The term “Kalinago” is used by anthropologists and archaeologists to denote the most recent group of people living in the Lesser Antilles at the time of the European invasion (colloquially known as “Caribs” or, less ambiguously “Island-Caribs”). It is now used by modern indigenous peoples in the Windward Islands, particularly those recognized in Dominica and St. Vincent, but it is debatable whether the term can apply to all indigenous people in the Lesser Antilles throughout time. 

The Amerindians living in the Lesser Antilles at the time of European Contact are shrouded in mystery. The traditional story all primary school children learn is that, at the time of European contact, the “Caribs” were recent arrivals from South America, who had rampaged their way through the Lesser Antilles, pillaging and raping the previous inhabitants (“the Arawaks”) into oblivion. 

Colorized version of Theodore de Bry's (1592) depiction of Amerindian "barbacoa" (from which "barbeque" is derived). However, there is little evidence they ate other humans.

This story is based on earlier European accounts (e.g., most famously Rev. Raymond Breton)(Breton 1999). But evidence for this “Carib Invasion” remains wanting. For instance, linguistic analysis of the language Breton himself recorded turned out to be unrelated to the South American “Carib” language family, but firmly within the “Arawakan” language family (Rouse 1992). Meanwhile, very few archaeological sites from the Contact-period have been found, limiting the material culture available for study. Time after time, archaeologists investigated areas described by early chroniclers, only to find a much earlier Amerindian site, often hundreds of years before Contact (e.g., Morse 1997).

Part of the problem was simply taphonomy— the way things become buried and what happens to them afterwards. The last Amerindian occupations were on the surface when Europeans settled them, often right on top of previous villages. However, following colonial plantation agriculture, much of the top half-meter of soil was subsequently destroyed. This obliterated the last Amerindian occupations from the archaeological record.

Cayo Pottery from Argyle (St. Vincent) with European Glass Embedded (from Hofman and Hoogland 2012)

Mystery Pottery

Another problem was that the pottery style of the Kalinago was unknown. Eventually, in the 1980s, the pottery of the Kalinago was found in a misidentified style (Cayo) from St. Vincent. The assumption that this style was aberrant remained tentative because only one definite site was associated with this typology (Boomert 1986). It was actually not until the 2010s that more sites were identified and “Island-Carib” pottery (known as Cayo) was finally found, some actually containing unequivocal evidence of trade with Europeans, such as historic glass beads and adornments embedded in the pottery (Hofman and Hoogland 2012).

In Grenada, “Caribs” May Have Been “Arawaks”

But who were the makers of this pottery? In Grenada, analysis of historical records and archaeological sites dating to the early French period indicate there were actually two separate Amerindian groups present: one whom the French called “Caraibe” (Caribs) and another they called “Galibis” (Anonymous [Benigne Bresson] 1975). Counterintuitively, the Galibis seem a better match for whom we might label “Caribs” today, based on their pottery and the late timing of their settlements (e.g., Galby Bay was settled after AD 1250), although there is still no evidence of violence or cannibalism. (The name Galibi is related to Galina/Kalina and thus, modern Kalinago.)

Anse des Galibis depicted on Blondel 1667 map of Grenada

Meanwhile, the people the French called “Caraibe”were living at sites like Beausejour, Sauteurs Bay, Pearls, and Grand Marquis – some of the earliest settlements on the island (Hanna 2019). Thus, the people called “Caribs” in Grenada were not recent invaders but descendants of the first settlers. That is, the people the French called “Caraibe” (Caribs) in Grenada actually fit what would colloquially be called “Arawak”. Moreover, there is little evidence for violence among these Caraibe and Galibis—rather, the Galibis were intermarrying and integrating, just as many groups migrating from the mainland had done previously.

In sum, the word “Carib” was a European label for a highly heterogeneous mix of peoples living in the colonial-era Caribbean, some of whom were actually descendants of the earliest settlers (Hoff 1995; Lenik 2012). Their culture reflected this diversity and evolved into its own thing, not a copy of similar groups in South America nor those living in the Greater Antilles. Like the melding of African, Indo-Asian, and European that would come after them, the indigenous people of the Caribbean had become their own, distinctly Caribbean culture.

Arawak Ceremony at Mahaiconi, British Guiana in 1844 (from W.H. Brett, 1868)

Earlier Groups

The earliest direct evidence of humans in Grenada are several cut lambie shells found near the Maurice Bishop Airport that date between 1700 –1400 BC (Hanna 2019). This is later than evidence in the northern islands, but it does suggest some human presence during the Archaic Age (though we have no idea from what direction—mainland or northern islands). That said, these shells have been pushed up by storms and rising seas, so they are not in their original contexts. Stronger evidence is still needed, though it may be underwater.

Another glimpse comes from sediment cores taken at Meadow Beach and Lake Antoine, which found several indicators of human activity including a rise in charcoal, decline in arboreal forest, and fragments of Marantaceae (arrowroot) cultigens all dating around 3500 BC (Siegel 2018). Like the shells, however, they are just glimpses at human activity, rather than entire archaeological sites. This suggests that, while humans were likely here, there may not have been permanent villages during Grenada’s Archaic Age.

