Suriname before Columbus


A.H. Versteeg & F.C. Bubberman

(This text is based on a published text of the authors mentioned above: that text has been summarized and updated.
The Stichting Surinaams Museum and the authors have the copyright of this text. It is not allowed to cite this text unless properly referenced.
The proper reference is: Versteeg, A.H. & F.C. Bubberman, 1992. Suriname before Columbus. Mededelingen Stichting Surinaams Museum 49A, Paramaribo, Suriname. pp. 3-65; updated Internet version 1998).




The oldest traces of human activities in the Guianas have been found in savannas, particularly in the savannas in the southern part of the country (Fig. S-1). There is reason to believe that ca. 10,000 years ago, in a relatively dry climatic period, a more or less uninterrupted savanna belt ran from the coastal area of West Venezuela to the south of Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana. It is there that we have to situate these oldest activities. The oldest traces are not found in the tropical forest.

Two phases may be distinguished (Boomert, 1980): an older phase of large-game-hunters (late Pleistocene fauna such as mammoths, mastodons and megatherians) and a younger phase of early Holocene small-game-hunters. A problem in making this distinction is the lack of absolute datings in the Guianas, and the lack of remains other than stone materials. This stone material consists of tools and the waste-material from manufacturing the tools: workshops where flaked stone tools were made and, if not satisfactory, discarded. Interesting sites, but limited in information.

In the Venezuelan savannas the situation is different: there we find C-14 datable charcoal and bone remains of (now extinct) large game associated with the tools. Diverging "toolkits" from different sites can be compared to those of the dated sites. The age of the tools (and activities) can subsequently be estimated according to their relationship to these well-documented sites.

The situation in the Guianas: the oldest remains were found at some five sites in the neighbourhood of Tupuken (Fig. S-1) in Venezuelan Guiana. Cruxent (1972) ascribes the large, roughly worked tools of approx. 13,000 years old to hunters of since extinct large game.

In South Suriname, in the Sipaliwini savanna (Fig. S-2), 29 sites have been found (Fig. S-3), mostly places where stone tools had been made and worked. The basic material - quartz and rhyolite - occurs on the surface there. Oval or round hammer-stones to split the artifacts from the nucleus, were found in the stone debris: evidence that stoneworking was indeed practiced here.

In typology, projectile points (Fig. S-4), knives and scrapers are younger than Tupuken. They are comparable with the Venezuelan complex of Las Casitas, dated at around 8-9,000 years ago (Boomert, 1980:101). Large game had by then already become extinct. The Sipaliwini people hunted mainly using a bow and arrow for small game such as deer. These Sipaliwini hunters inhabited the savannas in small family groups and made small camps.


Alaka Phase in Guyana
Prehistoric shellfish gatherers left large piles of shells (shell-mounds) in coastal regions of northern South America. These shell-mounds are especially striking in East Venezuela and in Guyana as far as the Essequibo. In the area between the Essequibo and the Amazon they do not occur at all: to the east of the Amazon again large numbers of them are encountered. This distribution is not remarkable: large quantities of clayey sediments of Amazon origin dominate the coasts of the Essequibo-Amazon area. This probably limits the populations of shellfish to such an extent, that these animals could not have become a major food source for prehistoric populations in this specific part of coastal South America.

Archaeologically, shell-mounds are striking elements of the landscape: when one spot has been inhabited for a long time, they can become several metres high and the settlements upon them are likewise raised. Thirty shell-mounds occur in Guyana in both the brackish water and freshwater marshes of the coastal region of the North West and Pomeroon Districts (Fig. S-1). Some of these sites have been investigated. One of them is Barabina Hill, where from an early date (approx. 6,000 years ago) nerite shells and crabs formed the main source of food. Hunting, fishing and the processing of marsh-palm products completed the diet. People lived there for a couple of centuries (Williams, 1985).

As far as we know, these are the first permanently inhabited villages in the Guianas. Apparently, the shellfish fauna produced enough protein to facilitate permanent settlement. At the same time, sufficient plants and fruits could be found to complete the diet. Mention was already made of the richness of the coastal area: several eco-zones can often be exploited. These shellfish-gatherers lived for millennia in coastal Guyana: from at least 6000 BC to 1400 BC. The latter date applies to the Hosororo Creek shell-mound. Here we find undecorated pottery. There is no indication that agriculture was practiced. Shellfish was still the main source of food (Williams, 1985).

These groups are not found in Suriname. It is clear, however, that the gap in Suriname between the Sipaliwini hunters and the first pottery makers is filled by the inhabitants of 30 shell-mound sites in the coastal area west of the Essequibo. According to the available information from the archaeological record, Suriname was uninhabited for some thousands of years after the hunters of the Sipaliwini savanna. Here as well, it is possible that there were people who inhabited the land, but they left no traces for us.





