Chapter 1. Taino Times

 

The parish of Westmoreland is different from any other area of the island of Jamaica because of its unique topography. Westmoreland consists mainly of large, fertile savannas through which the Cabaritta River, with its tributaries, flows slowly south to the Caribbean Sea. Adjoining these plains are the wetlands known as the Great Morass. To the north-east, rise low-lying hills and to the south and south-west, fringing the shoreline, are white sand beaches.

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At the time of the arrival of the Europeans, five hundred years ago, no sugar cane grew in any part of Jamaica. C. Dennis Adams, the botanist, wrote in 1971 that it was “difficult to picture what the original vegetation was like [in Westmoreland]. The broad areas now planted with Cane were undoubtedly once high forest, probably of a rather swampy type. There are a few places where this type of forest can still be seen but there are remnants in the Great Morass.”

Stands of giant ceiba trees1 known also as silk cotton trees towered above the undergrowth of trumpet trees, mammee and calabash. Trees such as broad-leaf, bread-nut, mahogany, bitter-wood, dogwood and pimento covered the hills. Bromeliads and orchids grew on the tree trunks and branches, and in leaf mould on the forest floor.

The south-western area of Jamaica, like most of the rest of the island, was a rich habitat with flocks of green parrots and other birds feeding off the fruit and berries of the guava, mammee and pimento.

The wetlands of the Great Morass were the home of many aquatic birds and reptiles, including snakes and crocodiles. The coastal waters teemed with fish of all sorts, snapper, grouper, yellow-tail, grunt, goggle-eye, to name a few. Manatees and turtles swam in the waters of the river mouths.In such a setting dwelled the Taino inhabitants, who spoke the Arawak language. They fished, hunted, planted crops, played games, danced and performed religious rites, some of which were connected with the inhalation of smoke from dried leaves of the tobacco plant.

The Taino people of “Xaymaca” traversed their island over age-old trails, like the one from Martha Brae  in the parish of Trelawny on the north coast to Bluefields, Westmoreland, on the south coast.  These trails formed a communication network which later arrivals from Europe would use as the basis of their own road system.

The Tainos were traders, whose knowledge of the sea made it possible for them to maneuver adeptly their large canoes, hewn from single ceiba trees, through the waves and currents of the Caribbean. Sailing between neighbouring islands,
they bartered hammocks, cotton cloth and other products. Cotton was cultivated in Jamaica. The Taino inhabitants of Jamaica excelled in weaving.

Remains of bones and fragments of shell unearthed in 2002 by a team of archaeologists digging at two midden sites4 at Paradise Park, near Savanna- la-Mar, confirm that the diet of these early Taino people consisted mainly of large fish, conch and turtle. This diet was supplemented by fruits, such as the mammee, pineapple, papaw, star-apple, and guava.  Cassava (yucca), from which they made bread, was cultivated extensively. Bread was also made from maize (corn). Today, Scot’s Cove, Westmoreland, where vendors do a thriving business in the sale of fish and bammy (cassava bread), is a reminder that fish and bammy were the staple foods of the inhabitants of Jamaica, long before the arrival of peoples from Europe and Africa.

Often referred to as the “Redware” people because of the bright red markings on their ceramics, archaeologists estimate that these soft-spoken people first came to the island about AD 600.
Some four hundred years later, another group is believed to have arrived in around AD 1000. The pottery of this later group is different in character from the earlier arrivals as instead of coloured markings on their pieces there are incised designs and filleted rims. Archaeologists, for ease of identification, refer to the early red ware group as those belonging to “the Ostionoid culture,” and those of the later group as belonging to “the Mellican culture.”

In 1897, J.E. Duerden,6 curator of the museum of the Institute of Jamaica in Kingston, made mention of two Taino cave sites in Westmoreland, one at Negril, reported by A.C. Bancroft, and the other called Indian Head (on Drummond property,) reported by A. Hale.

Many years later, in 1939 Edward Morris reported the find of two middens, one at Mount Eagle and the other on the Williamsfield property. It was not, however, until 1959 that C. Bernard Lewis and Prof. Ronald Howard reported  on a midden site at Bluefields. A midden is also known to have existed at Fort William property, where many years ago some fine examples of Taino artifacts were unearthed. In addition, in 1969, E.S. Harvey reported on a petroglyph site at Negril. It is perhaps fortunate that up to the present time limited archaeological investigation has been undertaken in Westmoreland; in the future the parish should benefit not only from knowledge already accrued from other archaeological sites in the island but also from modern systems and technology that are now being used in archaeology. In this context, those excavations conducted by Bill Keegan at the Paradise Park sites in 2002 are significant as the recovery of macrobotanical remains on those sites has aided efforts to reconstruct the natural environment of the area as it existed in Taino times.

 

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