Published on December 3, 2012 by Amy
The term Arawak (from aru, the Lokono word for cassava flour), was used to designate the Amerindians encountered by the Spanish in the Caribbean. These include the Taíno, who occupied the Greater Antilles and the Bahamas (Lucayan) and Bimini Florida, the Nepoya and Suppoyo of Trinidad and the Igneri, who were supposed to have preceded the Caribs in the Lesser Antilles, together with related groups (including the Lokono) which lived along the eastern coast of South America as far south as what is now Brazil. The group belongs to the Arawakan language family and they were the natives Christopher Columbus encountered when he first landed in the Americas. The Spanish described them as a peaceful people.
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On the islands of the Caribbean, the Taino grew crops very easily. They raised their crops in a conuco, a large mound that was devised especially for farming. They packed the conuco with leaves to prevent soil erosion and planted a large variety of crops to ensure that something would grow, no matter what weather conditions prevailed. Yuca (cassava) was a staple of their diet and grew easily in a tropical climate. They also used their large, stable, slower boats to take goods for trade to the Mesoamerican civilizations and inter-island travel but used smaller, faster but less stable boats for intra-island shore travel. They also grew maize.
Since the agriculture and trade was so good, the Taíno had plenty of extra time to make crafts and play games. One of these games, called Batéy, was similar to soccer. With plenty of leisure, the Taíno devoted their energy to creative activities such as pottery, basket weaving, cotton weaving, stone tools and even stone sculpture. Men and women painted their bodies and wore jewelry made of gold, stone, bone, and shell. They also participated in informal feasts and dances. The Taíno drank alcohol made from fermented corn, and they used tobacco in cigars.
The Taino developed the hammock (the name derives from the Taíno term hamaca), which was first encountered by Europeans on Hispaniola. They were readily adopted as a convenient means to increase the crew capacity of ships and improved the sanitary conditions of the sleeping quarters; old straw — which was commonly used for bedding in earlier times — quickly became rotten and infested by parasites in the damp and cramped crew quarters of sailing ships. The cottoncloth hammocks could be easily washed if they became soiled.
The Taino had organized systems of religion and government. They believed in good and evil spirits, which could inhabit human bodies and natural objects. They sought to control these spirits through their priests or shamans.
The Taino’s political system was hierarchical, in which the islands were broken up into groups, each island in turn was divided into provinces ruled by chiefs known as caciques. The provinces were allocated into districts ruled by a sub-chief and each village was ruled by a head-man.
Their socio-political rivals within the Caribbean were the Caribs and the Ciboneys. The Caribs were considered aggressive, while the Ciboneys were considered docile. The Taino used the Ciboney for slave labor. The Taino treated the peaceful Ciboney as a subjected people, having already pushed them to the very most fringes of their territory. The Carib were attempting to expand their territory in the Lesser Antilles, which entailed the ethnic cleansing of the Ciboney and Taino people, as the Caribs were known to torture and kill all non-Carib males, taking the females as slave-wives..
Columbus, in his log, noted:
“They brought us balls of cotton thread and parrots and darts and other little things which it would be tedious to list, and exchanged everything for whatever we offered them…I kept my eyes open and tried to find out if there was any gold, and I saw that some of them had a little piece hanging from a hole in their nose. I gathered from their signs that if one goes south, or around the south side of the island, there is a king with great jars full of it, enormous amounts. I tried to persuade them to go there, but I saw that the idea was not to their liking.”
The main catalyst for Taino society’s drastic decline was due to smallpox. Constant attacks by Carib tribes and harsh treatment by the Spaniards accelerated the process. Taino society collapsed, but their bloodlines became woven in with those of new settlers, mainly Europeans and Africans.
Most scholars believe that of the Island populations of Ciboney, Taino and Carib, only the Carib survive today. On the mainland of South America there are some 2,450 (1980 census) Arawaks living in Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guyana with 2,051 in Suriname. The Caribs on mainland South America number 10,225 (2000 WCD) in Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guyana. The majority of the populations of Puerto Rico and Aruba are descended in part from the Arawaks — Taino in the case of the former.