In Central Amazonia, about 4,000 BC, a development took place of which the exact location, details and time-span are unknown: the development of the typical South American Tropical Forest Culture. This culture is characterized by new economic activities: agriculture. In comparison with the previous hunters-gatherers culture, there were far-reaching changes on economic, cultural and material fields over a relatively short period of time.

The main characteristics are:

  1. The main component of the diet is obtained through shifting cultivation. This is the bitter cassava (Manihot utilissima).
  2. The processing of this food requires a number of special facilities such as a plaited press (matapí), a grater and a griddle. The farmers do not only need the pottery griddle in order to process their staple crop into food, but also pottery vessels; these are useful for other cassava products, such as cassiri (cassava beer). In short, the manufacture of pottery goes hand in hand with incipient agriculture.
  3. As a consequence of the economic changes, residential conditions and settlement parameters change: villages are inhabited on a more or less permanent basis; villages consisted of houses that are more sophisticated than those of hunter- gatherers. Moreover, the vicinity of land suitable for the cultivation of cassava would have influenced settlement choices.
  4. The manufacturing of canoes from hollowed tree-trunks, which are able to navigate the rapids that occur in most Amazonian rivers and creeks. Such boats (Fig. S-5) can be dragged over land when unnavigable waterfalls are met. In calm weather it is even possible to sail the sea when land is kept in sight.
  5. The social relations changed decisively. Owing to the new economic conditions, larger villages were possible: more people lived together. The fact that women processed the cassava roots together, promoted matrilocal settlement patterns in houses that are large enough to hold a few families, the malocas (Figs.S-6 & S-7).

In general, it may be noted that in the typical man-woman distribution of tasks, a large number of "new" tasks are carried out by women: the processing of cassava, and pottery- making. It is not clear to us whether these kinds of matters came about over a relatively short period or after developments which took place over hundreds of years: we can only observe that they eventually became the rule.

When considering which tasks are performed mainly by men or women, in hunter- gatherer groups and among agrarian people, it seems that the economic changes especially influenced women's activities. New, typically male activities remain limited to clearing agricultural plots and building/maintaining the more sophisticated houses.

A number of activities have perhaps remained more or less unchanged, such as obtaining of animal protein by hunting and/or fishing. These hunting and fishing trips are also used for gathering. Such actions are, indeed, continued. For farmers these activities are, however, less important than for hunters/gatherers.


It is important to record the developments in the central Orinoco area for a proper understanding of the developments in the Guianas. Almost all the archaeological material found in Suriname appears to have older parallel findings in the Venezuelan Orinoco area. The geographic parameters suggest the routes through which contacts occurred and ideas were exchanged. Probably in many cases migration and settlements of groups from one area to another was involved.

It is understandable that new developments manifest themselves in the Orinoco area: it is relatively easy to maintain contact with the Amazon region through the Casiquiare Canal (Fig. S-1). In other words, for groups which have a sophisticated sailing technology (see the afore-going), the Amazon forms an approx. 4,000 km long east-west connection between the Andes and the Atlantic Ocean, as the crow flies. At Manaus, at a distance of about 1,200 km from the Amazon estuary, the Rio Negro, coming from the north, forms a kind of T-crossing with the Amazon (Fig. S-1).

What is special about the Rio Negro is that it has a direct connection with the Orinoco in the borderland between Brazil and Venezuela, at least during the wet season: this being the Casiquiare Canal, mentioned above. Thus, Mid-Amazonia and the Atlantic Ocean are directly connected over a distance of approx. 2,000 km (Fig. S-1). There are other possibilities as well, to cross the watershed between the rivers that flow southwards to the Amazon and the rivers that flow northwards to the Atlantic Ocean. For example, via the Sipaliwini savanna from the Rio Paru to the Corantijn and/or Marowijne Rivers. A large distance, however, must be covered by land. We have found all sorts of indications that these and similar connections (e.g. between Trombetas and the Essequibo) have been used by groups of Amerindians in the past and present to maintain contact with one another.

The impact which the Orinoco cultures appear to have had on the developments within the entire Caribbean - which, probably, acquired its new Tropical Forest technology by way of the Casiquiare Canal - suggests that the Rio Negro-Orinoco connection played an important part in prehistoric times. Lathrap (1970) states that this technology was developed in the Peruvian Upper Amazon Region, close to the Andes. In any case, Suriname received its impulses in prehistoric times mainly from the Orinoco area.

Around 1,000 BC (perhaps already earlier) there is a culture of agrarian people in Venezuela in the Central Orinoco area which unites the characteristics outlined above (Roosevelt, 1980). It is named Saladoid in reference to the present Venezuelan town and archaeological site Saladero. The pottery decorations characterize Saladoid sites: red and white painting, typical handles and human and animal shaped figures, called adornos, which were attached to the pottery. Other Venezuelan main pottery styles of a later date are called Barrancoid and Arauquinoid. These three Traditions developed in the Orinoco area and all three are represented in Suriname.

