Culebra Island National Wildlife Refuge Excavations

Most visitors to Puerto Rico ensure that they make the trip to Culebra Island because of its magnificent beaches, friendly island atmosphere and its wonderful snorkeling spots along the coast. Not many realize that eighty percent of Culebra Island falls under the care of the Culebra Island National Wildlife Refuge, and even less are aware that excavations within the borders of the refuge led to significant historical discoveries and an insight into the early inhabitants of the island.

Culebra Island and its smaller surrounding islands are located just off the coast of Puerto Rico, near St Thomas. The Culebra Island National Wildlife Refuge was established by President Roosevelt in 1909 and is a rich breeding ground for a vast number of birds, such as sooty terns, noddy terns, brown boobies, laughing gulls and thousands of sea birds that land here on their migratory routes. Other land and aquatic animals such as white-tailed deer, green sea turtles, leatherback turtles and hawksbill turtles are all protected under the watchful eye of the Culebra Island National Wildlife Refuge.

When Hurricane Hugo hit the Culebra Islands in 1989; many buildings of the Culebra National Wildlife Refuge were destroyed. Plans to rebuild were made in a new area of the refuge, referred to as the Lower Camp. While working on the site, members of the various agencies working on the project noted artifacts were scattered around the site and called in an archeological team to assess their prehistoric value. In 1992, a team of archeologists, headed by Jose R. Oliver, arrived on the island to begin the first prehistoric excavation site ever discovered on Culebra Island.

Excavations uncovered ceramic vessel fragments, shell beads and pendants, grinding instruments, bowls, platters, jars and baking dishes, totaling more than two thousand ceramic items and thousands of discarded food remains such as crab shells. Human and natural disturbances over the years have made finding all the items that were here an impossible task. Scientists, however, have managed to conclude that the tribe that occupied this part of the island only lived here for approximately a hundred to two hundred years, and that by 400 A.D. they left the island for reasons unknown. The island remained uninhabited until 1881 with the arrival of the Spanish. Evidence of later residence has also been discovered in the form of spent bullets, earthenware, metal and bottles.

After the completion of the excavations, the site was given over to the Associated Free State of Puerto Rico, who in turn dedicated parts of this area to the Culebra National Wildlife Refuge. Looking out over the breathtaking mangroves, grasslands and ponds, one has to wonder what other undiscovered secrets and mysteries lie hidden amongst the beauty and natural splendor of the Culebra National Wildlife Refuge.