Although a recorded, written history of the islanders who met the Europeans upon their arrival does not exist, we still know quite a bit about the earliest recorded natives on the Caribbean islands. Much of the history of these islanders was recorded by the Spanish explorers and early settlers, with the rest pieced together by the work of anthropologists in more recent years.
One important item to understand about the "Indians" of this region is that they were given this name by Columbus, who believed he had reached the East Indies. It is for this reason that we still refer to the indigenous people of the American continents and Caribbean basin as Indians. However, a number of different ethnic groups of these indigenous people lived around the Caribbean.
The three main groups are the Ciboney (often spelled Siboney), Taíno (who are often called the Arawak), and the Carib. Although some of the Taíno referred to their specific tribes by different names (for example, the Lucayans were found in The Bahamas), most of the groups that Columbus originally met were ethnic Taíno.
It's important to note another specification in terminology. While some call the main group inhabiting the Caribbean "Arawak," there is a strong argument for the differentiation between Taíno (those found throughout much of the Greater and Lesser Antilles), and the Arawak (those found in South America and part of Trinidad). Columbus never met any of these South American Arawak, who spoke a different language than the Taínos that he met. However, it is believed that these Caribbean Taínos migrated from the areas of South America that were ethnically Arawak.
Of all the indigenous people in the Caribbean, we have the most complete information about the Taínos, due to early Spanish contact with them. The Spanish often used Caribs as slaves, and few Carib villages remain in the Caribbean. The Ciboney are the least-known people of the region.
The Ciboney are thought to be the earliest arrivals to the Caribbean region. Ciboneys of the Caribbean region are also called Guanahatabeys on occasion. These people had a poorly developed social structure and were relatively peaceful.
It is believed that these people were eventually wiped out by the Taínos who followed them. Similarly, the Caribs, whose tribes were creeping up the chain of Caribbean islands from South America, might have wiped out the Taíno if the Spanish had not arrived. The Ciboney seemed to keep to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle which the Taíno found uncivilized. The last Guanahatabeys were on the western tip of Cuba when Columbus arrived to explore the islands.
The Taíno migrated through the Caribbean in waves. From as far back as 2000 B.C., there were established Taíno movements toward the Caribbean, from Venezuela into the Guianas, and by about 200 B.C. they had begun making their way into the basin. By about 600 A.D. the Taíno had moved from South America up through the Lesser Antilles, Puerto Rico, and had begun expansion into Hispaniola. In the next 400 years the Taíno spread throughout all of Hispaniola and into eastern portions of Jamaica and Cuba. And, of course, by the time of Columbus' arrival, they had spread throughout the rest of Jamaica, as well as most of Cuba.
Of course, by the time of Columbus' explorations the Caribs had begun to make their way up the Lesser Antilles, much the way their Taíno predecessors had. The chain from Trinidad and Tobago northward through Guadeloupe had become Carib nations, with the possible exception of Barbados, which was off the beaten track.
Native artifacts have been found from as far back as 4000 B.C., but these artifacts are extremely primitive in nature. Around 2000 B.C. the artifacts change over from stone to a combination of stone, bone, and shell items.
The earliest items, dating from around 4000 B.C., have only been found on Cuba and Hispaniola. The tools were extremely primitive, made using a stone flaking method, rather than a grinding method. No pottery has been found from this period. Some rock shelters have been discovered in Cuba, and evidence suggests that the native inhabitants began widening their range of items and skills, such as shells and carving, as well as food gathering habits.
Around 2000 B.C. another group entered the Caribbean, starting around Trinidad. This group placed great emphasis on fishing and had their sights set on northward movement. These people spread throughout the archipelago and seem to have met with these earlier people around 1000 B.C. The two cultures began trading knowledge and goods.
Other tribes continued to come into the region. They brought pottery and other items of more advanced civilization with them. The earliest dates of their occupation of the majority of the Caribbean are around 250 B.C., though some were present earlier on certain islands. Painted pottery came to the islands, as well.
For a period of more than 1000 years, the Taínos were left alone to develop there, but the Caribs begin their move into the Caribbean. Most often, the Caribs simply took control of the people of the islands they populated. They shared their language and customs, but intermingled with the previous islanders.
When Columbus and, shortly afterward, other European explorers first came to the islands, the people they met were almost invariably Taíno. However, once exploration moved into the Lesser Antilles, they did meet the Caribs, who were more hostile than the Taínos of the Greater Antilles and Bahamian Archipelago. Caribs were regarded as cannibals and therefore more savage than the Taínos.
There were marked differences between the tribes of Taínos. However, they shared a language and many other traditions - including a religion that was at least similar across the islands, though some minor changes seem to have been recorded.
The Taínos believed they had come into being from caves, and had spread across the lands. They also believed in a main god and goddess, as well as some ancestor worship. The Europeans, despite believing the Taínos to be savages, saw that they could be profitable as slaves, which eventually helped to decimate their population.
When Columbus arrived, the Taínos were living in villages built around a square where they would play "Batey." This game involved kicking a ball, much like modern soccer. Their social structure also included a man who led the community, called a cacique.
Some larger islands had bigger communities grouped together under a main cacique, with local caciques leading the individual villages, while other villages were more independent. Meanwhile, the Taínos also smoked tobacco, a pastime they passed on to the Europeans.
Another important member of the community was the shaman, the doctor and religious leader. They worshiped zemis, which could be defined as both the spirits and gods as well as the physical icons of these mystical beings. Some zemis were even said to talk and help the cacique make decisions.
An important aspect of the Taínos' culture was the tying of boards to a newborn's head, helping to flatten the skull. This was said to help strengthen the bone, and gave the islanders a distinctive look. The Taíno were dark-skinned and black-haired, but did not have beards or body hair.
Columbus considered them to be perfect as workers because they were quick learners and were accustomed to working in the hot conditions of the Caribbean. However, much of their diet depended upon fishing, and their removal from the coasts to help the Spanish later contributed to their demise.
The Caribs, whom Columbus met much later, were less understood. Inhabiting the Lesser Antilles, they were immediately marked as cannibals by explorers; their warlike nature kept these islands from being easily settled.
Caribs had a male-dominated society, and much of their life revolved around the sea. Women generally did any work besides the hunting, and warriors were elected as their leaders. Their resistance to settlers means that some Caribs still survive today on some of the islands.
These lifestyles were certainly different from the one that Columbus expected to find when he reached the East Indies. However, what he found in the Caribbean would become just as important to Spain for many other reasons.
Help us improve! We welcome your corrections and suggestions.