Saladoid pottery is found covering a vast area over a long period of time: between the Central Orinoco and Puerto Rico/the Dominican Republic, respectively Margarita on the Venezuelan coast and the Corantijn River. Well-dated sites in this area stem from the period between ca 1,000 BC and AD 800.

In Suriname, villages of slash-and-burn-farmers of a considerable antiquity have been found. The oldest site demonstrates some Saladoid aspects. Another site falls entirely within the Saladoid pattern.


Oldest Surinamese Site at the Kaurikreek
The oldest site, Kaurikreek, is situated in West Suriname at ca. 10 km south of Apoera on the creek with the same name (Fig. S-3). It is situated a few kilometres north of the border between Tertiary sandy hills and the Holocene river plain. The pottery has quite typical decorations, which consist of appliqué decorations in geometrical patterns (Fig. S-8). Thin strips of clay were pressed onto the clay of the vessel wall before the vessel was fired (Versteeg, 1978:18-26). This decoration pattern has not been found in any other archaeological site in the Guianas or Venezuela.

The Kaurikreek finds also comprise of a few stylized adornos (in this case birds' heads) and a peg-topped handle (Fig. S-9). These pieces of pottery have parallels in Saladoid sites but are undoubtedly locally made, in view of the typical Kaurikreek temper.

The Kaurikreek site yielded two charcoal datings: one is ca. 3,600 years old and a second one ca. 2,500 years. Calibrated, the older sample is between ca. 2,400 and 1,600 BC, the younger one between 800 and 500 BC. The older sample seems to be the more reliable one.

But even if the younger sample were to indicate the real age of the Indian activities at Kaurikreek, this would still be the oldest ceramic site in Suriname. There is no doubt that the Kaurikreek site represents the remains of inhabitation activities: apart from the large number of archaeological finds, a thick black layer ("terra preta") is found there as well: the result of a lengthy enrichment of this terrain with organic matter. It is the typical result of refuse-dumping on one stable location for years on end. Considering the volume of refuse (ca 100 x 100m), there were a number of houses there: a village. It is a suitable place to live: a low hill of Pleistocene age, which lies just above the Holocene Apoera plain. It is also a favourable place for an Amerindian settlement: on the border of 2 or 3 different habitats with good agricultural fields and not too far from a large river, the Corantijn River. The Kaurikreek site indicates that Suriname had a village with a real Tropical Forest Culture, long before the beginning of the Christian era.

It is hardly acceptable that only one village in this area would feature pottery with such characteristic, finely executed decoration patterns. Still, the available archaeological data suggests this. The authors are of the opinion that this demonstrates a lack of intensity in the research. Although about 400 archaeological sites in Suriname have been recorded (Boomert 1975; Versteeg 1980), there is probably still very much hidden under the Surinamese vegetation. In neighbouring Guyana, the situation is not more favourable. The fact that the Kaurikreek site has a unique pottery style, is most likely indicative of our lack of knowledge of archaeological sites in the Guianas than of the actual situation in prehistoric times. We do suspect, however, that the villages where this pottery was made, were not that numerous.


A village which demonstrates many Saladoid features was situated on the Corantijn River, near the Wonotobo Falls (Fig. S-3). It dates from the beginning of the Christian era. This is the so-called insular phase of the Saladoid, meaning that the pottery (Fig. S-10) parallels what is encountered on the Antilles (Fig. EUX-1). There they represent the first tropical forest group that settled on these islands. Wonotobo is the most eastern lying archaeological site where this Saladoid pottery has been found.

It is striking that Wonotobo is not situated on a small creek such as is Kaurikreek, but on a large river that runs from the South to the North and, for that matter, on a significant location: right where the first great rapids are encountered, sailing southwards from the sea. Since the insular Saladoids were good seafarers, they probably reached Wonotobo from the sea. They could also stay in touch with their relatives further to the north in the same way. It is noteworthy that these, and other groups of agrarian people in Suriname, of whom we can prove a Venezuelan connection, all lived in places from where the sea was within easy reach.

Wonotobo is the only place in the Guianas where this type of pottery has been found which connects this site so closely to Saladoid sites of the Antillean islands. A number of sites were discovered in Guyana with Saladoid elements (cf. Boomert, 1983:103-4). And although our knowledge is not complete, we assume that around the beginning of the Christian era, Guyana and Suriname would not have had many Saladoid villages. Wonotobo is clearly located on the far eastern edge of the region over which the Saladoid Culture spread and had influence.


