Native American Civilizations: Caribbean


Figure 1.--

The Caribbean was settled by three primary tribes: Chiboneys, Arawaks (Tainos), and the Caribs. The Chiboneys were the first known people to settle the Caribbean island (about 3,000 BC). They left little evidence in terms of cultural artifacts, so little is known about them. Next came the Arawaks who when the Europeans arrived were in the process of being overcome by the more war-like Caribs. Much more is known about the Arawaks and Caribs because they were thriving cultures present in the Caribban at the time of Columbus' arrival. The population of Native Americans is not known with any precession, but some historians estimate about 8 million people. The Spanish after the initial encounter began to enslave the Native Americans. The population collapsed. Some resisted, some commited suiside, and other died because of abuse after being enslaved. Probably even more important was their lack of resistance to European diseases. The Native Americans were within decaded desimated by the Spanish after the European discovery (1492). Practically no pure-blood native Ameicans survive in the Caribbean, but as a result social interactions, some Caribbean people (especially in Cuba and the Dominican Republic) today have Native American features. A great deal of dishonesty exists in discussions of Caribbean Native Americans. Some authors ignore the Arawak displacement of the Chiboney and the Carib displacement of the Arawaks and only want to describe the European conquest of a peaceful, innocent people. Some authots will even group the Arawaks and Caribs together so they can more easily focus on the European conquest. While it is true that the European (motly Spanish) treatment of the Caribbean Native Americans was a historical tragedy, in no way should the Caribs be idealized and a peaceful, innocent people.

Population

We do not yet fully understand the process by which the Caribbean was populated. We know virtually nothing about the Chiboney. Both the Arawaks and Caribs were tribes originating in South America in the area of the Guianas or eastern Venezuela. It is not difficult to understand how they reached Trinidad because the island can ve seen from Venezuela. We suspect that fishing became important to coastal people and the islands of the Caribbean arc may have been dicovered by fishing parties, but this may never be known. One question we can not answer at this time is why settlement came only from the south. It may be that the initial jump to Trinidad was instrumental in developing sea-going technology. The Gulf Stream may have prevented Native Americans in Florida from reaching Cuba. The Caribbean was settled by Native Americans moving north from South America. It does seem curious that the such a advanced people as the Maya did not colonize Cuba. The rough water and currents of the Yucatan Straits perhaps provided a challenge greater than the distance suggests. But the answer to this question may never be known. The Caribbean population of Native Americans before the arival of the Europeans is not known with any precession, but some historians estimate it about 8 million people.

Tribes

The Caribbean was settled primarily by three tribal groups: Chiboneys, Arawaks (Tainos), and the Caribs. The Chiboneys were the first known people to settle the Caribbean island (about 3,000 BC). They left little evidence in terms of cultural artifacts, so little is known about them. Next came the Arawaks who when the Europeans arrived were in the process of being overcome by the more war-like Caribs. Much more is known about the Arawaks and Caribs because they were thriving cultures present in the Caribban at the time of Columbus' arrival. The dominant assessment of Caribbean Native Americans is based largely on Spanish colonial accounts. Archeological studies are causing a major reassement, but tis is still controversial..

Chiboneys

The Chiboneys/Ciboneys were the first known people to settle the Caribbean island (about 4,000-3,000 BC). They are believed to have been a fairly primitive huner-gattering people. They left little evidence in terms of cultural artifacts, so little is known about them. There is no information available on their origins, but like the Arawaks and Caribs appears to have been South America. The Guana-Hatabey in western Cuba may have been the only surviving remmnat of the Chiboney which once appears to have populated the entire Caribbean..

Guana-Hatabey

The Guana-Hatabey and Ciboney peoples were among the original hunter-gatherer people that inhabited Cuba. They are not well understood because they were decimated before tey could be studied. It is unclear when they reached Cuba. One historians estimates about 1000 BC, but it could have been been much earlier. Most historians believe that they were the surviving remanants of the Ciboney people that first populated the Caribbean. They were by the time Columbus arrived in Cuba confined to the extreme westen end of the island. We know that they were culturlly e=destinct from the Arawaks because Columbus' interpreter could not understand them, but no precise details are available on their language. This is unfortunate as language is one of the most useful cultural artifacts useful in grouping Naive American peoples. The Guana-Hatabey lacked both pottery and the zemis important to the Arawak.

Arawaks (Tainos)

Next came the Arawaks who when the Europeans arrived were in the process of being overcome by the more war-like Caribs. Much more is known about the Arawaks and Caribs because they were thriving cultures present in the Caribban at the time of Columbus' arrival. The Arawaks settles most of the Caribbean. Little is known about interactions with the Chiboneys. There were three groups of Arawak people: Classic, Eastern, and Western. Most of what we know is about Classic Arawaks. When the Spanish arrived, The Caribs had displaced the Arawaks throughout the Lesser Antilles and were in the process of doing the same in the Greater Antilles. The Arawaks appear to have reached the Caribbean islands some time around the common era. Anthropolgists vary as just when this occurred. Estimates range from about 200 BC - 500 AD. As this was not a coordinated, centralize process, the date almost certainly varies from island to island. The Arawaks are sometimes referred to as the Taino, especially on the Spanish-speaking Caribbean islands. There was no centralized political structure. The Arawaks were idetified by cultural and linguistic afinity. (There would almost certainly been a genetic afinity, but there was of course no DNA testing at the time.) The names of ome of the tribes continue in use today on the various islands. The Borinquens dominated Puerto Rico and the Lucayans were theprincipal group in the Bahamas. Several other Arawak tribes were found on the islands of Hispaniola, Jamaica, and Cuba. All accounts of the Arawaks come from the Spanish who have left us several descriptions. As a result we have a basic understanding of Arawak culture. The Taínos slept in hammocks. There was adefinite spirtuality prevalent among the Arawak. They reportedly conducted celebratory rituals and worshipped a male and a female god. These gods were represented by idols which the Arawaks called"zemis", both stone and wood figurines. They were essenially animists. They looked on rain, wind, fire, and hurricanes as spiritual forces. They believed in an afterlife which they described as "coyaba". This they saw as spiritual land of dancing and celebration that was free of sickness, hurricanes, and hunger. The Arawaks raised crops (including cassava, maize, and wild fruits). They had not yet made the leap to settled agriculture, although there approach was not limited to simple gathering. They also hunted, but there were nonlarge prey animals. Targets included parrots, doves, and various small land animals. Fishing was very important, including manatees and turtles. Clothing was not an important aspect of Arawak culture. The tropical climate meant that clothing was usually not very important. The Spanish described naked individuals Other sources suggest that both men and women wore loin clothes.

