Journal of Maritime Archaeology

, Volume 8, Issue 1, pp 101–138 | Cite as

Seafaring Capabilities in the Pre-Columbian Caribbean

  • Scott M. FitzpatrickEmail author
Review Paper


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.


Prehistoric watercraft Canoes Maritime interaction Antilles West Indies 



A shorter version of this paper was originally presented in a symposium at the 2011 Southeastern Archaeological Conference in Jacksonville, FL on prehistoric canoes. I thank the organizers, Donna L. Ruhl and Phyllis E. Kolianos, for the kind invitation to participate in the session. Thanks also go to Leslie Hazell and John Swogger for drafting illustrations of several of the figures used in the paper, as well as Leslie Hazell, John Cherry, Christina Giovas, Robin Torrence, Richard Callaghan, and an anonymous reviewer for providing useful comments and suggestions that improved various aspects of the paper. I also acknowledge the mentoring and friendship of Peter Drewett who recently passed away in April 2013 and was responsible for first introducing me to Caribbean archaeology on the island of Barbados over 20 years ago.


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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of OregonEugeneUSA

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