Saladoid Parallel far beyond Suriname
Sometimes we are able to support our archaeological data of Suriname with ethnographic data, and sometimes with archaeological data from other regions as well. In view of the wide spreading of the Saladoid Culture and the uniformity of the material culture we find in the (insular) Saladoid sites, it seems legitimate to use data from other Saladoid sites for a better understanding of the Saladoid village that was once situated at Wonotobo, and of its inhabitants.

A large, uninterrupted area of one Saladoid village in the Caribbean has been excavated. The village was situated in the centre of the island of St. Eustatius in the northern Lesser Antilles (Fig. S-1). It is from a later date (AD 500 - 800) than Wonotobo. The pottery found there is, however, quite similar to that of Wonotobo (Fig. EUX-1). The remarkable stability of form, decoration patterns and techniques of this pottery over distance and time suggests that more elements of villages and their inhabitants were identical in the Saladoid in the Caribbean (Versteeg, 1989).

The background of this uniformity poses interesting questions: is this the result of intensive contacts on a regular base between the participants, or is it the result of a "dominant continuous range of thoughts and ideas" (culture-determining basic concepts) which caused the material culture (specifically pottery parameters) to be uniform in shape for such a long period of time and over such large distances?

The research on St. Eustatius has yielded 6 complete floorplans of houses on the Golden Rock site (Fig. EUX-2). They are all round, the smallest is over 7 metres in diameter, the largest approx. 19 m. The front sides of all the houses look out onto an open place, a plaza (Fig.S-11), where some children were buried as well as clearly ritual objects. At the rear of the houses was a midden, a refuse heap, next to which some adults were buried. All houses had a solid foundation. The main components were long, heavy, straight wooden posts (the black dots of Fig. EUX-2) of ca 25 cm diameter.

The large houses should clearly be interpreted as malocas, large communal houses for extended families, or for a number of nuclear families. It can thus be concluded that if we wish to visualize the Saladoid village in Wonotobo, it probably consisted of round houses with a really strong wooden frame, and was situated around an open space, the plaza (Fig. S-11).

Also, such houses and village lay-out are not restricted to Saladoid culture: what is striking is that in modern ethnographic literature exact, detailed parallels can be found for the form of the houses and the lay-out of the village found at Golden Rock, for example with the Guyanese Wai Wai (Yde, 1965; Fock, 1963; Siegel, 1990).


A second component at Wonotobo
At Wonotobo, another group of Amerindians lived on the same spot a couple of centuries later. Not a Saladoid group, but a Barrancoid group, making Late Mabaruma pottery. In the next chapter an Early Mabaruma group in coastal Suriname will be discussed.

This makes Wonotobo a two-component site: a site where the remains of two groups have been found. Many such sites occur in Suriname, specifically on the banks of the rivers. The high, sandy locations which have a good drainage are typical of the places which have been sought for settlement purposes, but also for agricultural activities. Wonotobo is therefore an archaeological site characteristic of the riverbanks of the Guianas.

The first author was able to observe such processes in execution along the Sipaliwini River in Southwest Suriname: the high sandy bank of the present Trio village of Kwamalasamoetoe (Fig. S-5) used to be the agricultural field of one of the Trio villages some 20 years ago. On the high banks (and washed-down into the river below!) the Taruma and Koriabo sherds bear witness that this exact spot was occupied in the 18th/ 19th century (by the Taruma), and perhaps even in the 13th century by the Koriabo people. The name Kwamalasamoetoe (= bamboo-sand) indicates what the spot was like when discovered by the Trio. The second author found evidence that archaeological sites often have a bambu vegetation.






The coastal plain has an abundant creek and river system. Fertile, "young" clay land, and a plant and animal life fitting in with the fresh, brackish and salt waters. How did the Amerindians take advantage of this inviting ecosystem? Which archaeological finds were recovered?

Dated strata of peat and a pollen analysis show that between approximately AD 300 and 1000 freshwater conditions occurred in the coastal plain, in an area in which sand ridges are scarce: in the Nickerie District and in the west part of the Coronie District. It is striking that these freshwater conditions developed gradually from east to west. One group of Amerindians attentively reacted to the freshwater conditions by raising a mound of clay, and establishing fields in the vicinity raised in clay and surrounded by trenches. They established a water control system so creating all the elements for permanent cassava cultivation (Fig. S-12). The forest ground in the interior could remain fertile for three-odd harvest seasons after its initial fertilization with ash and charcoal. Here it was possible to fertilize the fields with organically rich material to periodically restore the fertility to the desired level. In fact, it is an artificial varzéa (washlands of the Amazon where the annual flooding during the rainy seasons causes sedimentation of fertile young clay, which the remainder of the year could be cultivated. Permanent agriculture also was practiced there). This Amazonian technology probably ended up in Suriname via the Casiquiare Canal/Orinoco (where these Indians have their cultural roots, as has already been discussed).


