The first people in the Turks & Caicos

Lucayan History

Eight hundred years before Columbus arrived in the Bahamian archipelago, Native American peoples thrived on these islands. Originating in South America, these Indians had gradually colonized the Caribbean. Over the centuries they spread northward along the arc of the Windward Islands, passing to the Leewards, then west to the Greater Antilles, and finally north again to the Bahamas chain. Those that settled the latter called themselves Lucayans.

The highly developed Lucayan culture boasted its own language, government, religion, craft traditions, and extensive trade routes. Unfortunately, it was technologically unsophisticated when compared to European society. So when the Spaniards arrived, they quickly conquered these peaceful people.

Using the Lucayans as miners and pearl-divers in a de facto slave system, the new arrivals worked many of them death. Others were killed outright for sport. Still others committed suicide or died from acute depression. Many died from European diseases for which they had no immunity. Within a single generation of Columbus’s landing, the Turks and Caicos Islands were stripped of their population. Few written records of this civilization ever existed. Consequently, archaeology is our most important tool in studying these extinct people.

In the mid 1970s, anthropologist Shaun Sullivan conducted a pioneering survey of Middle Caicos. He found remains of a ball court, an indication of substantial and sophisticated long term habitation. Following up on Sullivan’s work, Dr. William Keegan at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, Florida, has excavated in the Turks and Caicos Islands for more than two decades. His excavation of a site on Grand Turk revealed the earliest known settlement in the Bahamian chain.

Lucayan paddle|55
Lucayan paddle found on Grand Turk

In 1996, Captain Bob Gascoine was working in a mangrove swamp at North Creek on Grand Turk. Suddenly his propeller struck a submerged object. Curious, the Captain investigated the sound and found he had run over an odd reddish stick poking out the mud. An amateur archaeologist, Gascoine recognized that this was not stick but a Lucayan canoe paddle. He hastily summoned the Museum and the paddle was removed to a stable environment.

The only other such existing paddle was found in the Bahamas in 1912. The paddle originally went to the Heye Museum in New York. The Heye collected only American Indian artifacts. In the last few years the Smithsonian has absorbed the Heye and that collection will be the nucleus of a new branch of the Smithsonian, the Museum of the American Indian. The paddle found on Grand Turk has been dated to between AD 995 and 1235. It completed conservation in Ship’s of Discovery’s Texas lab and is installed in a special exhibit at the Turks & Caicos National Museum.

Further reading on Lucayan Tainos:

  • For a picture of the only other Lucayan Taino canoe paddle ever found (now housed at the Smithsonian), see: “Clues to Lucayans History on Samana” in National Geographic, November 1996 (Vol. 170, No. 5).
  • The People who Discovered Columbus by William Keegan. University of Florida Press, 1992.
  • Columbus and the Golden World of the Island Arawarks by D. J. R. Walker. Ian Randle Publishers, Kingston, Jamaica, 1992.
  • Pre-Columbian Archaeology of the Turks and Caicos Islands by William F. Keegan, Caribbean Archaeology, Florida Museum of Natural History