Ancient Beadmakers of the Caribbean

By David R. Watters

When Columbus blundered into the Bahamas during his quest for Asia, he set in motion a process that ultimately led to the almost complete annihilation of Native American peoples of the Caribbean. As a result, archaeology now provides the principal means by which we are learning more about the peoples Columbus encountered; and about those peoples' ancestors, who truly were the real discoverers of the Caribbean. Native Americans preceded Europeans in the Caribbean islands by at least 5,000 years.

Archaeology reveals that one of the significant migrations began about 2,500 years ago (500 B.C.) and originated from the Orinoco River drainage on the South American continent. These Saladoid people (named after the Venezuelan site of Saladero) made distinctive kinds of ceramics, which preserve well and thus are very useful to archaeologists tracking the migration from island to island. The Trants site on Montserrat, where I have conducted research since 1978, has become a key site for the scientific investigation of this Saladoid migration.

The exquisitely crafted beads, pendants and related objects from Trants attest to the skill of its Saladoid inhabitants in working stone and shell. Our research involves analyzing beads held in museum collections as well as conducting new excavations to document these artifacts in their stratigraphic context, from which we can interpret their antiquity and cultural implications.

Serious research on stone beads by Caribbean archaeologists began only about two decades ago, but already the results are directing us into exciting new paths of investigation and interpretation.

Foremost among these findings is the striking diversity of rocks and minerals from which these beads were created. Many of these stones must have been brought from continental sources, most likely South America, since they do not occur in geological deposits on the Caribbean islands. Our archaeological research also reveals various stages of bead production, thus confirming that certain objects actually were being manufactured by the inhabitants of Trants from imported raw materials. Since other beads lack production stages, they apparently arrived at Trants as finished products having been obtained through trade networks.

Did beads serve simply as objects of personal adornment for Caribbean Native Americans? Or did they have other functions? Accounts written by Europeans in contact with Native Americans in the Caribbean islands and on mainland South America reveal that beads served a multitude of purposes beyond mere ornamentation, including to indicate status and prestige and to physically represent creatures important in the Native American mythology.

Caribbean archaeologists can appreciate beads in various ways-for signifying an artistic tradition, manifesting a technologically sophisticated craft specialization, indicating migrations and trade networks, and informing us about the society and culture of these ancient beadmakers of the Caribbean islands.

David R. Watters is curator of Anthropology at Carnegie Museum of Natural History.