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Guyana - early History

Before the arrival of Europeans, the region was inhabited by both Carib and Arawak tribes, who named it Guiana, which meant "land of many waters." Unlike the great civilizations of Middle America that left monuments and records for archaeologists to decipher, the early societies in Guyana were relatively simple, nomadic cultures that left few traces.

The first humans to reach Guyana belonged to the group of peoples that crossed into North America from Asia perhaps as much as 35,000 years ago. These first inhabitants were nomads who slowly spread south into Central America and South America. Although great civilizations later arose in the Americas, the structure of Amerindian society in the Guianas initially remained relatively simple.

Archaeological perspectives on Amazonian tropical forests have changed dramatically in the past few years. Long portrayed as relatively pristine tropical forest, recent archaeology suggests novel pathways of early domestication, agriculture, and semi-intensive resource management, including large occupations sites, agricultural and village earthworks, and substantially human-modified soils (ADE). However, sites that pertain to the earliest agricultural populations, which regional specialists suggest may have appeared ca. 5,000 to 4,000 BP, are virtually unknown.

In contrast to earlier models and methods of Amazonian archaeology which emphasized such issues as the agricultural origins of plants, or theanalyses of ceramic series as ciphers for population dispersion, morerecent research has begun to attend to historical and ethnographicpopulations, the spatial patterning of settlements and landscapes. The older paradigms of archaeology would never have been able toidentify what is now becoming apparent, that complex dense populations,subsisting on the basis of intensified agricultural systems were presentalong the Berbice River for at least several millennia.

Pottery discovered at Kabakaburi in the Pomeroon, are among the oldest ever found in the Americas, perhaps as old as 5,000 years. The vessels found were of vast variety and included bowls and globular objects, the majority of which were fired and glazed. Most of the pottery was plain while some had designs on it.

Archaeological research by Michael Heckenberger and colleagues at the University of Florida has shown that Native Americans were present in Guyana 6,000 years ago. Through archaeological survey and excavation, the archaeologists found ceremonial mounds and discovered that about 3,000 years ago, the inhabitants began to modify the landscape for agricultural purposes. The researchers also discovered evidence that descendants of the Native Americans were in the region at the time of European contact.

This is an important case for the transition from incipient to more intensive agro-economies and land-use in Amazonia. It helps situate the region in broader archaeological discussions regarding the development of agriculture, settled community life, and landscape transformation in other parts of the world. The project also refined the chronology of agricultural occupations in this little known portion of northern Amazonia, notably including periods of agricultural intensification associated with the construction of artificial farming mounds and the transitional period between late prehistoric and historic period occupations.

The project contributed to broader discussions of long-term change in coupled natural-human systems in tropical forest regions, notably the effects of early agricultural populations on tropical ecology.

Five primary pre-Columbian cultural components were documented based primarily on excavations at the Dubulay site: (1) initial semi-sedentary occupations, pre-6,000-5,000 BP, based on dated human modified soils called Amazonian dark earth (ADE) or terra preta (black earth) ADE and ceramic bearing deposits; (2) major ceremonial mound construction, ca. 5000-4500 BP and apparent adjacent open public area; (3) domestic occupations immediately adjacent the large mound, including partially intact food processing features (with disturbed areas from recent plowing), with ceramics similar to earlier mound and ADE deposits, dated to ca. 3300 BP; (4) savanna agricultural and wetland raised field farming, after ca. 3000-2000 BP; and (5) late pre-Columbian occupations, ca. 1000-500 BP, with continued use of savanna areas for agricultural, occupation, and other activities. This suggests relatively continuous occupation during the mid- and late Holocene, including the Lokono (Arawak) Amerindian peoples, first reported in the area in the early 16th century.

Of particular importance, results of excavations and survey on the middle Berbice River document mid-Holocene (6,000 to 3,000 BP) ceramic manufacture, mound-building and raised-mound agriculture, indicative of very early sedentary villages in this interior tropical forest setting. These early settled societies laid the foundation for later developments by large-scale late Holocene social formations, such as semi-intensive land-use in broad domesticated landscapes, which suggests substantial early human influence on Amazonian ecosystems.

Heckenberger's findings suggest that the region sustained human settlements over multiple millennia. This notion runs contrary to common 20th-century views that interior northeastern South America was only recently inhabited by farming populations. In addition, population density was likely higher in prehistoric than in historic times. In Amazonia, this has particular relevance to contemporary questions of sustainable land-use and climate change. To achieve successful long-term solutions to contemporary development, planners must adapt to specific ecological settings, and past strategies can provide potentially successful guides.

By comparing findings at individual archaeological sites, archaeologists can derive more general principles about how societies develop. Guyana is one of the few tropical settings that show the transition from small egalitarian hunting and gathering groups to larger socially stratified agriculturally / pastorally based societies.

Early Spanish records and linguistic studies of the Caribbean reveal only a broad outline of pre-Columbian events. Several centuries before the arrival of the Europeans, the Arawak moved north from Brazil to settle and farm the area along the northeast coast of South America before expanding farther north onto the Caribbean islands. Shortly before the arrival of the Europeans, the aggressive, warlike Carib pushed into the area and largely destroyed Arawak society.

At the time of Christopher Columbus's voyages, Guyana's inhabitants were divided into two groups, the Arawak along the coast and the Carib in the interior. One of the legacies of the indigenous peoples was the word Guiana, often used to describe the region encompassing modern Guyana as well as Suriname (former Dutch Guiana) and French Guiana. The word, which means "land of waters," is highly appropriate, considering the area's multitude of rivers and streams.

Historians speculate that the Arawak and Carib originated in the South American hinterland and migrated northward, first to the present-day Guianas and then to the Caribbean islands. The peaceful Arawak, mainly cultivators, hunters, and fishermen, migrated to the Caribbean islands before the Carib and settled throughout the region. The tranquility of Arawak society was disrupted by the arrival of the bellicose Carib from the South American interior. Carib warlike behavior and violent movement north made an impact still discussed today. By the end of the fifteenth century, the Carib had displaced the Arawak throughout the islands of the Lesser Antilles.

The Carib settlement of the Lesser Antilles also affected Guyana's future development. The Spanish explorers and settlers who came after Columbus found that the Arawak proved easier to conquer than the Carib, who fought hard to maintain their freedom. This fierce resistance, along with a lack of gold in the Lesser Antilles, contributed to the Spanish emphasis on conquest and settlement of the Greater Antilles and the mainland. Only a weak Spanish effort was made at consolidating Spain's authority in the Lesser Antilles (with the arguable exception of Trinidad) and the Guianas.

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Page last modified: 14-05-2017 18:32:56 ZULU