St. Maarten’s vanished Amerindian past

POSTED: 08/22/13 12:35 PM
Archeologist Jay Haviser holds up Amerindian stone axe heads found at various sites on the island. Many such artifacts have been lost due to unsupervised building. Photo Today / Milton Pieters

Archeologist Jay Haviser holds up Amerindian stone axe heads found at various sites on the island. Many such artifacts have been lost due to unsupervised building. Photo Today / Milton Pieters

St. Maarten /By Jason Lista – They are an often overlooked people because they are a vanished people. Save for a brief mention of them in surviving European records and small artifacts found at dwelling sites, the Amerindians are long gone from St. Maarten. Yet “they were the first slaves” in the Caribbean, local archeologist Jay Haviser said amidst his collection of books and Amerindian relics at the Simarc office in Madame’s Estate. “A lot of people don’t recognize that.”

After the large scale arrival of Spanish adventurers and settlers, native tribes like the Taíno of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic were forced to work for their new overlords who were armed with steel weapons, gunpowder, and a missionary zeal to spread their religion. Many committed suicide rather than submit.

But far more deadly to them were the diseases that Europeans unwittingly carried across the Atlantic, for which the Amerindians had no natural defense. “Disease killed more Amerindians than any gun, cannon, or sword,” said Haviser. Centuries of isolation from the Old World made their immune systems highly vulnerable to foreign viruses and bacteria. Most perished within decades of European contact.

All that remains of them now in this part of the Caribbean are a few of their words, and their rare artifacts that give us a glimpse into how they once lived. “What tends to survive from Amerindian words are place names, plants, and animals,” Haviser said. Words like hurricane, hammock, and canoe live on, for example.  Yet their language and culture, like the people, is all but eradicated as if they never existed.

But Amerindian peoples lived on St. Maarten far longer than any other group in recorded history, including the descendents of Africans and Europeans living here today. The archeological record suggests that as far back as 2,000 BC there were humans living on the island. In the succeeding centuries, there were many waves of migration from the South American continent up the chain of islands.

The first people to inhabit what is now St. Maarten were hunter-gatherers living off what the land could provide. The oldest known site on the island is on the French part near what is now called Norman Estate. The area was once a lagoon and the people lived near the mangrove forests which were rich in wildlife, like crabs, fish, etc. For them, “a mangrove was like a supermarket,” Haviser said.

Then came Arawakan speaking peoples a little later, Haviser continued, who were agricultural and absorbed those who were there before. They grew a wide variety of indigenous crops like maize and manioc, beans and peppers as well as cotton which is also native to the region. Contrary to popular belief, the flamboyant tree is not native to the region, but originally comes from Madagascar. Neither is the Tamarind tree, which comes from Africa, Haviser noted.

“Arawak is a language, not a people,” the archeologist explained. They were known as the Igneri, and were part of the larger Taíno ethnic group. They called the island “Oualichi,” though it is not known for sure what it means, Haviser cautioned against the tendency of people today to say it means “land of strong women.” Soualiga, or “Land of Salt,” is actually from the Carib speaking Kalinaga people, who were among the last to arrive.

But much of the Amerindian sites on St. Maarten have been destroyed with the modern development of the island. Where the Maho Sonesta hotel now stands, for instance, was a once a known Amerindian site that yielded some good examples of their art and sculpture before it was destroyed as the hotel was built.

The last known untouched site on the Dutch side was in Cupecoy across from the Blue Mall. The land, which is privately owned, has recently been cleared by a bulldozer, Haviser lamented, though not before the archeologist could recover some pottery fragments and stone carvings for axe heads from it.

The French side has better protection because such archeological finds fall under strict French cultural protection laws. “Because of the different jurisdictions, I don’t really do much on the French side,” Haviser pointed out. But there is collaboration and sharing of information with his French colleagues. “I was actually the first person to record that site,” he said, though, of the archeological find at Hope Estate near Grand Case, when professional archeology on the island was still in its infancy.

The two sides, however, will again closely collaborate in hosting the 2015 IACA conference, which is held every two years and brings together hundreds of experts in the field to discuss and share the latest in research and knowledge. “It is the largest gathering of archeologists specialized in the Caribbean,” Haviser said. “We’re doing it as a French/Dutch cooperation congress.” The public, he said, “is always welcome to come, but it is a professional conference.” So it will be very technical, he added.

But getting back to the image of the Amerindians, Haviser said there is a tendency to romanticize them in modern society. They engaged in raids and warfare like other humans throughout history. Spanish accounts at the time record the phenomenon of Kalinaga villages where the men spoke Carib and the women Arawak. The women were clearly captives from a rival tribe.

Nor were the Arawak speaking Taíno people docile and subservient either. They had their own class of warriors and nobility and had conflict even amongst themselves.

The main settlements on the island centered along the coastal areas where there was much interaction with settlements on neighboring islands of Anguilla, Saba, St. Barths, and Statia. They were all part of a much larger Taino civilization, with its cultural and political nucleus divided between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, where the most enduring records of their people are.

Unique stone from St. Maarten not found on many of the other islands and used to make carvings and axe heads were discovered in other dig sites throughout the region, Haviser explained, proving that trade and contact within the Taino cultural sphere was quite extensive.

Like the Europeans who came afterwards, the Kalinaga were interested in St. Maarten’s salt. There is an Amerindian site in Philipsburg, Haviser pointed out, but it is not known if it was permanent or merely a temporary camp site when they gathered to collect salt and then move on.

Despite the important link to our past, and the identity that knowing your past forges in the collective consciousness of a people or nation, archeological sites remain a challenge to preserve on St. Maarten by virtue of their nature. “Archeological sites are a little different because basically it’s a plot of ground.” Haviser said of the difference between protecting and preserving buildings and archeological sites. “It doesn’t make it any less important, it just makes it a little less visible.”

That remains St. Maarten’s biggest challenge in preserving what little is left of its Amerindian past, a past that is inextricably connected to its story, and no less important than the history of slavery, colonialism, and the island’s modern constitutional and economic evolution.

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