THE LATER AMERINDIAN SETTLEMENTS
Beginning about 4,000 years ago, the riverbank areas were affected by severe droughts and, as the water levels in the rivers dropped, the salt water from the sea encroached further inland. Animals along many of the river banks migrated further inland to places with a steady fresh water supply. Human communities also moved to those areas, not only for fresh water, but also to follow the animal food supply. Dennis Williams' studies show that these droughts dried out many of the pegasse swamps in the North West District and the prolific growth of the eetay palm suffered as a result. The subsequent decline in the supply of starch forced the early people to look for alternatives in the higher regions. One of these alternatives was the cassava, and the domestication of this root vegetable saw the gradual establishment of permanent agricultural communities. The earliest of such settlements in the North West District were established around Hosororo and later in the Aruka River (in the North West District) about 3,000 years ago. But archaeological research has shown that Amerindian groups actually began living in those areas, though not on a permanent basis, from about 3,400 years ago
About 2,000 years ago, the first farming community appeared on the Corentyne River near to Wonotobo Falls. Later, other communities developed on both banks. The district around Orealla began to be settled about 1,000 years ago. From this area there was a western expansion across the intermediate savannahs up to the Demerara River.
Archaeologists have investigated a number of these settlement sites at Hitia (Berbice River), Tiger Island, Taurakuli and Doctor Ho Landing (Abary River); Idaballi, Karabu, Kibileri, Yamora, Barabara-Shanale, St. Francis and St Cuthbert's mission (Mahaicony and Mahaica Rivers); and Seba (Demerara River). Most of the people living in these areas were Arawaks but some were Warraus. The largest Arawak settlement was Abary village in the upper Abary River which unfortunately now lies under the reservoir created by the Mahaica-Mahaicony-Abary (MMA) project in the 1970s.
When the Dutch came to Guyana they established plantations, forts and trading posts along the coastal rivers. Two well-known settlements at that time were Nibbi and Ouden Amen on the Abary River. In the seventeenth century, this latter settlement was described as a village of 16 to 18 thatched houses, each large enough to accommodate four to six families. Nibbi was a trading post at the end of the sixteenth century; today it is identified (by Dennis Williams) as the settlement of Idaballi while Ouden Amen is now the settlement of Karabu. Plantation den Berg, established by the Dutch in the seventeenth century, has been identified as the site of Hitia on the Berbice River.
Because of the swampy nature of the land, some Amerindian communities constructed huge earth mounds of over 20,000 square yards (18,000 square metres) about 2 metres above swamp level on which they built their houses. These houses, grouped together, were surrounded by wide ditches. Their agricultural plots were also created on similar types of mounds. Dennis Williams' studies, based on the evidence of ceramic patterns, indicate that an early form of this settlement was at Joanna, (in the Black Bush Polder area on the Corentyne), going back to about 1,500 years ago.
Probably because it was felt that it was too energy-consuming to maintain these mounds over a number of generations, settlements later graduated to the sand reefs which were themselves somewhat elevated over the swampy areas. The farm plots, on which cassava was the main crop, were kept on the swamp borders and also on clearings on the sand reefs, even though the latter areas possessed relatively poor soils. A series of settlements sprang up along these reefs from the Corentyne to the North West District.
Interior settlements began about 1,000 years ago with movements from the coastal areas, even though some other groups arrived from the Amazon region in the south. The Rupununi Savannahs began to be permanently peopled only from the early eighteenth century, even though hunter-gatherers had lived in that region a few thousand years earlier.
The adoption of the bitter cassava played a major role in Amerindian subsistence. Due to its lasting quality, it expanded the potential for travel and exploration. The cassava produced starch in the form of cassava bread, casreep (which acted as a preservative of meat), and farine (flour) - all of which could last for a relatively long period.
The development of cassava cultivation also helped in the growth of a technology associated with its processing. To this end, the stone grater, matapee (a basket work press to remove the cassava juice from the grated cassava) , sifter, ceramic griddles and containers were developed.
Settlements in the rain forest areas were not permanent since soil fertility was poor and there was need to move to new locations to farm. Shifting cultivation was also associated with shifting settlements.
Work was done collectively especially in forest clearing and house building, but specialisations in stone working, pottery, basket weaving and cane making did occur. Sexual division of labour also assisted in increased productivity.
The early Amerindians who lived on the riverbanks produced a wide variety of rock engravings and rock paintings. These engravings and paintings, depicting animal and plant resources, were begun by the hunter-gatherers, but they continued through succeeding generations. Some anthropologists suggest that these engravings and paintings represent the hunter-gatherer tradition of enumerating food items in order to ensure the replenishing of nature on which man's survival depends in marginal environments.
On the Berbice and Corentyne Rivers a different type of rock engraving can be found. This is known as the Timehri engraving. This pattern of engraving shows a solitary costumed human figure and is the type which is dominant in parts of Amazonia.