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The first Trinidadians

by Prof. Kenny on Tuesday, August 06, 2002

Did the first Trinidadians come to Trinidad by canoes or did they walk across from the Orinoco delta? One piece of archaeological evidence, Banwari Man, places the first Trinidadian here at least 7000 years ago in southwestern Trinidad. While some may deem this today an unimportant or possibly irrelevant question, in the light of contemporary problems and stresses, the question phrased in another way is not without considerable interest to researchers in a wide range of disciplines. When was Trinidad actually separated from the mainland of South America? Not only archaeologists would be interested, but also oceanographers, geologists and biologists, all of whom wish a deeper understanding of the Gulf of Paria. I assume also that many citizens, in spite of other preoccupations, might just be curious enough about our pre-history as a land. The first Trinidadians may in fact have walked across, as I will suggest, although a certain amount of additional research is still needed to test and confirm the hypothesis.

In some of the scientific and gray literature about Trinidad it is often stated that Trinidad and Tobago, that is the country, were separated from South America some 11,000 to 13,000 years ago following the melting of the ice sheet in the northern hemisphere. This is based not on any direct investigations conducted locally but rather on a general extrapolation from scientific investigations elsewhere on the globe that document changes in sea levels associated with world cycles of cooling, glaciation and warming. At the height of the last glaciation these few thousands of years ago sea levels were about 130 m below today’s levels with much of the waters of the oceans withdrawn into a vast ice sheet over one km thick in the northern hemisphere.

Using a contemporary hydrographic chart of the waters around both islands and projecting a sea level at even 100 m below the present would paint a remarkably different picture of the landscape. The Gulf of Paria would be dry land except for a large lake in the region of the Bocas islands, while there would be much dry land extending from the north coast all the way around the northern tip of Tobago and along the east coast. A few prominent features, now submerged, would have been a rounded mound or hillock south west of Tobago, the present Drew Shallows, while Darien Rock, The Emerald Shoals and Delaware Bank east of Trinidad would have been prominent hillocks. The present Columbus Channel would also have been dry land, possibly a broad plain without prominent features.

Most authorities agree that the melting of the ice sheets was rapid in the first one or two millennia after commencement of warming up with the process slowing gradually over the next 10,000 years as the earth warmed up. The widespread ancestral memories of the flood persisting in different parts of the world may very well have been born of cataclysmic events of that time. The separation of Tobago from Trinidad eleven to thirteen millennia ago would have been understandable as there is an extensive area of sea in the Galleon’s Passage below the 100 m contour. This could not however be the case in the separation of Trinidad from the mainland of South America where the waters of the Gulf of Paria and the Columbus Channel are at the deepest a mere 30 m. The conclusion is inevitable – there continued to be dry land between Trinidad and the mainland of South America long after the flooding of the area between the two islands took place.

It is quite possible to determine indirectly the approximate time of separation. To do this we have to explore a little marine biology and in particular some coral reef biology. Many people will be familiar with the common corals in the Bocas region. Finger corals are the most common, sometimes forming small reefs. These corals are extremely hardy and tolerate extreme sedimentation and low salinity, and while there may be found in oceanic conditions they are never there the dominant species. They come into their own locally because typically oceanic species cannot tolerate local conditions. Yet, at one time oceanic coral species were abundant in the Gulf of Paria, even in what is now the Port of Spain Harbour.

The celebrated Lechmere Guppy over 100 years ago actually commented on specimens collected at what is now the Caricom Jetty, noting that there were true reef corals. He assumed that they had come to Trinidad either as ballast or as raw material for making lime. Anyone who has walked the shingle beach at Scotland Bay will have noted the abundance of coral debris, much of this being staghorn coral, an oceanic species not found living in Trinidad today. Scotland Bay was dredged by the U.S Navy to establish a submarine base and the spoil was used as landfill. Some compact and more easily dated species of the same area has been carbon dated at about 200AD and 1700 BC. More recently two specimens from a long dead reef at Masson Bay on Point Gourde has been dated at about 245 AD and 425AD. The conclusion is inevitable – up to possibly 1500 years ago oceanic conditions and oceanic coral reefs existed in the Gulf of Paria. Something killed the reefs and this could only have been massive sedimentation and smothering.

Curiously the answer may be found in the writings of E. L. Joseph who speculated as far back as 1834 that the Orinoco River flowed to the east of Trinidad into the Caribbean Sea. This would have required a land bridge in the Icacos area. The bridge would have been responsible for maintenance of oceanic conditions in the Gulf of Paria. Rupture or submergence of the bridge would have poured masses of sediments into the Gulf of Paria smothering the coral reefs. The date of separation – probably about 1500 years ago and the first Trinidadians probably walked across.

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