Indigenous People Of The Caribbean  

 

 

GENERAL BACKGROUND

It is very difficult to know exactly when did the people that Christopher Columbus saw in 1492 migrated to the area now known as the Caribbean. The Archaeological findings suggest that human beings have migrated to the American continent between 6000 and 10.000 BC.   These dates are different from those suggested by the findings in the Caribbean region.  Apparently the migration to the Caribbean Island was not done primarily but secondarily after settling on the main land in North America, Central America and the Northern region of South America.. Archaeological carbon dating placed the arrival of the first human in the Caribbean region between 3.500 and 4000 BC. The best clues we have to find out where the Karibe/Tainos came from is in the  links between their culture and that of other people from the mainland.  Those links are in the Karibe/Tainos mythology and culture.

Karibe/Tainos mythology and cultural links

Caribe/Taino believed they evolved from caves or from the earth. The Earth Mother or goddess of fertility, Atabei, is mother of Yucahu Bagua Marocoti, the Caribe/Taino "supreme" or absolute being who has no father and no beginning. The concept of Yucahu is apparently similar to the Maya belief in a monotheistic "Absolute Being" named Hunab K'u. Pre-conquest Maya defined Hunab K'u as "measure and movement-- measure of the soul and movement of the energy which is spirit."
 The monotheistic context of the belief in HUNAB KU has prompted some scholars to suggest he was a post-conquest transcultural syncretic invention meant to emulate or coexist with Christianity.   In that sense HUNAB KU would be a Tainos textual expression of the Christian God. HUNAB KU, however,  does not convey the same idea as the Christian concept of God.  Indeed, the concept of Hunab K'u or Yucahu reveals a "God" that is essentially OMNIPRESENT, a CREATIVE FORCE  that is within everything rather than the notion of a "supreme" hierarchical superimposed being existing above it all. It does not take much to understand that such a God concept is linked to the idea of the realization by man of the power from within himself which is found in the cultures of some others native Americans.
 

There is clearly a strong Maya and Central American influence in the Caribbean. The first peoples to arrive in Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic are believed to have come from the Yucatan peninsula or from other areas of Central America.  Evidence of Central American artifacts grounded in indigenous tradition are also found in Boriken( Puerto Rico) The earliest carbon dating in Boriken date back to 3,000 BC  It's further acknowledged that the "Taino" were partly descended from these first peoples of the Antilles, the so-called "Casimiroid peoples" or the "Archaics." If so, Karibe/Taino peoples of today would be descendants of the Maya, and likely other indigenous groups of both North and South America.
 

 



THE TAINOS / ARAWAKS

Arawak/Tainos Indians were, before the arrival of Christopher Columbus,  the most predominant group of Native Americans originally inhabiting an area that stretched from present-day Florida down through the islands of the West Indies and the coastal area of South America as far as southern Brazil. The Arawaks were the first natives of the Americas encountered by Columbus. Scholarly documented reconstructions of the Tainos civilization have benefited, in the second half of the 20th century, from the return by the Tainos people to their tribal roots.  What is gradually emerging from the interdisciplinary research involving linguistic, antropology, ethnology, archaeology and history, is a picture of a self sufficient people who had a vibrant culture, an elaborate vision of the intemporal, and an ecologically adjusted way of live.
 
 

Tainos dance
 

It is traditionally believed that most of the Arawak tribes have been extinct for several hundred years. This broad picture of extinction seems to fit mainly the history of the Tainos of Hispagnola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and Cuba but not necessarily of Boriken (Puerto Rico) and of the southern Caribbean islands that are near South America.
 In Puerto Rico, the Tainos have apparently survived and are organized today in a tribal nation called the Jatibonicu Tribal Nation of Boriken .  This nation is governed by a council headed by a chief.
Some 30,000 Arawak live in Guyana. A smaller numbers is found in Surinam and in French Guiana.
Even in the two islands/countries(Cuba and Haiti/Domican Rep.) that one can take as models for the Tainos extinction picture, the persistence of certain key eléments of the Tainos culture has stimulated some recent attempts to find some living Tainos groups.  In Haiti, the existence of one Tainos group could be traced to Cacique Henri who fought a victorious guerilla war against the Spaniards, gained his freedom and the right to live with his followers in the Bahoruco mountains which are now part of the South East Department of Haiti.  The name of the town associated with this piece of Tainos history is Anse ŕ Pitres. It is near Jacmel. In Cuba, some groups of people of Taino descent.have been identified through antropologic research.

However, those pockets of survivors do not make the broader picture of the near extinction obsolete because one cannot negate the fact that there was a very rapid decline of the Arawak population of the West Indies.  It fell from a probable 2 to 3 million to a few thousands by the early 16th century. By the end of that century, island Arawak were in fact nearly extinct. The main element governing this catastrophic mortality rate was the arrival of Columbus and the Spaniards. For the Arawak/Tainos, the Spanish conquest was an ecological, political and sociological disaster. Aside of the pressure exerted on them by the destruction of social structures, the disruption of their food supply, slavery, Spanish brutality and massacres that followed each revolt, the Arawaks had to face the European diseases for whom they were not immunologically prepared.
The Arawaks were part of the global native American population and as every native American they had no previous contact with the pathogens that came from Europe with the Spanish.  They lost the biological and political war against the European.  By comparison, the Blacks slaves that came from the west coast of Africa have been in contact with most of the European disease and even came with new one, such as yellow fever, that killed lots of European in the Caribbean. 

