Prehistory

500 to 1640: Lucayans thrive until the arrival of Columbus

Long before recorded history named the island group “the Bahamas,” indigenous tribes inhabited the land. Prior to their island habitation, the Bahamas island chain was a lush region of wild creatures and vegetation.

Over 200,000 years ago, gargantuan waves picked up boulders that weighed several thousand tons, and deposited them on the shores of Bahamian islands. Additionally, it is estimated that one of the earth’s oldest evidences of life is held within the limestone reef formations found off the island of Exuma. The exotic island chain was home solely to flora and small fauna. Typical plant life found in this region included sea oats, yellow elder, gumbo limbo, three varieties of mangroves, coco plum, plentiful species of vines, and low-lying shrubbery. The island’s only inhabitants at this time were small animals like bats, sea birds, iguanas, frogs and snakes. The distribution of these various plant and animal species was dependent upon the climate conditions of the various islands. The early Bahamas remained an untouched oasis until Lucayan Indians ventured to the islands and staked a claim on the territory.

Some researchers speculate that the first arrivals to the islands were Ciboney tribesmen, but there are no artifacts or evidence to support these claims. Radiocarbon dating has confirmed the possibility of Ciboney occupation in the Bahamas, but radiocarbon dating indicates that this habitation occurred during the same time period as the established Lucayan societies. These Lucayan tribes of Arawak origins traveled to the islands by dugout canoes made from the trunks of enormous trees that could carry upwards of twenty tribesmen. The Lucayans explored the Caribbean islands, coming from South America and Cuba. The migrations of Lucayan people occurred between the years 500 to 800. Many historians believe that the most popular route started on Hispaniola, advanced towards Cuba and eventually ended in the Bahamas.

Upon arrival in the Bahamas, the Lucayans found themselves surrounded by lush forests and plentiful ocean resources. They realized the beneficial assets that the islands provided, and settled across the area in varying regions. Although the island bore very few edible plants, and hardly any freshwater, the tribesmen compensated by turning towards the ocean for sustenance. The majority of the population was located on the southern coasts and central land areas of the island groups, although some inhabitants could be found towards the north. There are about twenty different locations in the Bahamas that contain confirmed sites of Lucayan settlement, most of which are either large islands or smaller cays within close proximity to the big islands. No settlements have been located in the southernmost islands, perhaps due to the harsh, dry climate. The alternative locations allowed for the Lucayans to establish prosperous societies with plentiful food, housing and more.

Maps

The diet of the Lucayans primarily relied on the sea at first, but eventually grew to a larger selection of sources. The peoples survived on a diet consisting of both land and sea foods. Hunters sought out land creatures like iguanas, lizards, crabs and birds. Their sea-based sustenance was fish, turtles and marine mammals. Fishermen caught everything from grouper and snapper to huge Jewfish that could weigh hundreds of pounds. Utilizing the land, farmers grew crops like cassava, sweet potatoes, peanuts, beans and arrowroot. They gathered fruits like guava and mammee apples from the wild. Gourds were used to store water. For general purposes, the tribes grew cotton and tobacco, which played a materialistic role in their societal practices.

Lucayan people were unique in their appearance, culture and practices. The tan-skinned tribespeople were free-spirited in their dress; women only wore tiny cotton skirts, while men donned loincloths. Individuals adorned themselves with body piercings, tattoos and paints, bone jewelry and head or waist bands. Interestingly, the customary hairstyle was short with small sections in the back that were never to be trimmed. The Lucayans also practiced head flattening, which aimed to create a more visually pleasing shaped skull.

The Lucayans used wood to create objects like canoes, weapons, utensils and ceremonial props. Pottery was popular, and clayware was crafted with a mixture of clay soil and charred shells. Remnants of ceramic pieces have allowed historians to get a better glimpse into the lives of the Lucayans; some pottery shards even contain the fingerprints of the tribesmen who shaped the clay. Trading of these handmade crafts and products often occurred between the larger islands.

Their homes were built from wood in a tent formation, and served as housing for multiple families. The Lucayans slept in hammock-style netting, which served as the primary furnishings in their thatch houses. Some estimates claim that up to twenty families resided in a single residence. Many historians hailed the Lucayan civilization as being utopian in nature, as they were a highly peaceful community.

During this blossoming period of Lucayan settlement, the population of the Bahamas grew to about 40,000 people, and continued to grow until the arrival of Christopher Columbus.



 

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