Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Prehistoric Mounds and Relics


A. Hyatt Verrill.

From the publication Timehri, published by the Royal Agricultural and Commercial Society of British Guiana, 1918. Digital capture by Doug Frizzle 2009. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

There are two distinct types of Indian mounds in the North West District of British Guiana, the first, consisting of immense accumulations of shells on the lowlands near the coast or estuaries; the other formed of masses of shells superimposed on the hills and often many miles from the present sea coast or rivers. The former are more common in the Pomeroon and Moruca districts than in the true North West and are nothing more than "kitchen-middens," accumulations of refuse from feasts and temporary camps, and threw little or no light upon the habits or identity of the makers. Several have been excavated and accounts of their contents have been published by Brett and others. Such stone implements and pottery as they contain were either accidentally mislaid or cast aside as worthless by their owners while the human bones are evidently the remains of cannibal feasts.

The mounds of the other type are, I believe, confined entirely to a limited area in the extreme North West and have not hitherto been investigated to my knowledge.

In addition to these shell mounds there are many high hills in the district, on which there are no shell accumulations, and on the surface of many of these are large numbers of relics in the form of stone implements, earthenware images, ornaments and miniature heads and fragments of highly decorated pottery. The presence of these relics has never been satisfactorily explained but they have usually been attributed to Carib occupancy and it has been assumed that the pottery was the remains of broken and discarded vessels from ancient camps or villages. From a careful study and investigation of these mounds and relies carried out during July and August, 1917, I am convinced that this theory is erroneous, while excavations in the mounds of the district led to many remarkable and valuable discoveries which tend to bear out my theories and shed new light on the prehistoric inhabitants of North West British Guiana.

It often has been thought that the shell mounds and pottery of this district were of post-Columbian origin and while this may be true of the coastal kitchen-middens it is certainly not the case with the hill mounds and decorated pottery of the North West, for these were made when the entire district was covered by the sea and the present-day hills rose as islands from the waves. In proof of this there are numerous undercut and wave-worn ledges and boulders, as well as small areas of sea beaches and shell sand beneath the thin layer of vegetable mould and alluvial soil on the bases of the hills. Moreover the immense quantities of sea-shells which comprise the mounds could not have been transported for any great distance from the sea, or from streams leading to the sea. Finally, shells are mainly Neritas (periwinkles) oysters, Strombus (conchs) and a few other bivalves and univalves, all of which are species inhabiting rocky or sandy shores and never found on the muddy coasts and in the brackish estuaries of British Guiana at the present time. It may be argued that the Indians brought these edible molluscs in canoes from Trinidad or the northern islands, but this is a theory far-fetched and untenable. In the first place the shells would have spoiled and become inedible long before they reached Guiana's shores; in the second place the Indians would never load down their boats with useless shells containing a very small amount of edible flesh and finally we are confronted with the fact that many of the largest deposits are many miles from any watercourse and are buried in the heart of the dense forest.

The stupendous number of sea-shells which form these mounds is almost incredible and proves that either a very large population once inhabited these island hills or else that large villages remained undisturbed for a vast number of years. On Barambina Hill, for example, the deposit of shells (mainly small Neritas) covers an area of over 150 ft. x 300 ft. and with an average depth of five feet or something over 8,333 cubic yards. Tests proved that the shells weighed an average of 70 lbs. to the cubic foot and that each pound contained about 300 shells. Hence, in this one mound there must be fully five billion shells weighing approximately 8,000 tons.

And this is only one of scores of such mounds, for I have traced the accumulations on hills for over 70 miles from the present sea coast. At first one can scarcely believe that these shells have remained here for centuries, for many are almost as bright and fresh as when first gathered, but at a short distance beneath the surface they become semi-fossilized and cemented together by carbonate of lime into a hard, stony mass. This fact rather points to the assumption that the mounds were accumulated slowly and through many years rather than being the result of a large population remaining in one spot for a comparatively short period.

