Arawak and Taino

650-1492: The Taíno (Arawak Indian) Period of Jamaican History

With a human history that stretches back at least 10,000 years, the New World was only new to the Europeans who had no previous knowledge of its existence. In fact, estimates of human habitation on the islands of the Caribbean stretch back more than 20,000 years. However, we don't know as much about this period of island history.

What historians do know is that the tribes that lived on these islands most likely crossed the Bering Strait and worked their way across the American continent, eventually sailing to the Caribbean islands from South America. These Stone Age tribes populated the entire region and formed the incredible civilizations throughout Central and South America.

Native to Jamaica

The earliest recorded inhabitants of Jamaica were the Taíno Indians, also known as the Arawaks. This tribe originated along the northern coast of South America, including what is now Venezuela. Historians believe that these Indians came up through the Antilles and into Jamaica in two different waves. The first wave of inhabitants is known as the "redware people,"who probably arrived around 650 AD. The second wave arrived between 850 and 900 AD.

The Taíno encountered a race known as the Ciboney, or "rock-dwellers," on many of the Caribbean islands. It's unclear whether or not the Ciboneys were present on Jamaica, but they did live on both Cuba and Hispaniola, the closest islands to Jamaica. However, we do know that the lives of the Taíno tribes on Jamaica were interrupted by a new tribe known as the Caribs.

The Carib Indians were warlike, and gained the name "Carib" from the Spanish word for cannibal. The Caribs came to the islands of the Caribbean in much the same way that the Taínos did: from South America via canoe. They became well-known and feared throughout the region, and made occasional attacks against Jamaica. Some historians think the Caribs may have exterminated Jamaica's Taíno residents had the Spanish not arrived on the island.

Taíno Artifacts

Unfortunately, the Taínos on Jamaica left no written evidence of their lives. Much of what historians now know about the tribes comes from written records left by Spanish explorers. The rest has been pieced together from artifacts uncovered throughout the centuries.

When the Europeans discovered Jamaica, is was said to have been one of the best settled islands of the region. In fact, remains have been found all across the island, from the western side at Negril to the eastern coast at Priestman's River, and all throughout the inland portions of the island. However, artifacts have rarely been found far from the coast, as the Taínos led a predominantly seafaring lifestyle and much of their food came from the sea.

There is now an Arawak Indian Museum in Jamaica near the site of a village. This village site is now White Marl on the Caymanas Estates, located near the Central Village. The whole area has changed, and the Spanish Town Road cuts through the site. It is located at the top of a hill with a view of the surrounding area.

At the time of the Taínos, the plains would have been cultivated as fields and gardens, but Jamaica lacked coconut palms, bananas, and canes. Spanish settlers introduced these items. Instead, the Taínos would have planted cassava, maize, sweet potato, and perhaps arrowroot. Fruits would have included starapple, naseberry, cashew, and guava.

The path of the river is one important difference between the time of the Taínos and today. The Rio Cobre traveled from the foot of the With Marl Hill to the Ferry River. A storm in 1772 was so violent that it changed the river's course and give it a more direct route to the sea.

Although we have little knowledge of the Taíno Indians' history on Jamaica prior to the arrival of Columbus and the European settlers, we do know a great deal about their way of life from the writings of Columbus and other Europeans who took an interest in the region.

Columbus' "discovery"of the Caribbean islands meant that many aspects of the Taíno way of life and culture were recorded before the Taínos died out. These early islanders had plenty to offer the now vibrant culture of Jamaica. However, the European settlers on Jamaica also caused the eventual death of most of the Taínos.

 

Back to Jamaica History Overview

History Resources, References, and Further Reading

 

Help us improve! We welcome your corrections and suggestions.