certainly possible," Nicholson concludes.
Callaghan argues that those who first colonised the Greater Antilles embarked from what is today Venezuela. (Peoples from what is today Guyana/Suriname/French Guiana were undoubtedly also involved because of the movement of peoples in trading and hunting expeditions, according to Guyanese anthropologist Denis Williams in his "Prehistoric Guiana" - N.F.). Callaghan did experiments based on past and present marine environments in the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. Within that context, he strove to determine how voyages could have succeeded and in what craft. Four craft, rafts and canoes, were actually tested in Belize to calculate drift and paddled passages. The chance of success was greater, partly because of favourable winds and currents, when the early explorers set of from what Callaghan describes as the "Venezuela/Colombia region". The other considered points of departure were northern Central America and the eastern Gulf coasts. The time frame is 6,000 to 5,000 BC. Rafts had "limited possibilities of success", writes Callaghan.
Nicholson writes that early indigenous explorers could have come across (besides two other routes: across the Bahamas shelf to Cuba, and from Venezuela through the Lesser Antilles) from Central America on the exposed portions of the Nicaraguan Rise, because of a 20-metre lower sea at that time, making for an island-hopping scenario. Callaghan's theory doesn't square with that. He writes that even had the sea level been 20 metres lower at the early time of exploration, very little additional land would have been exposed.

The currents between Jamaica and Central America created, even back then, "formidable" and "dangerous" conditions. There was the near total absence of west winds, and more frequent southeast winds would have made rowing eastwards difficult, he further points out.
"This analysis gives the northern Central Americans the lowest chance of accidentally discovering the Greater Antilles, either with sails or without. Intentional discovery using rafts is almost completely ruled out and with dugouts and intent the region was ranked last (in the experiments)," writes Callaghan.
Apparently, chances of success from the Gulf coast were also slim. Callaghan concludes: "The results of the three major experiments here all favour this region (the El Jobo area in western Venezuela) as the source of the first peoples colonising the Greater Antilles."
Norman Faria is Guyana's Honorary Consul in Barbados. Interested persons can arrange to obtain copies of the two monographs mentioned in this article by contacting Mr. Faria at


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