The Lesser Antillean islands are often referred to as “stepping-stone islands” by archaeologists. This name comes from the hypothesis that Indigenous peoples migrated to these islands by going from one island to the next one, as if they were stepping-stones. The theory was based on the fact that the islands are visible from one to another, meaning that potential explorers would see the next island they could go to. Although archaeologists now know that this theory is not completely accurate, the term remains commonly used.
The people that lived on the Lesser Antillean islands during the Archaic Age (4000 to 200 BC) would have been dependent on the resources of other islands to survive. The Caribbean islands are incredibly diverse, with differences in landforms, rainfall, volcanism, flora and fauna. This diversity between islands demanded adaptation of the Archaic Age people and most likely stimulated their mobility, since some resources could only be found on specific islands. Whether these people traded resources or visited all the different islands themselves remains unknown.
What archaeologists do know for sure, is that at least part of the Archaic Age people traveled between islands, to live there at different times of the year. These people had campsites on two or more islands and traveled between these campsites based on the resources they could find on the island at that time of year. An example of such a seasonally occupied campsite is Plum Piece, located in the tropical forest of Saba.
Another hypothesis that is harder to prove, is that these Archaic Age people would come together on special occasions for trading, exchanging knowledge and rituals. The Lesser Antilles were inhabited by only a small number of people during the Archaic Age, so contact between groups would have been essential not only for resources, but maybe most importantly, for finding suitable partners. This would be vital to retain the population’s fitness.
One of the islands that was the most frequently visited during the Archaic Age, was Antigua. Archaeologists argue that this is because of the large amount of flint that is available naturally on Antigua. The best-known flint source in the Lesser Antilles is Long Island, a small islet just off the coast of Antigua. The flint from this source is found all over the Lesser Antilles, and therefore a good example of trade and/or the visiting of other islands during the Archaic Age. The people that retrieved this flint would “prepare” the flint on site, meaning that they would take off the parts of the flint that would not be of use to them. They most likely did this so the weight they had to transport would be less.
Text by Anouk van de Ven, based on original published research (see further reading).
Photo: Networks of mobility and exchange based on the Archaic Age site of Plum Piece (Hofman, C.L. & M.L.P. Hoogland, 2016. Saba’s first inhabitants; A story of 3300 years of Amerindian occupation prior to European contact (1800 BC- AD 1492). Sidestone Press, Leiden).
Fitzpatrick, S., 2013. The Southward Route Hypothesis, in W.F. Keegan, C.L. Hofman and R. Rodriguez Ramos (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Caribbean Archaeology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 198-204.
Hofman, C.L., A.K. Bright and M.P. Hoogland, 2006. Archipelagic Resource Procurement and Mobility in the Northern Lesser Antilles: The View from a 3000-year-old Tropical Forest Campsite on Saba. The Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology 1(2), 145-164.
Keegan, W.F. and C.L. Hofman. 2017. The Caribbean Before Columbus. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Knippenberg, S. 2001. Flint collecting strategies on Long Island. Paper presented at the XIX Congress of the International Association for Caribbean Archaeology, Aruba.
Knippenberg, S., 2007. Stone artefact production and exchange among the Lesser Antilles. Leiden: Leiden University Press.