The Banwari Man

Trinidad's Oldest Resident

 

In November 1969, the Trinidad & Tobago Historical Society began a sample excavation into a pre-ceramic site at Banwari Trace, San Francique. In July 1971, they presented a report showing 2000 years of occupation carbodated BC 5200 – 3200, the then earliest date for man in the West Indies.

The settlement appears to have been small, covering approximately 500 square meters. Its economy was based on shellfish hunting and fishing and some utilization of plant food implied by the presence of hand-stones and grinding slabs. The remaining tool list included arrows, awls, needles, a probable weaving tool, and an axe. The culture involved the use of pestles shaped from imported stone for some specific pounding process; and use of the hilltop as a cemetery towards end of occupation.

Two unexpected pieces of data were: a date of BC 4400 for the Gulf of Paria completing its post glacial rise in the sea level; and early evidence of travel relationships with Guyana, Venezuela and the Lesser Antilles shown by the artifacts of overseas stone.

Archaeologists from the University of Santo Domingo were quite excited by this data. Their second earliest culture carbodated from BC 1500, shares with Banwari the characteristics of: coastal mangrove location; pestles – some of which are identical to Banwari; and axes – which appear to have developed from Banwari - type ancestor.

In December 1971, they sent down a team led by Professor Marcio Veloz Maggiolo to investigate the skeletal remains with the society.

An adjoining excavation was opened and at 15cm, six groups of bones were revealed. The largest group consisted of several long bones, whose disposition suggested the bundle of secondary burial (re-burial of selected bones after decomposition has taken place). Another group consisted of a pair of femurs. Underneath the latter, To everyone’s surprise, lay the battered remains of a skeleton, which is presently located at the museum of the University of the West Indies. It lies on its left-hand side, in a typical crouching position, along a north west axis. Its feet were higher than the rest of the body, and unfortunately were excavated and bagged separately. Only two items were associated, a round pebble by the head and a needle point by the hip. Its situation in a shallow pocket of humus, apparently excavated into the shell midden, and subsequently covered by normal shell refuse, places burial shortly before end of occupation, say approximately 3400 BC. The skeleton was painted with cellulose – in – acetone preservative, boxed in and ¼ inch steel plate jacked side ways underneath to recover it in its matrix for further research.

Banwari man or woman is still the oldest skeleton in the West Indies, and its survival for 5000 years at 20cm below the surface is nothing short of miraculous. The Society is prepared to wait, preferably a somewhat shorter period for research on this unique survivor and the other bone material to be done locally. We hope that its display here and its subsequent presence in the Zoology Teaching Museum will simulate the interest of a student with sufficient competence in Physical Anthropology to do this research.