Island Caribs

The Caribs appear to have originated in western Venezueala and initiated a gradual conquest of the Arawak peoples who populated the Caribban islands. The conquest appears to have taken place gradually and followed the Caribbean arc. Gradually the Caribs forced the Arawaks off the small islands of the Lesser Antilles. The process was still in progress on the larger islands of the Greater Antilles when the Europeans arrived. The Caribs like the Arawaks were superstitions, but they were not a spirtual people like the Arawaks. They were a warrior people and wee thus able to defeat or force the Arawaks off many of the smaller islands. Ethnic differences with the Arawaks were probanly not great to begin with and were further limited by the Carib process of taking the Arawak women. (So many Carib women in some areas were Arawak that the women sometimes spoke Arawak among temselves.) The Caribs apparently killed the Arawak men. I do not know at this time about the male children. This popular image of fierce Caribs chasing innocent Arawaks off their islands is being challenged. Some sugest that the accounts of fierce, canabilistic Caribs was invented by the Spanish to justify enslavement of the Native Americans. [Myers] Some suggest that the Island Caribs were not male invaders, but Arawakan-speakers who used a Cariban-pidgin trading language. This theory suggests that the Caribs probably evolved in the Windward islands. [Allaire] The linguistic differences thus have been disputed. The Island Carib cultivated crops including cavassa (yucca) and sweet potatoes. The men hunted and were said to be expert shots with bows and arrows. Fishing was also important. They used dugout canoes called piraguas, a term still used in the Caribbean. Some were reprtedly large enough to carry 100 men. The women were responsible for the "carbet"--the circular thatched shelter in which they lived. Like the Arawaks, the climate meant that clothing was not very important. There was, however adorment which included parrot feathers and necklaces made of shell and the teeth of their defeated foes. Red body paint was popular. The Caribs apparently did not cut their hair. They wore it long and oiled it.

Colision of Cultures

The initial encounter between the Spanish and Native Americans was one of the great events of history. Most historians relate that both parties were astonished. One historian points out that there were a crucial differences. While the Native Americans were surprised with the encounter, they were not surprised that they were other beings. Many thought the Europeans were superntural beings. The Europeans were, however, surprised at the very existence of the Native Americans. [Mann, p. 156.] Columbus and other early explorers cointinued to argue for more than a decade that the Native Americans were Asians. There was another crucial difference. Columbus' enconter as a result of literacy and communicatins quickly reported throughout Europe. As a result, future Europeans were not surprised by subsequent encouters. The lack of such communcation among Native American peoples meant that the surprise was repeated over and over, even among the sophosticated civilizations. Both Montezuma and Atahualpa's judgement was clouded by the possibiity that the Spanish were gods even those this was decades after Columbus' initial discovery.

European Conquest

The Spanish after the initial encounter began to enslave the Native Americans. The population collapsed. Some resisted, some commited suiside, and other died because of abuse after being enslaved. Probably even more important was their lack of resistance to European diseases. The Native Americans were within decaded desimated by the Spanish after the European discovery (1492). Practically no pure-blood native Ameicans survive in the Caribbean, but as a result social interactions, some Caribbean people (especially in Cuba and the Dominican Republic) today have Native American features. A great deal of dishonesty exists in discussions of Caribbean Native Americans. Some authors ignore the Arawak displacement of the Chiboney and the Carib displacement of the Arawaks and only want to describe the European conquest of a peaceful, innocent people. Some authots will even group the Arawaks and Caribs together so they can more easily focus on the European conquest. While it is true that the European (motly Spanish) treatment of the Caribbean Native Americans was a historical tragedy, in no way should the Caribs be idealized and a peaceful, innocent people. The European conquest varied in time frm island to island. The Spanish did not settle all of the islands, but conducted slave raids even on islands they did not settle. The Caribs resisted on a few islands (Grenada and St. Vincent) and there thus were encounters with other Europeans.

Sources

Allaire, L. "Later Prehistory in Martinique and the island Caribs: problems in ethnic identification," Ph.D. dissertation, 1977, Yale University. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms.

Mann. Charles C. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus (Vintage Books: New York, 2006), 541p.

Myers, R.A. "Island Carib cannibalism," Nieuwe West-Indische Gids (1984) Vol. 58, pp. 147-84.






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Created: 3:17 AM 3/3/2008
Last updated: 5:17 AM 3/3/2008