Pottery analysis sheds light on ancient trade routes across the Caribbean

A new study is using Indigenous pottery to find out more about travel between the islands of the Caribbean throughout history.

The Caribbean is made up of thousands of islands and cays, which have been home to humans for c.7,000 years. It has long been accepted that the region’s early inhabitants used the Caribbean Sea as an aquatic highway, travelling between islands and exchanging goods and ideas, but limited archaeological evidence survives of the exact routes used and networks established.

Historic contact between the many islands of the Caribbean can be traced through the pottery exchanged by the different groups who inhabited them. Image: Wikimedia Commons, Bryce Edwards.

Now researchers at the Florida Museum of Natural History have turned to pottery in an effort to shed new light on people’s movement across the Caribbean thousands of years ago. The study took a region-wide approach, analysing the elemental composition of the clay used in pottery found on different islands in order to work out where it originated and to identify wider trends across the Caribbean as a whole.

The Caribbean’s early occupants

The earliest known arrivals in the Caribbean date to c.4000 BC, but, around 600-400 BC, pottery-producing groups from South America reached the region and began to establish social and trade networks among the islands. Over time, different areas around the Caribbean developed their own distinct styles of pottery, but pieces imported from other islands are also found in many places. We know that goods such as food, cotton, salt, tools, and jewellery were being exchanged across archipelagos, but the objects most often found in the archaeological record today are the pottery vessels used to transport them, which alone were able to survive the region’s warm, humid climate.

The pottery of the Caribbean is relatively durable, and is therefore the type of artefact most commonly found at archaeological sites. Image: Florida Museum, photo by Kristen Grace.

The Lucayan Islands (made up of the Bahamas and Turks & Caicos), which were the main focus of this study, were inhabited later than other parts of the Caribbean, c.AD 700-800. They produced their own type of local pottery, known as Palmetto Ware, but this had a tendency to crumble over time due to the poor quality of the islands’ grainy, clay-like soils, and archaeologists have regularly discovered pottery that appears to have been imported from other areas of the Caribbean, most notably the Greater Antilles (Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Cayman Islands, and Hispaniola), alongside local Palmetto Ware.

In particular, the evidence seems to point to a connection between the Lucayan Islands and Hispaniola (modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic) that lasted for many centuries. The researchers were therefore hoping that closer analysis of pottery might help to determine whether Hispaniola was the main gateway to the Greater Antilles for the Lucayan Islands. They also wanted to find out whether there was a strong connection between the Lucayan Islands and Cuba; geographically, the large island would have been a convenient trading partner, but is this supported by the archaeological record?

Elemental analysis

Previous studies of Caribbean pottery have mostly focused on the physical appearance of the vessels – the styles, techniques, and motifs used – but this study took a different approach, looking at the clay itself instead. The underlying geology of the Caribbean varies widely, with the fine clays found across the islands all containing different concentrations of elements such as copper, nickel, antimony, and chromium. These distinct elemental signatures are preserved when pottery is fired, meaning that the vessels themselves retain a unique elemental composition that allows researchers to determine where they are most likely to have been made.

The Indigenous occupants of the Caribbean developed distinctive local decorative pottery styles that can sometimes be used to determine their origins, but this study focused instead on the clay used to make vessels. Image: Lindsay Bloch.

The study investigated pottery from the archaeological collections of the Florida Museum of Natural History, spanning more than 1,000 years. In total, 94 pot sherds were analysed from 40 locations across five islands in the Greater Antilles and six of the Lucayan Islands. The researchers used a method called laser ablation-inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry (LA-ICP-MS) to conduct elemental analysis of the clay.

They began by examining locally made pottery found on Hispaniola and other Antillean islands, and identified nine main compositional groups, each representing a different production area. They then used these groups to trace pieces of imported pottery found on the Lucayan Islands back to their sources.

Cross-Caribbean contact

Using these compositional groups, the researchers determined that most of the imported vessels found on the Lucayan Islands were produced on Hispaniola. In particular, pottery made in north-western Hispaniola dominated the assemblages, although examples from other parts of the island were also found. This discovery supports the suspected long relationship between the Lucayan Islands and Hispaniola, confirming that the north-west coast of Hispaniola was an important cultural hub of the Caribbean. The close connection between this area and the Lucayan Islands is perhaps to be expected, given how close Hispaniola is to the southern end of the archipelago, but researchers were surprised to find examples of pottery on Abaco, all the way up in the northern Bahamas, that also originated from Hispaniola.

In order to analyse the elemental composition of the clay, the researchers removed small fragments from the vessels and embedded them in resin plugs. Image: Lindsay Bloch.

The study revealed, too, that Cuba played a very minor role in trade with the Lucayan Islands. Researchers expected that Cuban pottery would make up at least some of the imports on the islands, but only two examples were found. This indicates that, although there was some travel between the two areas, Cuba did not have the same cultural significance as Hispaniola. The researchers suggest that perhaps there was some kind of social or environmental factor limiting navigation between Cuba and the Lucayan Islands that has not yet been identified.

This project highlights the importance of north-western Hispaniola as a trade partner for the Lucayan Islands, but also demonstrates more broadly that the Lucayans and other groups across the wider Caribbean were maintaining strong relationships across archipelagos through trade and social interaction for many centuries. It is hoped that this project will lead to further research that will shed more light on the peopling of the Lucayan Islands and interactions between Indigenous communities across the Caribbean in the past.

©Florida Museum photo by Kristen Grace Ancient pottery like this, which was used to transport goods between different islands, can tell us a great deal about the cultures and movements of the Indigenous populations of the Caribbean. IMAGE: Florida Museum, photo by Kristen Grace.
E C Kracht, L C Bloch, and W F Keegan (2022) ‘Production of Greater Antillean pottery and its exchange to the Lucayan Islands: a compositional study’, Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jasrep.2022.103469).