Wherever this permanent cultivation technology may have had its origins, the archaeological data show that ca AD 300 a group, using this technology, raised two mounds, Buckleburg-1 and Buckleburg-2, to build their villages on. These mound-villages were situated on the bank of one small creek, amidst a complex of artificially raised fields with square dimensions (Figs. S-12 & S-13). These mounds are characterized by pottery of the so- called early-Mabaruma style (Fig. S-14).

The last datings (of the top layers of the mound-settlement) are from around AD 600. The archaeological data suggest that these mounds were deserted, and that new mound-settlements were established further to the west. These mounds, however, are characterized by a different pottery style: the Hertenrits style. This belongs to a totally different Venezuelan Tradition (the Arauquinoid) than the Mabaruma pottery, which belongs to the Barrancoid Tradition.

The most likely interpretation for this change is the immigration of a new group which replaced or chased away the old group, and raised its own mounds further to the west. Mabaruma pottery from the old mounds has not been found anywhere in these more recent mounds.

Pottery studies - besides C-14 datings our most important tool for separating the groups, and for signaling developments and contacts - suggest a dichotomy in this pair of mounds: early and late Hertenrits pottery. Early Hertenrits pottery is found in the lower sections of the Hertenrits, and in all layers of the Wageningen-1 mound situated along the same creek. Late Hertenrits pottery is only found in the youngest (top) section of the Hertenrits mound. The rich decorative patterns of the late pottery suggest a high level of elaborate decorations. This probably implies that the function of pottery was not limited to utilitarian levels, but that pottery also had an important role in ceremonial life.

The Hertenrits - the largest and highest mound in Suriname - was inhabited longer than the others. The fields near the Hertenrits are long and narrow, in contrast to those near the older Buckleburg mounds that have a more or less square shape.

We have encountered this richly decorated, late Hertenrits pottery not only at the Hertenrits, but also at the Prins Bernhard Polder site, which is not a mound site. It is situated to the west of the area of the mounds. Prins Bernhard Polder is a unique site containing an enormous amount of very beautiful finds, not only of pottery (Fig. S-15), but also artifacts of bone, stone and shell. An extraordinary find, a spade of hard wood, from a deep layer under the soil water level is complete but for a broken handle (Fig. S- 16).

It is unique for Suriname that for such a large amount of finds no black terra preta sections could be distinguished. The finds were uncovered in and beside small, round hills, typically dug, but totally different from all fields in the coastal plain. The quality of the material finds and the remarkable site-soil point in the direction of another function of this site than that of a settlement. A ceremonial function is most likely.

Besides pottery, many animal bones have been excavated in the mounds: bones from deer and caymans are most abundant, followed by manatees, catfish and crab. Other animal bones are also found, but in smaller quantities. Cassava was cultivated on the fields, and maybe maize in the late Hertenrits phase. No proof of this has been found as yet in Suriname, but it is assumed by Roosevelt (1980) on the basis of the increasing importance of maize in Eastern Venezuela from approximately AD 700 onwards.

A specific particularity is to be mentioned here concerning the plants and trees that are presently growing on the mounds (Fig. S-13): a botanical study of the species that occur on 4 mounds in coastal Suriname indicated that ca 50% of all these species are labeled as useful or usable by man living at present in the interior of the country. In comparison: for the whole of Suriname, this is 15% (Werkhoven & Versteeg, 1980).

This high percentage seems to reflect Indian activities. Probably some of the plants cultivated in prehistory on the mounds were able to survive and propagate until the present day. This is the only acceptable interpretation of the predominance of useful species on the mounds. This conclusion shares one element with conclusions on the specific vegetation of archaeological sites in the interior of the country: some plants and trees that grew in a village at the time of its abandonment, were able to stay there for centuries, such as bamboo, discussed in this context already above.


Sand Ridges
Along the entire Surinamese coast, to the east of the area of the mounds, settlements on the natural elevations in the landscape can be found: on the sand ridges or cheniers. These are the most likely natural settlement locations: slight elevations in the landscape with good drainage. In addition, because of the presence of shells in the subsoil of many of the ridges (especially in Central Suriname), they have good soil characteristics for agriculture. Near many ridge settlements, however, again artificially raised fields occur in the adjoining lower swamp areas. Especially in eastern Suriname we find enormous areas of these fields (Fig. S-17), with some very high ones, up to 1.5 m. The present tree vegetation in that area provides good protection for some of these fields against erosion. In open terrain many of these fields show the result of erosion (refer to e.g. Rostain, 1991:21).


