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2.30 - The Caribbean Islands

from VI. - The Americas

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 August 2014

Arie Boomert
Leiden University
Colin Renfrew
University of Cambridge
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The entry of man into the Caribbean Archipelago was a multiphased process and took place from different directions at different times by groups of Amerindians with varying cultural and linguistic affiliations. Adapting fully to the maritime environment of the Antilles, they gradually transformed their egalitarian ways of life and ideological convictions established on the mainland, creating in the larger islands hierarchical polities characterised by dense populations, sizeable villages and monumental architecture. By the time of European contact, the indigenous cultural geography of the West Indies resulting from the differential developments that had taken place in the various parts of the archipelago showed considerable heterogeneity in terms of linguistics, sociopolitical configuration, ethnicity and culture (Map 2.30.2). Indeed, the preconquest Caribbean formed a complicated patchwork of ethnic and cultural groups not unlike that which developed in historic times when a similar multilinguistic and multicultural ethnic aggregate crystallised in the region following several centuries of colonisation.


The West Indies encompass in all some eighty populated islands of widely different sizes and thousands of uninhabited islets. Forming an almost uninterrupted chain of mutually intervisible islands, the Caribbean Archipelago stretches like a gentle crescent over a distance of some 3000 km from the mouth of the Orinoco River in northern South America to Florida and Yucatán, thus enclosing the Caribbean Sea. Three major island groupings make up the Caribbean: the Lesser Antilles, the Greater Antilles and the Bahamas. The latter islands, also including the Turks and Caicos Islands, form a separate archipelago between the Greater Antilles and Florida, while the Lesser Antilles and the Greater Antilles constitute one extended chain of increasingly larger islands stretching from South America to Yucatán.

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2014

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