Humans were present in Florida by 14,000 years ago, and until recently, it was believed The Bahamas — located only a few km away — were not colonized until about 1,000 years ago. New evidence indicates that Lucayans — an Arawakan-speaking Taíno people, whose name translates as ‘island men’ in the native Arawakan language — arrived in the northern Bahamas by about 830 CE after expanding rapidly throughout The Bahamas in less than 100 years.
The first explorers and settlers in the Caribbean islands were Amerindians from South America, who migrated north through the Lesser Antilles and eventually into the Bahamian archipelago.
At European contact, the inhabitants of The Bahamas were the Lucayans. It has been debated whether they originated from Cuba or Hispaniola, but a recent study suggests they migrated into the Bahamian archipelago from Hispaniola and Jamaica by 800 CE.
The earliest known Lucayan settlements in The Bahamas are the Three Dog Site on San Salvador, which was occupied from 600 to 900 CE, and the Coralie Site on Grand Turk, occupied 650 to 885 CE.
“The Bahamas were the last place colonized by people in the Caribbean region, and previous physical evidence indicated that it may have taken hundreds of years for the Lucayans to move through the Bahamian archipelago that spans about 805 km (500 miles),” said Dr. Peter van Hengstum, a researcher in the Department of Marine and Coastal Environmental Science and the Department of Oceanography at Texas AM University.
“While people were present in Florida more than 14,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age, these people never crossed the Florida Straits to nearby Bahamian islands, only 80 to 105 km (50-65 miles) away.”
“Meanwhile, the Caribbean islands were populated by people migrating from South American northward.”
“The oldest archaeological sites in the southernmost Bahamian archipelago from the Turks and Caicos Islands indicate human arrival likely by 700 CE,” he added.
“But in the northern Bahamian Great Abaco Island, the earliest physical evidence of human occupation are skeletons preserved in sinkholes and blueholes.”
“These two skeletons from Abaco date from 1200 to 1300 CE. Our new record of landscape disturbance from people indicates that slash-and-burn agriculture likely began around 830 CE, meaning the Lucayans rapidly migrated through the Bahamian archipelago in likely a century, or spanning just a few human generations.”
In the study, the researchers generated a new environmental record from the Blackwood Sinkhole, which is flooded with 36.5 m (120 feet) of groundwater without dissolved oxygen. This is important because it has pristinely preserved organic material for the last 3,000 years.
Using core samples and radiocarbon dating, they examined charcoal deposits from human fires thousands of years ago.
According to the team, the arrival of Lucayans by about 830 CE is demarcated by increased burning and followed by landscape disturbance and a shift from hardwoods and palms to the modern pine forest.
Considering that Lucayan settlements in the southern Bahamian archipelago are dated to about 750 CE, these results demonstrate that Lucayans spread rapidly through the archipelago in less than 100 years.
Although precontact landscapes would have been influenced by storms and climatic trends, the most pronounced changes follow more directly from landscape burning and ecosystem shifts after Lucayan arrival.
The pine forests of Abaco declined substantially between 1500 and 1670 CE, a period of increased regional hurricane activity, coupled with fires on an already human-impacted landscape.
“The pollen record indicates that the pre-contact forest was not significantly impacted earlier in the record during known times when intense hurricane strike events were more frequent,” Dr. van Hengstum said.
“In our current world where the intensity of the largest hurricanes is expected to increase over the coming decades, the current pine trees in the northern Bahamas may not be as resilient to environmental impacts of these changes in hurricane activity.”
The research is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Patricia L. Fall et al. 2021. Human arrival and landscape dynamics in the northern Bahamas. PNAS 118 (10): e2015764118; doi: 10.1073/pnas.2015764118