The island of Anguilla is known for its rich and vibrant cultural history. The combination of different cultural occupations and influences from as far afield as Africa to Europe to South America has made Anguilla a culturally diverse locale.
Long before Anguilla was ‘settled’ by the British in 1652 or indeed ‘discovered’ by Columbus in 1493, the island had long been inhabited by the Amerindian peoples. These peoples, believed to be the earliest inhabitants of Anguilla, travelled to island from South America. Commonly, but imprecisely referred to as Arawak Indians, they made their way to Anguilla on rafts and in dugout canoes, settling on the island and forming small fishing, hunting and farming communities. The Amerindian/Arawak name for the island was ‘Malliouhana’ meaning arrow shaped.
It is believed, through discovered artefacts, that the first Arawak Indians made their way onto the island as far back as 3,500 years ago. Attracted to the area by the prime fishing provided by extensive offshore reefs, the Arawak’s were known to be excellent fishermen. Archaeological surveys have shown that they actively fished out at sea, as well as collecting shellfish along the shoreline and gathering additional food sources from the bush and salt ponds.
The Arawak Indians were tall, brown, statuesque people, with long, straight, black hair. Research has also shown that they grew cotton from which they made clothing as well as hammocks and additional items. Their diet mainly consisted of cassavana as well as a variety of reef fish, conchs and shellfish. Excellent farmers and craftsmen, they grew and harvested corn and sweet potato and used seeds, bones, seashells and conch shells in their jewellery and decoration.
Archaeological digs across the island have uncovered multiple religious artefacts and remnants of ceremonies, especially those found at Big Springs and Fountain Cavern, suggesting that the Arawak Indians were extremely religious in nature. The Fountain Cavern site, located near Shoal Bay, contains numerous Amerindian petroglyphs, or rock carvings, as well as an impressive stalagmite statue, which overlooks a pool of clear water. The top of the stalagmite is carved into the head of a spirit being, believed to represent ‘Jochahu’ or ‘Yuchahu’ the Taino spirit of fertility and ‘lord of cassava’.
Artefacts believed to be religious idols including such items as three-pointed stones called ‘Zemis’ have been recovered at the Fountain Cavern site as well as at additional locations on the island. Based on research carried out by comparing contemporary peoples, it is thought that the Amerindian people believed these Zemi stones contained spirit beings and were used as a means to ward off evil. Additional items such as portions of tubes used to inhale hallucinogens and shell ‘teeth’ have also been uncovered.
The majority of the 42 Amerindian sites known about on Anguilla are attributed to 600-1500 A.D with the peak of the settlement believed to have occurred sometime between 900-1200 A.D. It is suggested that as many as 14 villages may have occupied Anguilla during this time, each containing 50-250 people.
The Arawaks remained the dominant peoples on Anguilla until they were subsequently defeated by the fiercer Carib Indians; debate however continues over the certainty of these events.
Today, the Fountain Cavern has become Anguilla’s first National Park and a main archaeological tourist site. Containing a museum and interpretive centre, as well as easy public access into the cave itself, the park offers visitors and islanders alike valuable educational and cultural opportunities for them to explore this rich and unique Anguillan Arawak history.
Naomi has been living and working in Anguilla for many years working on worldwide projects such as Zemi Beach: http://www.zemibeach.com