The first inhabitants of Suriname

Caraibvillage at Galibi

The history of cemeteries and churchyards in Paramaribo, Suriname is a complex and interesting history. Yet that history does not begin with the arrival of the Europeans. Suriname has known various pre-Columbian cultures in the past.[1]

Pre-Columbian cultures

The first inhabitants of Suriname lived about 10,000 years ago. Archaeological discoveries have been made in the southern area of the Sipaliwini Savannah. The savannas themselves are traces of the presence of humans, as they used the terrain for hunting and traveling through and therefore prevented the savannas from growing over. Especially stone artifacts in the form of tools and waste material from making those tools have been preserved.

Suriname is part of the Guianas, a group of areas that are all north of the watershed between the Amazon and the Atlantic Ocean and nowadays in five countries: Brazil, French Guyana, Suriname (sometimes also called Dutch Guyana), Guyana and Venezuela . While traces of permanent habitation have been found in the areas to the west and east of Suriname in the following thousands of years, these traces are as yet missing in Suriname. The oldest farming settlement in Suriname is Kaurikreek, West Suriname, and probably dates from around 2000 BC. [2]

Kwatta, Arowak and Caribs

The pre-Columbian cultures are classified according to the pottery they left behind. In Suriname, traces of different cultures can be found, of which the best known are the Hertenrits Culture and the Kwatta Culture, both belonging to the Arauquinoid Tradition (in which paintings and treatments on pottery remained the same over a long period of time and over a great distance). After the arrival of Columbus in 1492, the indigenous people were divided into the Caribs, who were said to be warlike, and Arowak, a peaceful people who also wanted to become Catholic, or so the Spanish thought. It seems clear that this classification was determined much more by the degree of resistance a people displayed towards the Spanish conqueror than that it was based on, for example, cultural aspects. This is reinforced by the fact that in the early sixteenth century many Natives were assigned to the Caribs, which meant that they could be enslaved, unlike the Arowak. [3]


Between 300 and 1000 AD a sweetening occurred in the West Surinamese coastal area. Indigenous people erected residential mounds of clay surrounded by small fields, also of clay, raised that made permanent agriculture possible. Important for archeology was the research on the Hertenrits, the largest and highest mound in Suriname. Urn burials were found in the Hertenrits, human skeletal material was also found buried. De Hertenrits was inhabited from about 700 AD until at least 1250 and is therefore inhabited longer than other mounds in Suriname. [4]

To the east of the zone with mounds there are many natural elevations, so-called sand ridges, in the landscape along the coastal area. The Kwatta Culture (from 1000 AD) can be found in former villages that lay on the east-west oriented sand ridges between the rivers Coppename and Suriname. Especially where there are shells in the subsurface, these sand ridges are often suitable for agriculture, so that settlements arose on and near these sand ridges. In 1961/1962 complete pots and burials were found during excavations at the Kwatta Tingi-holo site in Paramaribo. [5] Before the arrival of the Europeans, Indigenous people already lived in the area that we now know as Paramaribo and who would also be the namesake of the settlement from which the city arose. At the site of the current Henk Arronstraat is a shell ridge, which made sure that the area was never flooded.[6] In 1960, during excavation work on the Dr. J.C. the Miranda Street, at 1.5 m depth a pre-Columbian grave was found, where a skull in an earthenware jar and bones emerged. Some stone axes and charcoal remains were also found.[7] From 1350-1500 AD the Koriabo Culture settled along the coast. A settlement with a burial field of this culture has been found near Charlesburg.[9]

Excavation Lim A Postraat photo Stephen Fokké 2018Excavation Lim A Postraat (photo Stephen Fokké 2018)

At the end of March 2018, an excavation uncovered a skeleton and historical objects on Lim A Postraat (which used to be called Heerenstraat). Because the burial was done on a shell ridge, the bones have been preserved quite well. However, the burial method was not pre-Columbian, so the remains must date from colonial times.[10] Outside Paramaribo, several settlements with grave remains have also been found, such as in February 2017 near the Motkreek. [11] Research shows that there was an old Indigenous settlement on a shell ridge. The bodies or bones of the dead were placed in earthenware jars and then buried in the huts. [12]



[1] The pre-Columbian period indicates the era of American history before the arrival of Columbus to the continent of America in 1492.

[2] Versteeg, Aad.H. Suriname voor Columbus/Suriname before Columbus (2003), pag. 53 

[3] Versteeg, Aad.H. Suriname voor Columbus/Suriname before Columbus (2003), pag. 78 

[4] Versteeg, Aad.H. Suriname voor Columbus/Suriname before Columbus (2003), pag. 97 

[5] Versteeg, Aad.H. Suriname voor Columbus/Suriname before Columbus (2003), pag. 13

[6] De belangrijkste straten van Paramaribo zoals de Henck Arronstraat, de Heerenstraat en de Keizerstraat zijn gebouwd op oost-west lopende schelpritsen. Ritsen zijn oude strandwallen van zand en schelpen die zich parallel aan de kust in de jonge kustvlakte bevinden en die hoger liggen dan de omliggende kleigronden. Het mengsel van zand en schelpen kan zich verharden tot wat vroeger schulpsteen werd genoemd en dat gebruikt werd als bouwmateriaal. [Ehrenburg/Meyer]

[7] Algemeen Handelsblad ‘Oud Indiaans graf in Parbo gevonden’, 6-12-1960

[8] Boomert, A. Archeologische vindplaatsen in Suriname – Rapport Surinaamse Archeologische Dienst (1975)

[9] Boomert, A. Archeologische vindplaatsen in Suriname – Rapport Surinaamse Archeologische Dienst (1975)

[10] Information Irene Meulenberg, d.d. 13-4-2018.

[11] Dagblad De West ‘Belangrijke archeologische vondst aan de Motkreek’ 4-2-2017

[12] Information Irene Meulenberg


Header: Caraïbendorp bij Galibi, Suriname, Hendrik Doijer (attributed to), 1906 - 1913 (collection Rijksmuseum)

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