The identity of the race which made these mounds is a mystery for, as I shall point out in the following paragraphs, they certainly antedated the kitchen-middens of the coastal districts and were not of Carib origin as the latter are supposed to be. A great deal of time would be required to investigate all the known deposits and mounds in the district and no doubt there are many still unknown and hidden in the dense forests and swamps; but there is no reason to think that they differ materially from those visited, although much additional information and valuable material might be obtained by a systematic and scientific study of the relics. It is to be regretted that the Colonial Government has never taken sufficient interest in the Aboriginal inhabitants to carry out an exhaustive investigations of both the prehistoric and living Indians.

The hills and mounds which I have excavated and studied are as follows:

Kobarima Hill, Barambima Hill, Akawabi Hill.

Kumaka Hill, Ossororo Hill, Waunina Hill.

Koriabo Hill, Mts. Everard and Terminus.

Anabisi Hills, Manibari Hills, Hotakwaia Hill.

Hobo Hill, Simri Hill, Hanaida Hill, Hotahanna Hill.

Maruiwa Hill. Unnamed hills in the district.

Of these only the following bear shell mounds: Barambima, Akawabi, Hobo, Simri, Hotahana, Ossororo, and small hills between Kumaka aad Barambima and between Wuunina and Akawabi.

But decorated pottery, miniature heads, images and highly finished stone implements were found upon nearly all the others. Only on one hill (Akawabi) did the shell deposits and decorated pottery occur together.


This is a low hill, about 100 ft. in height, at the western terminus of the irregular range known as the Aruka Hills and which abuts upon the Aruka River at Kumaka Hill. It is of granitic formation* with some lateritic iron stone, and is covered with heavy forest and deep, rich soil. The shell deposit covered the extreme western slope and occupies an area of approximately 150 x 300 ft. At this spot the forest becomes stunted and more open—no doubt owing to the shells—but no trace of former cultivation of economic trees or plants could be found. A careful search failed to reveal any fragments of decorated pottery, any earthenware heads, or any stone implements upon the surface.

Excavations were carried on in the form of deep pits penetrating the shell deposits and reaching the subsoil beneath, and also by long trenches carried to the depth of the shells and extending completely across the mound. (Fig.1) Near the surface many fragments of plain and poorly-made pottery were found and these continued to the bottom of the shell deposits. A few very crude stone implements were also unearthed. (Fig. 2) These consisted of some spindle-shaped objects,—probably ornaments,— rude celts or axes and a spear or arrow point. In three places complete human skeletons were uncovered. In each instance the body had been interred in a sitting or kneeling posture facing the east and in every case a rough slab of earthenware had been placed over the occiput. This slab was scarcely more than three inches below the surface and in one case the soil had been washed away leaving the slab and skull exposed. The bones were undisturbed and in situ but were so badly decomposed and so friable that it was impossible to remove and save the larger bones intact, while the skulls crumbled and broke despite the utmost care. Enough material was preserved, however, to afford an excellent idea of the type of man buried in the shell mounds, a type with heavy, thick skull, devoid of visible sutures, projecting heavy orbital ridges, extremely low forehead, strong-pointed jaws and eyes close together. The dentition is also interesting, the molars being out of all proportion to the premolars which are abnormally smell, (Fig. 3)

There were no traces of human remains devoured at cannibal feasts and the only bones, aside from the regularly interred skeletons, were those of fishes, birds and reptiles.

*The term “Granitic” as used here is not intended in its strict geological use but is applied to all rocks and formations not of iron-stone or lateritic formation.


This is a high isolated hill about four miles south of the last and situated near the head of Kobarima Creek, about three miles from the Aruka River. It is composed mainly of laterites with some granitic rock and is one of the so-called "red hills” of the district. It is covered with a sparse growth of low trees, has little depth of soil, except on its northern slopes, and is at present inhabited by a few Warrau and Arowak Indians. No traces of shells were found, but on its highest, and most barren portion, I obtained a few earthenware heads and two pieces of partly worked stone. (Fig 4)


This is a lofty (225ft.) hill on the northern banks of the Koriabo River (tributary of Aruka) and dwindles down to the west to the low Akawabi Hills. It is composed largely of laterite, has little fertile soil over a considerable portion of its surface and is a decidedly "red" hill even when viewed at a distance. Here a few very fine stone implements were obtained, as well as several earthenware heads and numerous pieces of highly decorated pottery. (Fig 5-6) No traces of shell mounds or former village sites could be found.