Natural and Cultural History of Pre-Columbian Grenada — comparison of regional precipitation and chronological records with local vegetation and archaeological records (see Hanna 2018)

The earliest evidence of permanent villages in Grenada arrives with ceramic-making people around AD 200. They belonged to the group commonly called “Arawaks” (although we don’t know what they called themselves) — the pottery they made is known by archaeologists as “Saladoid”. While this group had arrived in Puerto Rico and parts of the Leeward Islands by 500 BC, there is only one site (on Dominica) that dates before AD 100  between Grenada and Guadeloupe (Fitzpatrick 2013; Shearn 2017). For the rest of the Windward Islands, the earliest ceramic-making peoples come hundreds of years later. Moreover, there are only a few of such sites in Grenada, whereas most of the 87 recorded precolumbian sites originated after AD 750.

Indeed, the population of Grenada soared after AD 750 (evidenced by a drastic increase in sites), even while the climate entered a dry phase of multi-decadal droughts (Hanna 2018). This is also the time when inland sites like La Filette and Mt. Rich/Montreuil were settled, as well as islets like Calivigny, Hog Island, and agriculturally poor areas like Point Salines. And this is when all the known workstones and petroglyphs on the island appeared, which have similarities with those on the mainland as well, particularly in the Guianas Region (Eastern Venezuela, Suriname, French Guiana, and Guyana). For this reason, it has been proposed that a pulse of new migrants (known as “Arauquinoid”) from the mainland arrived during this time.

An Enduring Memory

The memory of Amerindian culture is also captured in everyday language of Grenadians with words like ajoupa (hut), anoli (lizzard), boucan (cocoa drying house), barbeque, boutou (night stick), canoe, guava, hammock, hurricane, iguana, mangrove, lambi (conch), manatee, manicou (opposum), mauby (tea bark drink), morocoy (red leg tourtise), papaya, potato, tobacco, and titiri (fish), as well as the countries of Bahamas, Cuba, Haiti, and Jamaica (all derived from Arawakan words) (Martin 2007). Their influence on food and agriculture are seen in the New World plants and animals we still eat, such as achiote, agouti, beans, guinea pigs, hutias, maize, cassava, opossums, papayas, peanuts, peppers, pineapples, shrews, “skin-ups” (guinep), squashes, sweet potatoes, tania, manioc and tobacco.


Anonymous [Benigne Bresson]
1975 Histoire de l’isle de Grenade En Amérique 1649-1659. Edited by John Angus Martin and Jacques Petitjean Roget. Translated by Jacques Petitjean Roget. Presses de l’Université de Montréal, (unpublished 2015 English translation on file at the Grenada National Museum). The 1975 French version is here: http://classiques.uqac.ca/contemporains/petitjean_roget_jacques/histoire_de_grenade/histoire_de_grenade.html

Boomert, Arie
1986 The Cayo Complex of St. Vincent: Ethnohistorical and Archaeological Aspects of the Island Carib Problem. Antropológica 66:3–86. 

Breton, Raymond
1999 Dictionnaire Caraïbe-Français [1665]. Edited by Marina Besada Paisa and Jean Bernabé. Karthala: Editions de l’IRD, Paris. 

Fitzpatrick, Scott M.
2013 The Southward Route Hypothesis. In The Oxford Handbook of Caribbean Archaeology, edited by William F. Keegan, Corinne Lisette Hofman, and Reniel Rodríguez Ramos, pp. 198–204. Oxford University Press, Oxford; New York.

Hanna, Jonathan A.
2018 Grenada and the Guianas: Mainland Connections and Cultural Resilience during the Caribbean Late Ceramic Age. World Archaeology 50(4):651–675. DOI:10.1080/00438243.2019.1607544.

 2019 Camáhogne’s Chronology: The Radiocarbon Settlement Sequence on Grenada, West Indies. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 55:101075. DOI:10.1016/j.jaa.2019.101075.

Hoff, Berend J.
1995 Language Contact, War, and Amerindian Historical Tradition: The Special Case of the Island Carib. In Wolves from the Sea: Readings in the Anthropology of the Native Caribbean, edited by Neil L. Whitehead, pp. 37–60. KITLV Press, Leiden. 

Hofman, Corinne L., and Menno L. P. Hoogland
2012 Caribbean Encounters: Rescue Operations at the Early Colonial Carib Site of Argyle, St. Vincent. In Analecta Praehistorica Leidensia: The End of Our Fifth Decade, edited by Corrie Bakels and Hans Kamermans, pp. 63–76. 43/44. Leiden University, Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden, Netherlands. 

Lenik, Stephan
2012 Carib as Colonial Category: Comparing Ethnohistoric and Archaeological Evidence from Dominica, West Indies. Ethnohistory 59(1):79–107.

Martin, John Angus
2007 A-Z of Grenada Heritage. Macmillan Caribbean, Oxford. 

Morse, Birgit Faber
1997 The Salt River Site, St. Croix, at the Time of the Encounter. In The Indigenous People of the Caribbean, edited by Samuel M. Wilson, pp. 36–45. The Ripley P. Bullen Series. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Rouse, Irving
1992 The Tainos: Rise & Decline of the People Who Greeted Columbus. Yale University Press, New Haven.

Shearn, Isaac
2017 Pre-Columbian Settlement Trajectories in Eastern Dominica: Report on Initial Radiocarbon Age Estimates. The Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology 13(1):1–15. DOI:10.1080/15564894.2017.1316798.

Siegel, Peter E. (editor)
2018 Island Historical Ecology: Socionatural Landscapes of the Eastern and Southern Caribbean. Berghahn Books, Oxford.