Pottery style and Culture
On the basis of the pottery an archaeological differentiation into 4 cultures can be made:

  1. The above-mentioned Early Mabaruma culture which can be found in Suriname only on the mounds of Buckleburg-1 and Buckleburg-2.
  2. The Hertenrits culture which we find on all other mounds, and in its later form also occurs in the Prins Bernhard Polder. The pottery of Peruvia situated on a ridge a few kilometres west of the Coppename River, is also considered to belong to the Hertenrits. There are strong similarities, but also a number of proper characteristics, such as painting (Versteeg, 1985). Hertenrits pottery has only been found between the Coppename River and the Corantijn River.
  3. The Kwatta culture in central Suriname (between the Coppename and Suriname Rivers) has a few decorative motives in common with Hertenrits. Waving clay rolls at the outside of the vessel as found in Wageningen-1 (Fig. S-19; Versteeg, 1985: fig. 31; Tacoma et al., 1991:fig.12). Red painting has been executed in the style of Peruvia. Kwatta is the only coastal culture of which no raised fields have been found. Apparently, other farming land was available which was suitable for cassava cultivation. The enormous richness in shells of the ridges in this area is remarkable, providing a good soil for agriculture. This is probably the best explanation of the lack of raised field in Central Suriname.
  4. In East Suriname (between the Commewijne and the Marowijne Rivers) the Barbakoeba pottery style is found from the same period (datings around AD 1000). Near the settlements enormous areas of fields have been found (Fig. S-17). As a decoration the pottery has clay strips applied at the base of the neck, impressed with finger tips.

All these 4 pottery styles are distinctly related to one other, even though 1 : 1 similarities do not occur. The best interpretation is to consider these coastal cultures as a continuum, which successively spread over the Surinamese and Guianese coastal plains from the Orinoco area (Fig. FG-13). The most striking characteristic is the permanent agriculture on artificially raised fields. This does not hold true for Kwatta (see above). The earliest datings available for each culture also reveal a trend from west to east (Table S-1):

West Suriname:

Central Suriname:

East Suriname:






A large number of archaeological sites are situated in the interior of Suriname, especially on the high and sandy banks of rivers and creeks (e.g. present-day Kwamalasamoetoe [Fig. S-5], former Wonotobo and Kaurikreek [Fig. S-3]), but also on locations near savannas (e.g. present-day Mata and Poika). On many of the archaeological sites in the interior we have found undecorated, rough pottery and stone artifacts or the remains thereof, but not much more than that. All these groups of Amerindians practiced shifting cultivation. The variety of preserved characteristic artifacts is smaller than in other areas.


Koriabo from the East
For all the cultures discussed so far we can point towards the west for their origins. A few centuries before the colonization (AD 1492), however, a group arrived in Suriname which did not have its roots in the west.

An exception are the groups that made pottery of the Koriabo style (Fig. S-18) dated from ca 1200 AD on. They were slash-and-burn cultivators. Their settlements have been found in the interior but also in the coastal area, especially in the Older Coastal Plain situated slightly further inland (see map Fig. S-18). The dispersion is over all Suriname, but we know many more sites from North Suriname than from South Suriname. However, this distribution may be the result of our lack of knowledge of South Suriname.

There is one important exception to this dispersion: in the coastal area between the Coppename River and the Corantijn River no Koriabo site has so far been found. Such sites have been found in the coastal area east of the Coppename River. This would not be remarkable, if Koriabo sites had not been found in the interior of West Suriname, and also in the coastal area of Guyana. This could mean that Koriabo people were able to gain a foothold in the 12th/13th century along the entire coast of the Guianas, but not in West Suriname. The only plausible explanation for this is that the Hertenrits culture was so powerful in this area during that period of time that the Koriabo people could not settle there.

What is even more noteworthy is that the Koriabo datings in the interior of the country (Corantijn basin) are older than those of the coastal area. This could mean that these groups arrived from the south across the watershed of the Sipaliwini Savanna (see Introduction for the geographical aspects), and finally settled chiefly in the coastal area. The origins of the Koriabo people should be sought in the lower Amazon area on the basis of the style of their striking pottery.

The Koriabo group shows two striking characteristics: often they settled on locations that had already been inhabited earlier. For that matter, these two-component sites are archaeologically difficult to recognize, but the Koriabo sites provide good indications in some cases.

The second characteristic is that the Koriabo culture seems to spread beyond the borders of the colonial period (Evans & Meggers, 1960:152-3; Boomert, 1978:38-39). To our knowledge, none of the other cultures we have discussed existed after the colonisation.

We saw already that the majority of the archaeological sites of the interior of the country show up a difference with those of the coastal areas. The interpretation-possibilities are often smaller because:

In spite of this handicap we are able to say something about these sites, as they fall within the most general pattern of Amerindian settlements. Moreover, there exists a clear continuity up until the present. So, for our understanding of such sites, we can use data from the ethnographic record. The villages are relatively small. Cassava, cultivated in slash-and-burn fields, is the main food crop. All the animals of the forest are hunted using a bow an arrow, and sometimes hunting dogs are used. Fishing is done using the fishing spear, bow and arrow, fish traps, or poison. The village is moved several times because of the shifting cultivation: that is also a factor to understand the large number of archaeological sites in the interior of Suriname.

