Local hikers discover Pre-European petroglyphs on the Caribbean Island of Montserrat

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Ancient rock carvings of a type seen in northern South America and in parts of the Caribbean have been discovered for the first time on the island of Montserrat. In January, local hikers came across the petroglyphs, probably carved by natives more than a thousand years ago. The Montserrat National Trust didn’t announce the carvings until this week so experts could verify their authenticity. Archaeologists think the carvings can provide insight into the lives of the native people of the island nation of the Lesser Antilles before the arrival of European colonialists.

 “We have Amerindian artifacts on the island, but had not seen petroglyphs,” Sarita Francis, director of the Montserrat National Trust, told the Guardian . “These are the first that we know of that have been found here.”

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The carvings are estimated to date to between 1,000 and 1,500 years ago, Francis said, though the Guardian article does not say how she came to that tentative conclusion. Radiocarbon dating will give a more precise time frame for creation of the rock carvings.

The carvings depict geometric designs and some type of creature. The hikers, Shirley Osborne and Barzey, saw them carved into a large, mossy rock and reported the artwork to authorities.

One carving appears to depict a type of creature. Credit: Ravo R

In an announcement on its website, the Montserrat National Trust said: “So far though found throughout the Caribbean islands, they were not found in Montserrat neither in Antigua. This is a new and exciting find from Montserrat.”

Some have said the Montserrat petroglyphs resemble carvings found on nearby St. Kitts island. University of Virginia anthropologist George Mentore told the Guardian that similar petroglyphs are known near rivers in Amazonia in northern South America, where people who speak Arawak and Carib are still living. Also, ancient indigenous people carved petroglyphs and left other evidence of their presence north of Montserrat in Puerto Rico, Hispaniola and Cuba, Mentore said.

Some of the petroglyphs depict geometric shapes.

Some of the petroglyphs depict geometric shapes. Credit: Ravo R

The Lesser Antilles islands were first settled around 3000 BC, scholars have estimated. Later, Arawak people settled the island, but they were driven out in the late 1400s by the Carib people. When Christopher Columbus sighted the island and named it after a Spanish abbey in 1493, it was uninhabited, according to Britannica.

Now the island’s population consists mainly of people of Irish and African descent. The island is a British Overseas Territory. The island of Montserrat is about 16 km (10 miles) by 11 km (7 miles). The British claimed it in 1632.

The island of Montserrat in the Lesser Antilles islands

The island of Montserrat in the Lesser Antilles islands ( public domain )

The history of the island after Europeans’ arrival was rife with conflict as natives, the English, French and Irish settlers struggled for control. Irish people settled the island in 1632 after being sent by St. Kitts’ British governor Thomas Warner. Later more Irish arrived from Virginia, and they set up tobacco, indigo, sugar and cotton plantations.

Carib Indians and French forces repeatedly attacked the settlers. France took over Montserrat in 1664 and later again in 1667. The Treaty of Breda restored the island to England later in 1667. But the French attacked again 1712, lost possession again, and captured it again, for the final time, in 1782. However, the 1783 Treaty of Paris restored Montserrat to British possession.

Montserrat’s plantations were worked by slaves brought from Africa around in the 1660s. There was a slave uprising in 1768 that failed. By 1810, there were 10,000 Africans and people of African descent enslaved on Montserrat. It wasn’t long after this, in 1833, that the British Empire outlawed slavery, and the following year slavery was finished on Montserrat.

After sugar prices fell, British philanthropist Joseph Sturge bought a sugar estate in 1857 and paid his workers to show that was more beneficial than slave labor. He later sold land to the locals and most of the island became owned by shareholders, says iExplore.com .

Nonetheless, among the former slaves, deprivation, poverty, lack of education and disenfranchisement from the vote and other civil rights continued into the 20 th century.

The 1993 paper From ‘Labor’ to ‘Peasantry’: Montserrat after the End of Slavery by Riva Berleant-Schiller, addresses conditions among the former slaves of Montserrat. The paper states:

In 1884 the number of small-scale commodity farmers had grown so much that planters complained of the “harm” they did through what was perceived as poor cultivation. The goats kept by “laborers” also nuisanced proprietors. On the other hand, smallholders complained of unremitting control and harassment exerted by planters. The taxes on a two-acre freehold were so high that one owner had not only to sharecrop additional land to pay them, but was also forced to sell his sugar to the proprietor, though better prices were offered elsewhere. Other smallholders were forced to sell parts of their plots on account of the taxes. Proprietors would not allow tenants and sharecroppers to take firewood. Despite these hindrances peasant plots yielded enough vegetables for local needs, and ground provisions were “largely cultivated” throughout the island.



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