My colleague and I recently paid a visit to the famous Banwari Trace Archaeological Site. The drive from Arima to San Francique in Penal should have taken about an hour and a half. It took us about two hours, because, like true “north people” we keep getting lost in the south of Trinidad! My colleague is a bit of a technophile, so he was using an online web mapping service, and I am “old school,” so I stopped and asked for directions. With our combined efforts we arrived at around 8 am.
It was a beautiful day, with the sunshine blazing and the breeze blowing, and our eyes fell upon the green lawn and sloping hill that makes up the site. Mr. Harrypersad, the custodian, welcomed us and we did a “walk around.” He is a friendly man, with a strong build and a tremendous greyish-white beard. “Banwari” is one of the names for the Hindu god Krishna, and at the site archaeologists found the buried remains of one of the First Peoples. This kind of multi-layered cultural experience is typical of the Caribbean because of its complicated history: one full of violent conquest but also of rich and deep resistance.
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View from mound where the Banwari skeleton was discovered.
The “Banwari Person” found at Banwari Trace is the oldest set of remains unearthed in the Caribbean. It was uncovered there during a 1971 dig led by Peter Harris. It is estimated to be over 7,000 years old, dating to around 5,000 B.C. We entered the site and the custodian walked with us and talked us through the developments that had taken place there since I last visited, as we were there in an official capacity.
What I learned again was that Trinidad was at one point connected to the mainland of South America, modern day Venezuela, and so the First Peoples migrated from the mainland to Trinidad by simply walking – in search of food, fish, animals and other places to settle. As time continued, the sea rose and flooded the land between Trinidad and Venezuela, turning it into the Gulf of Paria. Banwari is a hillock – a high piece of land in the modern time, but thousands of years ago, the land below it would have been a lagoon or the sea itself.
Later, the First Peoples would have come from the Orinoco on canoes and landed at Banwari and other “high spots,” and there they would have further navigated the island while working and living. Banwari shows over 2,000 years of constant occupation, and the site has largely remained untouched since the first dig. Visitors may still find shells and stone flakes used as tools there.
Excavation pit at Banwari Site.
However, the custodian is fiercely protective of the site (rightly so) and no unqualified person may take away artefacts. I will admit that T&T has a (perhaps superstitious) fascination with “jumbies,” but I should still warn that the Banwari site is rumoured to be “alive.” People with wrong intentions or no respect for the First Peoples have been known to fall ill while working there.
After perusing the location and thoroughly enjoying our walk and talk with the custodian, we left for Arima. Arima is a former First People’s village, most like named for the great Nepoyo chief Hyarima who fought a series of battles with the invading Spanish in the 1600s. There we met with Dr. Arie Boomert, a Dutch archaeologist who is considered a specialist in Trinidad’s archaeology. It was a rewarding experience for those deeply interested in the history or archaeology of the island.
Dr. Arie Boomert and Chike Pilgrim
Although the Banwari Site remains somewhat sadly underdeveloped, we highly recommend paying this locale a visit. It is of tremendous international importance and deepens our understanding of our own history and therefore our selves. It also increases our respect for the ancestors who lived, fought and struggled on the soil hundreds (and in this case thousands) of years before we did.
About the Author
Chike Pilgrim is currently a temporary employee (July-August 2016) at the National Trust of Trinidad and Tobago. He is a writer, historian and archaeologist.