This is a low eminence, scarcely 35ft. high, on the west bank of the Akawabi Creek about five miles from the Koriabo River, It is of granitic formation with considerable masses of white quartz and with scarcely any laterite. It is covered with a fairly deep and fertile soil and is inhabited by a few Warraus. Half a mile further west are higher hills whereon the Warraus have their fields or provision grounds. This low hill, was for many years the site of a Catholic Mission now abandoned, and I understand that the former missionary obtained many excellent specimens from the neighbourhood. Here there were numerous outcrops of shell accumulations while fragments of chipped quartz, broken stone implements and pieces of highly decorated pottery, as well as earthenware heads, were picked up in numbers on or near the surface of the earth. Excavations were carried on in this spot and revealed much of interest. (Fig. 7) The layer of shells was from three to six feet in depth and bore evidences of more ancient origin than those at Barambima Hill. In most places it was very barren of relics. Near the surface and in the loam above the shell deposits were many pieces of decorated pottery (Fig. 8) and among the shells were few fragments of plain pottery and several very crude stone implements consisting of spindles, celts, and chipped quartz arrow points. (Fig. 9)

Near the summit of the hill three skeletons were unearthed from the shell deposit. The first was of a man of enormous size (for an Indian) the thigh bone measuring 17 inches in length. Above the occiput and about 6 inches beneath the surface of the ground was placed an inverted conical dish or vessel of earthenware which was luckily secured whole and almost perfect. (Fig. 10) This evidently served in place of the rude earthen slabs found above the skulls on Barambima Hill and probably denoted a chief or man of prominence. What the purpose of these slabs or earthen covers may have been is largely guesswork, for I believe this method of burial has never been described or found previously and is an entirely new discovery. Very probably the covering served to protect feather crowns or ornaments buried with the bodies or it may have been placed over the head to prevent the earth from striking the occiput when filling in the grave or perchance, it was to protect the skull from injury from above and to support the earth and avoid the chances of the grave caving in after decomposition of the bodies. This skeleton like those at Barambina Hill, was in perfect condition and in situ when uncovered, but most of the smaller bones fell to bits, the larger bones cracked and broke of their own weight and the skull went to pieces as soon as removed. The jaws, much of the pelvis, the leg and arm bones and large pieces of the skull were, however, preserved intact. (Fig. 11) Close to this, and on either side were two other skeletons, apparently of women, and perhaps wives of the chief who had been sacrificed and interred with him. Neither of these had any covering of any sort over the head. All three skeletons were in a kneeling position with faces turned towards the east. No pottery of any description was found associated with these remains, but a few very crude stone implements were found. (Fig. 12) These may have been interred with the bodies or they may have been in the shell deposit when the bodies were buried, for the condition of the shells proved that the dead had been placed in graves dug in the shell mound.

The skeletons were apparently of the same type as the Barambima mound, although the teeth were normal and the molars and premolars large. All three possessed 32 teeth.

A very careful search of the entire hill failed to reveal any other human bones, but numerous bones of huge fishes, reptiles, mammals and some remains of unidentified and apparently extinct creatures were found associated with the shells and human bones.

The nearby hills were also carefully searched but no relics of any sort were obtained except on a low “red hill” where several earthenware heads and fragments of decorated pottery were found.


This is a high hill and a large hill fronting on the Aruka River and connected by intermediate hills with the Wuanina Hills. It is the site of the Government rubber plantation and has been partly cleared. Its natural forest is fairly thick and heavy, and upon its crest there is a small pond or lake of water. It is of laterite formation, a distinctly “red” hill and no traces of shell heaps were found. Numerous fragments of pottery, earthenware heads and stone implements have been found here in the past and I secured a fair number. Below the hill and now largely covered by the swamp soil is a large bed of sea-shells. These have been disturbed in digging drainage ditches, and it is impossible to say with certainty if they were placed in the spot by human beings or were accumulated through the action of the waves. They are far below the level of all other deposits noticed.