Before the Spanish conquest, the large-island ecosystems, offering bountiful harvests and abundant fish, combined with the compact and stable island populations, permitted the development of an elaborate political and social structure. A class of hereditary chiefs ruled three other classes, the lowest of which was composed of slaves. Conflict between classes was apparently minimal. In this matrilineal society, rulers were succeeded by their eldest sister's eldest son. Religion offered a hierarchy of deities parallel to the social structure.

The Arawak tribes of South America were able to survive the European contact a little more than their Caribbean brother because their groups were smaller and more scattered. Their social structure was also matrilineal but much less complex. Mainland Arawak traded with the Dutch and English. In the 17th and 18th centuries they made a transition to plantation agriculture. Arawakan-speaking groups are widespread in lots of parts of South America.


 
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THE CARIBS

 

Caribs Indian still living
in the Caribbean

 
KARIBS / CARIBS or KARIBE tribe of Native American of the Caribbean linguistic stock, occupying various regions of South and Central America. The Caribs, who probably originated in the valley of the Orinoco River, were noted for their ferocity.
.During the late 15th century the Karibs inhabited most of the islands of the Lesser Antilles and the coast of what is now Venezuela, territories from which they had expelled the Arawak Indians.

 

From Caniba or Canima to Caribs, Cannibal, Caribbean.

Columbus talked about the Caribs in his log of Sunday, November 4, 1492.  On that day, the log says, he showed some gold and pearl to the Indians. He was told that an infinite amount of gold could be found by going to the southeast in a place called Bohio.  The first mention, all be it vague, about the Caribs came immediately after in the next sentence of the log which says the following:
"I also understand that, a long distance from here, there are men with one eye and others with dogs' snouts who eat men. On taking a man they beheaded him, drink his blood and cut off his genitals."
The next reference about the Caribs is a little more specific. It is part of the log book entry of Tuesday, December 11 1492, which speaks about a continental land behind La Espagnola where the people of Caniba lived. The entry in the log is the following:
"They (the Tainos of Hispagnola/kyskeya, Bohio, Haiti) indicate that there is a continental land behind La Isla Espagnola, which they called Caritaba.  They say that it is of infinite extent, which supports my belief that these lands may be harassed by a more astute people, because the inhabitants of these lands live in great fear of the people of Caniba. So I repeat what I have said before, the Caniba are none other than the people of the Great Khan, who must be very near here. They have ships that come to these lands to capture these people and take them away. Since the people never return, it is believed that they have been eaten."
The name Caritaba which Colombus referred to as the land of the Caniba was in fact the land surrounding Cap Haitien in Haiti. The chain of islands forming the lesser Antilles where the Caribs lived starts beyond La Espagnola and the the island of Boriken (Puerto-Rico).  The mistakes of Columbus about the Caribs people were due to the erroneus context governing his interpretation of the facts. He thought he was in Asia, specifically India. 
Because of those entries in Columbus log book, the Canima or Caniba people left their name to the region they inhabited and the word Cannibal to describe the practice of eating people. However,  because of the corruption of all the indigenous words during their incorporation first in the Spanish vocabulary and later in the English, the French and the Dutch, there are some serious question we must ask ourselves about the word Caniba and the substantif/adjectif cannibal. One key question stems from the first mention of the Caribs as people with dogs snouts. Could it be that the word Caniba came into existence because of that reference about the dog like face of the Caribs? Being a  Latinist, who also had some knowledge of the Greek language, Columbus might have heard a word beginning with a K sound (which is the correct pronunciation of the letter C in Latin) associated with the description of those mythical indigenous people and therefore might have created the word Caniba from the Latin word canis meaning dog.  This hypothesis becomes stronger when one realizes that the Latin and Greek perspective dominated the way Columbus saw the world and himself and that it appeared even in the way he signed his name as Xpisto(Christo) Ferens.  Some research is needed to bring some light on the linguistic corruption that led to the creation of the word cannibal, on its possible Latin roots and on its origin in the Tainos/Caribs language.

 

Carib picture
 

 Caribs people way of life and resistance against the European

The Karibs/Caribs were expert canoeists, and their fleets sometimes included 100 sail-fitted, dugout canoes. On land, they lived in small settlements, farmed and fished, and hunted game with blowguns and bows and arrows. Carib communities were generally made up of several matrilineal kin groups.
Contrary to the Arawaks/Tainos which were peaceful and only defended themselves against attack from others, the Caribs were warriors belonging to a culture that valued exploits in combat above all else.
Because of their ability to fight, they became the spearhead and the last bastion of the resistance against the European colonization of the Caribbean

In the 17th century, when several European countries struggled for control of the Lesser Antilles, the Caribs were all but eliminated. Groups remained only on the islands of Saint Vincent and Dominica. In 1796 the British government deported almost all of the 5000 remaining members of the tribe from St. Vincent to Routine Island off the coast of Honduras. They spread over the neighboring mainland and today survive in Guatemala and on a reservation in Dominica