, Volume 8, Issue 1, pp 101-138
Date: 11 Jun 2013

Seafaring Capabilities in the Pre-Columbian Caribbean

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Abstract

At historic contact Europeans remarked on the skill and proficiency of native Caribbean Amerindians to build and travel in dugout canoes. While archaeological examples of these have been recorded throughout the circum-Caribbean, very few exist in the Antillean chain of islands. Despite this deficiency, indirect evidence of seafaring along with archaeological data has suggested to many that the sea was an artery that linked prehistoric communities together between islands and continents through exchange networks and settlement ‘lifelines’. It is clear that frequent interaction was taking place prehistorically in the region, but examination of seafaring capabilities and the general lack of hard archaeological evidence for contacts in many places suggest this was largely restricted to interaction between the islands and with South America. The fact remains that seafaring in the Caribbean, as one of the smaller aquatic realms inhabited by humans in the past, was highly influenced and largely structured by oceanographic and anemological effects that limited the development of various watercraft designs and navigational techniques which are seen in many of the other world’s seas and oceans. In this paper I: (1) synthesize what is currently known about the antiquity and development of early seafaring in the Caribbean; (2) highlight debates about the level of technologies found in the region; (3) discuss how environmental conditions likely influenced seafaring capabilities and settlement patterns; (4) outline the possible evidence for connections between the different surrounding mainland areas; and (5) provide a comparison with seafaring technologies found in the Pacific to help contextualize the Caribbean into the broader context of global seafaring.