Such a large number does not necessarily mean a very dense population in all periods of time. If we draw a parallel with colonial times we may assume a considerable interaction between the various groups, with various groups having one or more "specialities". For example, network in which one group built boats, another group manufactured cassava-graters, and another bred hunting dogs, as suggested by the ethnographic record. These specialized products were exchanged with other groups in a barter trade system. A marriage exchange was/is common within these networks, and more or less necessary for the smaller units of which these groups normally consisted. This interaction did not stand in the way of a more or less permanent state of war in some cases.

We should not forget that during colonial times we have a quite different situation as compared to the prehistoric period: a watered down situation (see below). In the south of French Guiana, Suriname and Guyana, we find only a few villages in areas which are vast and largely "empty" in the colonial period documentation (Hurault, 1989; Schomburgk, 1845). If we look at the great number of archaeological sites which have been found in that part of the Guianas, this can only mean that the habitation has been more intensive during the prehistoric period. This, however, does not mean that the population must have been dense, as has been already argued above.

For some areas we have specific information: an indication of settlements in the Upper- Corantijn area by Sanders (ca AD 1720) suggests a much denser village network in the phase preceding the arrival of more Europeans in the 19th century (IJzerman, 1911; Bubberman, 1972). In any case, archaeological and other data suggest a larger number of villages before the Europeans arrived as compared to the very low number from the later colonial period.


The Brownsberg Culture
An extraordinary culture from the interior was found near and on the Brownsberg (Boomert & Kroonenberg, 1977). This prehistoric group had a speciality for mining stone material (metabasalt) on the Brownsberg, and processing it to semi-finished products (especially of axes) in the grinding groove complexes in the valley of the Suriname River at the foot of the Brownsberg. The Brownsberg Culture distinguishes itself by a pottery with specific decorative patterns. The dating lies between AD 1000 and 1500.

Boomert & Kroonenberg give reason to belief that the products were traded with the stoneless coastal area via the Suriname River, and especially with the Kwatta and Barbakoeba settlements. The large number of stone objects (semi-finished and finished products) which have been found in the Kwatta Tingiholo site (Fig. S-20) suggest a distributive function of that village in a trade system. This trade system probably included semi-finished Brownsberg stone products.


Montagnes couronnées/Pondokreek site
A remarkable archaeological site is situated at the Pondo Creek in the interior of East Suriname. The site is characterized by a trench which is at this moment more than 4 m wide and approximately 0.5-1 m deep, but originally it must have been 5 m wide and more than 2 m deep. The diameter is at its widest 125 m and 95 m at its narrowest: i.e. an oval (Versteeg, 1981). The trench is situated on top of a low hill on the watershed between the Mapane River and the Commewijne River, in the centre of a kind of triangle, consisting of two rivers which flow together a little further to the north (Fig. S-21). Charcoal and a few sherds were found at the bottom of the trench during the excavation. It is the only trench site in Suriname. The charcoal provided a dating around AD 800.

Nowhere has a dark layer of terra preta or other remains of waste been found in this site: this site has not been inhabited intensively. Striking is the fact that the site is not characterized by a specific vegetation: the plants and trees are the same species as in the forest surrounding the site. So, inhabitation, terra preta layers that result from the inhabitation, and permanent changes in the vegetation seem to go hand-in-hand.

In French Guiana some thirty odd similar sites have been found (Abonnenc, 1952; Petitjean Roget, 1989) called there montagnes couronnées. Two have been visited by the first author. They show similarities with the Surinamese site:

  1. They are also situated in a triangle between rivers flowing together, on relatively high locations.
  2. These sites are also very poor in finds and traces of habitation.

During the excavation of the Pondokreek site special attention has been paid to traces of a palisade on the inside or outside of the trench. No such traces have been found. Considering the dating results, the present author ascribes the Pondokreek site, and also the similar French Guiana sites, to prehistoric times. The large size of the sites does not seem to be very functional as a defensive works either: a total length of approximately 300 m would have to be defended. That would only be effective if there were a large number of people.

Digging this 2 m deep trench must have been enormously labour-intensive. The only acceptable function, considering the available data, in the opinion of the present authors can be a ceremonial function of these trenches. These trenches undoubtedly occupied an important place in the lives of the diggers, but certainly not as a place to live, and highly unlikely as a place to defend themselves.

This interpretation needs some explanation: ceremonial/ritual aspects of life have an important and prominent place in the lives of colonial period and recent Indian groups of the north of South America (Hugh-Jones, 1985). Much time and effort is paid to these aspects of life. These data are widely supported by the ethnographic record. Unfortunately, however, the material remains of prehistoric societies seldom offer any clear information about such activities to the archaeologist.