These are on the Aruka River about two miles below Ossororo and form an irregular chain with the Kobarimi and Barambima Hills. They are mainly cleared and are occupied by the plantations of the Consolidated Rubber Co. Their forest growth is rather sparse and large areas are covered with a very thin layer of red soil. They are of laterite formation and distinctly "red hills." On these there are no shell deposits but for many years fragments of pottery, heads, images and stone implements have been found upon them in large numbers. All of these have been obtained from the eastern slopes and near the summit of the hill, where masses of laterite abound and where the soil is poorest. I obtained a very large collection (Figs. 13,14,15) of heads, many fine pieces of decorated pottery and a number of stone implements. Of these perhaps the most interesting are several flat heavy pieces of earthenware covered with what appear to be hieroglyphs or inscriptions and which I believe are pieces of inscribed tablets as they are plane surfaces and could not have formed any portion of a hollow vessel.* (Fig. 16)

Another interesting specimen is a portion of an axe head formed by chipping while a similar fragment of the same size and form shows the appearance after being rubbed to a finish. (Fig. 17) As far as I am aware there is but one other specimen of a chipped axe known from British Guiana, a very perfect example found on the Potaro by Dr. Roth.

Most of the stone implements found on this hill were badly weathered and many had been broken, apparently through cultivation of the soil in recent years. Among the fragments of pottery is one which is decorated on the concave or inner side, which is very unusual.

No graves or skeletons could be found on this hill but I was told by the manager, Mr. Pierre, that formerly skulls and other human remains were found commonly upon or near the surface. As this hill was inhabited by Warraus in recent times and as those Indians succumbed in large numbers to an epidemic of measles, it is quite probable that these bones were those of the Warraus.

*A portion of the same, or very similar “tablet” is preserved in the Georgetown Museum. It’s locality is not given.


Here a few fragments of pottery and heads as well as one or two stone implements were found on the surface. It contains no shell piles but is a laterite hill.


Granitic formation. One stone axe found. No shell heaps and no pottery.


Granitic and quartz residual sands. Traces of comparatively recent occupation. In land evidently used by present-day Indians for provision grounds there were numerous sea shells, apparently remains of a destroyed shell mound. A few pieces of plain pottery and a stone axe.


Like the last. Evidently occupied by Indians for a long time and still in use by them.


On the Kaituma River. Shell mounds on one side. Fragments of plain pottery. No heads, decorated pottery or stone implements.


Hills of lateritic formation distinctly "red." No shell heaps but fragments of decorated pottery, heads and stone implements.


A “red" hill about six miles below Mt. Everard. No shell mounds but decorated pottery, heads and stone implements.


Hills of granitic and lateritic formation about 60 miles from Morawhauna but not properly "red". The first and most prominent hills seen when ascending the Barima. No traces of shell mounds or any other relics.


About 25 miles south of Mt. Everard at the junction of the Barima and Koriabo rivers. A lateritic hill of decided red colour. No shells but numerous pieces of decorated pottery, heads and many finely finished stone implements. (Fig. 18)


Red lateritic hills on the Yarikita River. No relics of any kind found on these hills and a careful search of the neighbouring hills, both in Venezuela and British Guiana, failed to reveal any signs of former Indian inhabitants.

From the foregoing it will be seen that in every case the shell mounds are found on hills of granitic, or partly granitic, formation and not on the "red" hills; that they are always on the lower portion of the hills and where the soil and other conditions are such that Indians might reasonably establish villages. On the other hand, with one exception—Akawabi—the decorated pottery, heads and well-made stone implements are found only on lateritic or " red " hills; usually near the summits or on the steepest slopes, scattered hit or miss over a large area and never in connection with the shell mounds except at Akawabi. It will also be noticed that no decorated pottery, no heads and no highly finished stone implements were found in the shell mounds or in the graves.

