The archaeological site of Banwari Trace was recently featured in World Monument Watch 2004, an internationally acclaimed magazine that showcases the world’s 100 most endangered sites. The following article is designed to raise public awareness to an important vestige of Trinidad and Tobago’s cultural heritage.
Dated to about 5000 B.C. (years Before Christ) or 7000 B.P (years Before Present), the archaeological site at Banwari Trace in southwestern Trinidad is the oldest pre-Columbian site in the West Indies (Rouse and Allaire 1978). Archaeological research of the site has also shed light on the patterns of migration of Archaic (pre-ceramic) peoples from mainland South America to the Lesser Antilles via Trinidad between 5000 and 2000 B.C. (see Davis 1993) as well provided rich insights into the lifeways of one of the earliest pre-Columbian settlers in the Caribbean. In addition, Banwari Trace has yielded human remains of Trinidad’s oldest resident.
Banwari Trace’s Antiquity
In addressing what constitutes the Archaic, R. Christopher Goodwin (1978) recognized three different perspectives: first, the Archaic as an age defined by the absence of pottery and the presence of ground stone and/or shell; second, the Archaic as a developmental stage characterized by the marine-oriented subsistence that followed a terrestrial hunting-based economy (Keegan 1994). Myriad Archaic sites have been identified throughout the West Indies, for example, in St. Kitts, Nevis, Antigua, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Antigua, along the north and south coasts of Haiti and in the river valleys and along the coast of Dominican Republic and Cuba (Keegan 1994; Rouse 1992). Besides Banwari Trace, several other Archaic sites have been identified in Trinidad and Tobago, for example, Poonah Road, Ortoire, St. John, Chip Chip Hill and Milford. However of all the Archaic-age sites in the West Indies, Banwari Trace is the oldest, with radiocarbon dates indicating a chronology of approximately 7000 B.P.
Radiocarbon chronology suggests that the first period of Archaic occupation at the Banwari Trace site spanned from approximately 7200 to 6100 B.P., (Strata 1 and II or Early Banwari Trace), whereas the second episode of midden accumulation (Stratum III or Late Banwari Trace) probably lasted from 6100 B.P. until 5500 BP (Boomert 2000). The antiquity of the Banwari Trace site is further evidenced by the presence of only freshwater shells in the lower layers, dating from the time before Trinidad was separated from the mainland by the postglacial rise in sea level (Rouse 1992).
Banwari Trace and Patterns of Archaic Migration into the Caribbean
Banwari Trace’s antiquity holds much significance for understanding the migratory patterns of Archaic peoples from South America into the Caribbean region. Given that related Archaic cultures have been found on the adjacent mainland of South America, extending for an indefinite distance on either side of the Orinoco Delta in northeast South America (Rouse and Cruxent 1963: 58-59), it is commonly assumed that this was the place of origin of those Archaic peoples who migrated from South America to the West Indies. As the oldest Archaic site in the West Indies, Banwari Trace clearly indicates that southwest Trinidad was one of the first migratory “stops” for northward-bound Archaic settlers who eventually colonised several islands in the Caribbean archipelago.
The Physical Environment of Banwari Trace
The Banwari Trace deposit is to be found on the southern edge of the Oropuche Lagoon in southwest Trinidad, just west of the Coora River. The site occupies the top of a Miocene hillock, originally covered with deciduous seasonal forest, which rises above the swamp. Rouse (1992) classifies all of the Archaic sites in the Lesser Antilles and Puerto Rico, including Banwari trace, as belonging to the Ortoiroid Series, which gets its name from the type site of Ortoire in Trinidad (Keegan 1994). Harris, who dug a 2 x 2-m section (Excavation A) and an adjoining 2 x 1-m section (Excavation B), excavated Banwari Trace in the centre of the midden in 1969/1970 and 1971 respectively. The observed change in shell-collecting habits of the Banwari Trace people closely reflects the alteration in the natural environment, which took place in the Oropuche Lagoon area during the period of midden formation. It can be assumed that the Amerindians collected the majority of shellfish deposited in the immediate surroundings of the site. If so, the habitat preferences of the dominant shell species at Banwari Trace further suggest that the Oropuche Lagoon changed from a freshwater or slightly brackish lagoon to marine mangrove swamp at about 6200/6100 BP.
The Material Culture of Banwari Trace
The Banwari Trace material culture shows a highly distinctive cultural assemblage, typically consisting of artifacts made of stones and bones. Objects associated with hunting and fishing include bone projectile points, most likely used for tipping arrows and fish spears, beveled peccary teeth used as fishhooks, and bipointed pencil hooks of bone which were intended to be attached in the middle to a fishing-line. A variety of ground stone tools were manufactured for the processing of especially vegetable foods, including blunt or pointed conical pestles, large grinding stones and round to oval manos. The plant foods processed at the Banwari sites are unknown, but they may have included edible roots, palm starch and seeds (Boomert 2000).
The midden has also yielded a large variety of small, irregular chips and cores manufactured of quartz, flint, chert and other rock materials by percussion flaking. They include flake scrapers, cutters, burins, small knives, blades and piercers which were probably utilized for a multitude of purposes, e.g. the cutting of meat, scaling of fish, prying open of shells, scraping of skins, finishing of arrow shafts, and the processing of vegetable fibres for the making of basketry.
Banwari Man – Trinidad’s Oldest Resident
In November 1969, the Trinidad and Tobago Historical Society discovered the remains of a human skeleton at Banwari Trace. Lying on its left-hand side, in a typical Amerindian “crouched” burial position along a northwest axis (Harris 1978), Banwari Man (as it is now commonly called) was found 20-cm below the surface. Only two items were associated with the burial, a round pebble by the skull and needlepoint by the hip. Banwari Man was apparently interred in a shell midden and subsequently covered by shell refuse. Based on its stratigraphic location in the site’s archaeological deposits, the burial can be dated to the period shortly before the end of occupation, approximately 3,400 BC or 5,400 years old. Hailed as the oldest resident of Trinidad (Harris 1978), Banwari Man is an important icon of Trinidad’s early antiquity.