Latin American Studies The Archaeology of the Caribbean
William F. Keegan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0191


“Caribbean” archaeology encompasses the islands of three archipelagos: Greater Antilles, Lesser Antilles, and Bahamas. Although the latter is not geographically Caribbean, it shares cultural foundations. Most research is conducted on the islands, but there are emerging interests in relation to the surrounding mainland. In the mid-1990s I wrote, “Caribbean archaeology is riding the wave of an exponential curve. Never before have there been so many practitioners from so many countries . . .” Like most regions, research has progressed through a variety of stages. This article highlights some of the most important themes in the rhythm and tempo of Caribbean archaeology; historical sources often are the starting point. The earliest investigations were based on antiquarian interests in curios, and on identifying the indigenous inhabitants that preceded colonial enterprises. These stones and bones were fleshed out by attempting to match archaeological materials to the descriptions presented in Spanish, and later French, accounts. Beginning in the 1930s, scholars from around the Caribbean began to develop frameworks for culture history. Several different schemes are included herein. Mythology and art have long been of interest, especially among French and Hispanic scholars. The most commonly used framework, at least in the United States, was the time-space systematics (modal approach) modeled on biological taxonomy by Irving Rouse. All that remained to be done was to fill in the gaps. An extended period of regional studies ensued as archaeologists attempted to fit their data to Rouse’s scheme. Then, as Rouse is quoted, “[Lewis] Binford and his generation destroyed all that.” The 1970s witnessed a shift in interest to economics and ecology, and in the 1980s it became social and political organizations. Nevertheless, Caribbean archaeology continued to emphasize a conventional culture history, and research remained narrowly focused and defined by insular parameters. But by the turn of the 21st century there was a change in perspective, what David Watters describes as a shift from an insular view to an archipelagic view. It had becoming increasingly clear that the indigenous communities of the past were just as diverse as the modern inhabitants. This is the theme that currently is driving Caribbean archaeology. Finally, as the first region of the Americas subjected to permanent settlement by Europeans, the archaeology of the contact period has been a significant topic of interest.

General Overviews

There really is no generally accepted textbook of Caribbean archaeology. The last attempt at one in English was Irving Rouse’s The Tainos (Rouse 1992). It remains a foundational text despite its age, and many of the prior interpretations have been superseded. Enter Sam Wilson, who has written an excellent, concise review (Wilson 2007) that presents current thinking on the important questions in Caribbean archaeology. Building on his momentum, William Keegan and Corinne Hofman have written a volume that provides in-depth discussions of these issues and offers new interpretations to many of them (Keegan and Hofman 2017). It is safe to say that one needs to read all three to get a full picture. In turn, Marcio Veloz Maggiolo (Veloz Maggiolo 1991) provides a more local and Marxist perspective. These volumes are important for situating Caribbean archaeology in its current configuration.

  • Granberry, Julian, and Gary S. Vescelius. Languages of the Pre-Columbian Antilles. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004.

    Language has been largely ignored by archaeologists because the indigenous populations disappeared quickly and so little of it was recorded by the Spanish. In this book the authors demonstrate the use of language for interpreting a variety of archaeological issues in the islands.

  • Keegan, William F., and Corinne L. Hofman. The Caribbean before Columbus. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190605247.001.0001

    This book is a comprehensive evaluation of Caribbean archaeology. The presentation is based on the recognition of diversity (chaos), rhythms and tempo, mobility, and exchange. It returns to historical roots and eschews modern terminological scaffolding. The history of all the major islands and archipelagos is presented at a general scale that is highlighted with specific cases. The goal is to achieve a more accurate understanding of indigenous communities.

  • Kozlowski, Janusz Krzysztof. Preceramic Cultures in the Caribbean. Zeszyty Naukowe Uniwesytetu Jagiellońskiego 386. Kraków, Poland: Zeszyty Naukowe, 1974.

    Caribbean archaeologists, until the early 21st century, have shown limited interest in the Archaic Age cultures of the Caribbean. Although most use Rouse’s framework, Kozlowski developed a different approach based on stone tool technologies and their distributions in the Greater Antilles.

  • Lovén, Sven. Origins of the Tainan Culture, West Indies. Göteborg, Sweden: Erlanders Boktryckeri Aktiebolag, 1935.

    Reprinted in 2010 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press). When originally published in German in 1924, this volume was hailed as the first modern, comprehensive archaeological overview of an emerging area of the world. There was no publication that seriously treated the region and the peoples until this work. It is a classic, with enduring interpretations, broad geographic range, and incredible attention to detail.

  • Rouse, Irving. The Tainos: Rise and Decline of the People Who Greeted Columbus. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.

    This is the book that everyone has in their library and often has read multiple times. The title is misleading because the book actually covers the entire geography and history of the Caribbean, from initial human arrival to European arrival. It is structured by the time-space systematics that Rouse first introduced in the 1930s to make sense of the regional culture history.

  • Veloz Maggiolo, Marcio. Panorama histórico del Caribe precolombino. Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic: Edición del Banco Central de la República Dominicana, 1991.

    Hispanic archaeologists have developed their own culture-historical framework for the Caribbean. This book, by the senior Dominican scholar, presents his overview for the colonization of the Caribbean and cultural development in the islands, with an emphasis on the Dominican Republic. Published in Spanish at the time of the Columbus quincentenary.

  • Wilson, Samuel M. The Archaeology of the Caribbean. Cambridge World Archaeology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511816505

    This is a concise synthesis of Caribbean prehistory from the earliest settlement by humans more than six thousand years ago to the time of European conquest. Wilson emphasizes cultural diversity through time and develops the first portrait with the characteristics of a mosaic.

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