From these facts I am led to the conclusion that two distinct races inhabited this district in prehistoric times, one a primitive fish-eating tribe who dwelt upon the lower slopes of the island hills and perhaps cultivated the soil to a certain extent, but who had not developed the art of making ornamental pottery or well-made stone implements, but who used plain, crude pottery and wooden, and perhaps bone weapons to great extent. The other was a more highly developed race who were skilled in the manufacture of beautifully finished stone implements, who had developed pottery to an art and who probably inhabited the country and drove off or destroyed their more peaceful shell-eating fellows and occupied their lands and village sites. It is to this race that I attribute the skeletons, the decorated pottery and earthenware heads and most of the stone implements. Had the shell-eaters possessed such pottery and implements they would certainly be found among the shells, and it is highly improbable that the makers of the mounds would have buried their dead in the shell heaps where they lived. Moreover, the shell heaps had accumulated for many years before the graves were dug, for masses of semi-fossilized shells were found near the surface and fresh shells at the bottom of the graves, which would never have occurred if the bodies had been buried in shell heaps in use or in process of accumulation at the time of burial.

I am also convinced that the later and more advanced inhabitants were sun worshippers, or at least looked upon the sun with reverence, for not only were the bodies buried facing the east but the heads, pottery and other relics are invariably on the eastern sides of the hills. This fact, in connection with the fact that the "red” hills are not sites which Indians would find most satisfactory for permanent settlements, that the decorative relics are confined to such red hills and that they are in such numbers and so widely distributed convinces me that the original pots and images, the stone implements. etc., were not refuse or discarded utensils, from villages, but were placed upon the hills purposely. In other words, I believe that these Indians made offerings to the sun or to some deity upon these “red” hills and that the offerings were placed in vessels highly and elaborately decorated with symbolic patterns and devices.

"Red-hills” are often selected by modern Indians for their provision grounds and it is not improbable that the offerings, if they were such, were placed upon the hills to induce good crops and freedom from pests, etc. Perhaps the stone implements were originally contained in the pots or placed with them as offerings; but it is more probable that these were dropped accidentally from time to time.

Only by such a theory can I explain to my own satisfaction the vast number of ornamental heads and vessels which are scattered over these red hills. If they were refuse from villages they certainly would be confined to the localities where the villages stood and would be found beneath the surface at considerable depths.

Moreover, it is difficult to believe that any Indian settlement would make and accidentally destroy so many ornamented pots, for such vessels entailed a great deal of work and no doubt plain utensils would serve for cooking purposes just as well; but no plain and undecorated pottery occurs with the ornamented relics.

There is but one objection to this theory, one fact which might render it untenable, and that is the presence of decorated pottery and heads upon the low granitic Akawabi Hill. The presence of these here may, however, be accounted for in either one of two ways.

The first explanation is that the decorated utensils were placed upon this hill because a chief or prominent man was buried here. The second, and most likely, is that it was here that the utensils were manufactured and that those found at the spot to-day were those broken or injured in the making. Several facts point to this. In the first place, all of the heads and pieces of decorated pottery found here were near a clay bed and were associated with bits of baked and half-baked clay and charcoal. Many were evidently imperfect in modelling, or distorted by baking, while last, and perhaps most conclusive of all, is the fact that among the stone implements found are several polished objects of jasper or quartzite which were unquestionably tools used in modelling and decorating the pottery. (Fig 9)

But whatever the truth as to such matters, the question as to who these people were, remains unanswered. No present-day inhabitants of Guiana, or northern South America, make pottery of the type found on these island hills of the North West District. The Caribs, to be sure, make ornamented vessels, but the decorations are mainly in colour and the type of pottery is easily recognized and is totally distinct from these prehistoric fragments. Not only were these highly decorative in designs inscribed upon them, but they were brightly coloured as well, as shown by specimens obtained, while lips, bases, rims and handles were ornamented by well-modelled figures of birds, animals, reptiles and human beings. Many of these are easily identified, although usually conventionalized and often as grotesque as gargoyles, but Toucans, Macaws, Monkeys, Iguanas, Frogs, Peccarys, Tapirs, Kinkajous and in fact nearly all the birds and animals of the country may be found reproduced and it is practically impossible to find two alike.

The inscribed decorations are often elaborate and consist of both scrolls and straight lines, arranged in geometric or other patterns, while in a few specimens, patterns are in low relief.

In many ways they closely resemble the utensils found in the prehistoric graves of Central America, especially those of Costa Rica and Chiriqui, and the makers were certainly much more further advanced in the potter’s art than any of the existing aboriginals of Guiana.

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.