Prehistoric Amerindian society in the Caribbean has appealed to us ever since Columbus set foot on the Bahamas. In this archaeological study, Sebastiaan Knippenberg touches upon a single but important aspect of this society: inter-village exchange. Contrary to the impersonal and purely economic trade relationships in our Western society, exchange relationships in small-scale societies are embedded in many more aspects, than economy alone, and therefore are regarded as very important – crucial for the well-being of small local communities.
A very fruitful approach in unraveling these prehistoric exchange relationships within the Caribbean, and in particular among the Lesser Antilles, has been the study of the manufacture and distribution of stone tools and other stone objects. They represent one of the few important non-perishable materials in the region’s archaeological record.
Three specific scarce rock varieties, all originating from single islands, including Antigua and St. Martin, play a central role in this study. The indigenous populations used these three materials for totally different purposes during the Ceramic Age (500 BC – AD 1492). By carefully looking at the manufacture process, the places of manufacture, and the distribution of these materials among the different islands of the northern Antilles, Knippenberg has demonstrated that inter-island traffic and inter-island exchange formed a recurrent and important feature of Ceramic Age society.
From his data he further argues that exchange played a different role through time in the Antilles. During the Early Ceramic Age it was particularly intended for maintaining cohesion among a society, which was exploring and settling a new environment. In later times, it became a platform by which local headman were displaying their power in their wish to gain regional leadership.
Sebastiaan Knippenberg is a field archaeologist and lithic specialist working for ArchOL BV, Leiden.