Nevis and St Kitts in prehistory

A prehistoric pot from Indian Castle, found by John and Barbara McFarland; photo by Penny Copeland.

Before Columbus sailed past Nevis in 1493 and before Europeans settled here in 1628, Amerindians had visited the island for centuries. At least 2500 years ago, people from South America and the southern Lesser Antilles (Windward Islands) had sailed their dugout canoes up and down the chain of islands stopping and exploring the seascapes and landscapes they encountered along their way. These people were not horticulturalists - they did not grow crops or husband livestock for food but foraged, hunted and gathered the natural resources of plants, animals and seafood available all around them. They made stone, shell, wood, bone and plant fibre artefacts to use as tools for hunting and gathering . This period is known as the Archaic Age. Around 100 BC, visitors arrived with something new - the ability to grow and process manioc (cassava) plants with their poisonous but starchy tubers, the desire to live permanently in villages, and the ability to produce and use pottery. This period is known as the Ceramic Age. On Nevis there are two villages that date to the Ceramic Age, both located by the sea on the reef-fringed, windward side. One consists of roundhouses discovered through geophysical survey and confirmed by archaeological excavation. The houses are set in a rich deposit of discarded refuse - painted pottery; agouti (a large plant-eating rodent), dog, bird and fish bones; shellfish; chipped stone tools; stone pestles and mortars; conch shell and stone beads; and bowls made from turtle shells. This village was large, 250m by 325m, but shrank to one-fifth of its size by about 600/800 AD when several more settlements were established all around the island. The question which no-one has been able to answer is why did the Amerindians abandon living on Nevis before the arrival of Europeans in the 17th century?

The prehistory of St Kitts stretches even further back in time. Radiocarbon-dated deposits over 4000 years old, which contained a massive collection of conch shell tools, basalt pestles and stone flaked tools made of chert stone brought from the island of Antigua, have been discovered there. During the Ceramic Age of horticulturalists, settlements similar to those on Nevis were established on the fringe of the island. Amerindians were still living on St Kitts at the arrival of Europeans, and conflict inevitably occurred during the early 17th century culminating in a betrayal of trust and a massacre of the island’s Native inhabitants.