Early Peoples of the Virgin Islands

Four waves of pre-Columbian people settled in the Virgin Islands: the Ciboney, Igneri, Taino, and Kalinago peoples. Each group arrived in the Virgin Islands from South America, and each brought new advances in crop cultivation, social structure, and tools.


The first humans are thought to have been present in the Virgin Islands as early as 2200 b.c. These earliest islanders, called Ciboney by the Spanish and Ortoiroid by today’s archaeologists, were fisher-foragers who did not make pottery or cultivate plants. They lived nomadically and used crude stone tools to prepare food. Shellfish was probably an important part of their diet.

The Ciboney lived in crude shelters, fashioned out of palm fronds and other material at hand. Social organization was primitive; families who lived and traveled together constituted a single band, without organized leadership. Archaeological evidence of these Stone Age people has been discovered at Krum Bay, St. Thomas, and Brewer’s Bay, Tortola.


The next wave was the Igneri, or Saladoid, people, who migrated from South America around 400 b.c. and lived undisturbed in the Virgin Islands for almost 1,000 years. They cultivated crops, including yucca and cassava. In addition to fish, the flesh of the agouti, a ratlike animal they raised, was their primary source of protein.

The Igneri knew how to make pottery and produced thin griddles on which they cooked cassava. They lived in communal round houses.


Much more is known about the third and most sophisticated group of pre-Columbians to live in the Virgin Islands. These people, defined by a different style of pottery and more advanced cultivation and social systems, have become known as Taino (the Arawaks of popular legend). Tainos lived throughout the Virgin Islands; archaeologists have found evidence of Taino settlement at some 32 sites on Tortola alone. The Salt River Bay area of St. Croix is widely believed to be an important Taino settlement and has been studied extensively. Digs at Cinnamon Bay, St. John, and Hull Bay, St. Thomas, have unearthed evidence of Taino settlements at those locations.

Studied by archeologists for decades, the petroglyphs are rock carvings made by Taino indians as early as 500 AD. Photo © Susanna Henighan Potter

Tainos traveled between islands in large canoes. Their caciques (chiefs) arbitrated disputes, oversaw cultivation and hunting, and made decisions about the future of the village. Cacique was a hereditary position.

Ornamentation was important to the Tainos, for it was linked to their religious beliefs. In their worship they used zemis—idols made of wood, stone, bone, shell, and clay—through which they worshiped the gods and sought to exert control over them. The Taino god of wind and water, Jurakan, is the namesake of today’s hurricanes. Some zemis were believed to influence the weather, crops, hunting, wealth, and childbirth. Religious leaders called behiques communicated with the gods and healed the sick and injured.

Taino villages were typically a ring of circular huts. The cacique lived in large rectangular houses with his wives; commoners lived in round thatched-roof huts with dirt floors and one door. They slept in hammocks.

Tainos enjoyed parties. They created castanets out of stone and used them to make music. Both men and women played a ball game using a rubber ball. Evidence of ball courts has been found at Belmont, Tortola, and Salt River Bay, St. Croix.


The final wave of pre-Columbian people arrived in the Virgin Islands shortly before Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of the islands. The Kalinago (popularly known as Caribs) were a martial society that had made its way northward from South America, conquering the more peaceful Tainos along the way. Defeated Taino males were killed or taken as slaves, while Taino women were absorbed into the Kalinago society.

It was a Kalinago village that Columbus and his men set upon on November 1493 when they sailed into Salt River Bay, St. Croix, but archaeologists do not know whether the Kalinago had reached St. Thomas, St. John, or the other islands at that time. No archaeological evidence has been unearthed that they had, and since Columbus and his fleet did not stop at any of the other Virgin Islands, no documentary evidence exists either.

The myth that the Kalinago were cannibals has never been substantiated, and, if they did eat human flesh, it is almost certain they did so for ceremonial purposes only. More likely, the myth came from the Kalinago’s fierce nature and the fact that their way of honoring the dead was to hang their bones in pots from the rafters of their homes—a practice misinterpreted by the Spanish who came into contact with them. The Spanish, who originated the myth of the cannibalistic Carib, benefited from its spread because it justified their ruthless extermination of the islands’ native populations.

Like Taino marriages, Kalinago marriages were polygamous, although not every man could afford to have more than one wife. For Tainos, it was the caciques who were most likely to have multiple wives; for the Kalinago it was the warriors. Believing that it made them more beautiful, the Kalinago flattened the front and back of their children’s heads.

The Kalinago’s social organization was looser than that of the Taino; Kalinago culture emphasized physical prowess and individualism. While settlements had a leader, his authority was limited. War chiefs were chosen from among villagers based on their skill in battle. The Kalinago lived separated by gender; the men lived together in large building called a carbet, while the women lived in smaller houses. Tobacco was the standard of exchange.

Kalinago military dominance was due to the culture’s focus on training and their development of more deadly weapons than the Taino had. Young Kalinago men were trained as children to be warriors, and the values of courage and endurance were highly valued. The bow and arrow was the most common Kalinago weapon; poison from deadly plants was used on the tip of the arrow to increase the chance of death. The Kalinago depended on the element of surprise in achieving military victories.


Within 100 years of Spanish arrival in the Caribbean, there were no more indigenous people living in the Virgin Islands. Some were captured as slaves to work in Spanish gold mines, and others fled southward to islands farther away from the Spanish strongholds of Puerto Rico and Hispaniola. The Caribbean island of Dominica still has a “Carib” community—descendants of these people.

Others stayed put and fought their new Spanish neighbors. St. Croix’s Caribs, as the Spanish called them, violently opposed Spanish settlement of the region; the new Spanish settlement on Puerto Rico was the target of numerous raids and attacks between 1510 and 1530. On one raid, the Caribs killed the newly appointed governor of the colony. In response to the aggression, the Spanish crown formally gave its settlers in the region license to hunt and kill Caribs in 1512, a move that marked the beginning of the end for the remaining Virgin Islands native people. Although they continued to raid and attack Puerto Rico between 1520 and 1530, they were ultimately no match for the Spanish. By 1590, and probably well before that on most of the islands, indigenous people had disappeared from the Virgin Islands.

Today, there are no native people in the Virgin Islands. Only a few of their words—such as hurricane, hammock, and barbecue—remain.

Susanna Henighan Potter

About the Author

Susanna Henighan Potter was born in Tennessee and raised in the beautiful foothills of the Smoky Mountains, she packed her bags after graduating from Oberlin College and headed to a cluster of tiny dots in the Caribbean Sea: the Virgin Islands.

As a reporter at island newspapers and for the Associated Press, Susanna covered stories ranging from celebrity sightings and murder trials to the installation of the first traffic light in the British Virgin Islands. In between assignments, Susanna fell in love with her new home. She learned to snorkel, went on weekend camping trips, and got used to driving on the left side of the road. She took local history and cooking classes and bought a machete to explore overgrown hiking trails. She learned to grow Caribbean seasoning peppers and how to make the perfect piña colada.

Moon U.S. & British Virgin Islands reflects Susanna's experience as both insider and outsider. She lives like a local but has not forgotten the jolt of excitement she felt at her first glimpse of the islands from the window of a small airplane in 1999.

Today, Susanna works as a communications professional and lives with her husband on the island of Tortola.

Learn more about this author

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