If, however, we have within the archaeological record important objects or data for which all practical explanations do not fit, and if, from the time-investment paid by a prehistoric community, it seems certain that the objects must have been important to this prehistoric society, and if these objects are found, on very specific, obviously selected locations, the explanation must be sought, in the opinion of the present authors, in the field of that specific terrain, for which we so rarely have conclusive proof: the ceremonial or ritual aspects of life. A similar reasoning also seems applicable to phenomena that are discussed in the next paragraphs: petroglyphs.


Other prehistoric remains: Petroglyphs and Stone Rows
Petroglyphs are images cut and/or carved into stone. Images painted on rocks also exist, but these have not been found in Suriname. Dubelaar (1986, 1986a, 1991) has made an inventory of Surinamese petroglyphs. He ascribes them to Amerindians in prehistoric times. Almost all are found in the Corantijn basin, and some in the Marowijne basin. With the exclusion of a few, they have all been found near a river or creek. One of them is extraordinary as it has been found in the centre of the Sipaliwini Savanna (Bubberman, 1973). Until now it has been impossible to date petroglyphs. Although various motifs could be clustered, it is generally not possible to connect these to specific groups and/or periods on that basis. A single exception is discussed below.

The most striking is their spread across Suriname, taking this current political entity as a basis: the Sipaliwini Savanna (Fig. S-22), the Corantijn River and the Marowijne River are three geographical areas with a special relation: the two rivers are the only ones in Suriname which have several of their source creeks in the Sipaliwini Savanna (Fig. S-3). The Cottica, Commewijne, Suriname, Saramacca and Coppename Rivers do not have source creeks there, and they do not have any petroglyphs.

The only group which left habitation traces in both the basins of the Corantijn River and Marowijne River is the Koriabo group (Versteeg, 1979, and see above). Near the Sipaliwini Savanna an old Koriabo village has also been found, at the site of the present village of Kwamalasamoetoe on the right bank of the Sipaliwini River (Fig. S-5).

Koriabo habitation traces, however, have also been found near other rivers, but no petroglyphs occur there. A 1:1 relationship between petroglyphs and Koriabo sites indeed does not exist.

There is, however, a second factor which indicates Koriabo as being one of the groups having made these petroglyphs. On St. Vincent, one of the islands of the Lesser Antilles, a site has been found containing pottery with Koriabo elements (Boomert, 1986). On St. Vincent a petroglyph has been found who's style strongly resembles some drawings of the Corantijn basin.

There is some justification for attributing some Surinamese petroglyphs to the Koriabo group. Considering the differences in conception (e.g. simple or very complex), and execution (deeply or superficially engraved) it remains doubtful whether one can attribute all petroglyphs in Suriname to the Koriabo group.

In the Sipaliwini Savanna rows of stones occur that are east-west oriented (Fig. S-23). They consist of small, flat granite boulders. Boomert (in Bruijning & Voorhoeve, 1977:514) ascribes a ceremonial\ritual function to them.





The prehistory of Suriname is characterized by three food procurement systems: hunters/gatherers, agriculturists with shifting cultivation, and agriculturists with permanent cultivation. No traces can be found in the Guianas of the first and third group among the Amerindian groups which have been living in Suriname since the 17th century. A reservation should be made that, for example, the recent Akoerio are indeed hunters/gatherers, but until recently they were agriculturists. Another reservation should be made concerning the Warrau. Some of these traditional fishermen/gatherers from the Orinoco Delta appear to have arrived in Suriname only in the 17th century.

So, in colonial times there were only Amerindians in Suriname who engaged in shifting cultivation with cassava as a main crop. Unfortunately, no pottery of a prehistoric group can be connected with the pottery of the Amerindians from the colonial period, not even that of Koriabo.

This group had settled in Central and East Suriname several centuries before 1492. Possibly, to the disadvantage of the Kwatta and Barbakoeba groups in this area. The latter were certainly permanent agriculturists. Owing to the necessary joint labour involved in maintaining these structures, the permanent agriculturists probably had a higher level of organization than the shifting agriculturists. Each individual could maintain his own separate field, but the central supply and/or discharge of water necessitated a central organisation. Around ca 100-1200 AD such an advanced agricultural system was used between the Corantijn River (or even Canje River in Guyana) and Cayenne in the east by Indians making pottery of different styles of the Arauquinoid Tradition (Fig. FG-13).

Most likely, these permanent agrarian cultures were already on the decline when Koriabo people settled in the area in the 13-14th century AD: they were able to settle in East and Central Suriname coastal areas, with the exception of the area between the Coppename River and the Corantijn River: the exact location of sites of the Hertenrits culture.

We can conclude from this that the Late Hertenrits culture occupied a relatively strong position at the end of the prehistoric period (the extraordinary artifacts and special sites, such as the largest mound and a rich ceremonial site also support this theory), and the Koriabo groups dominated the rest of the coastal area.


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