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JANUARY caribbean, west indies, real estate, property, land, retiring, moving, relocating, living, working, expats, international living, overseas, abroad, caribbean property magazine, caribpro 2 0 0 9
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From Peaceful Taino to Carib
by Lulu Basuil

The Caribbean has some of the most fascinating indigenous cultures of any region in the world.  But while most people seem to have some familiarity with civilizations such as the Mayans and Aztecs, few outside of the Caribbean region are aware of the equally intriguing Taino, Arawak and Carib people of the Caribbean.  In this article we take a look at the Taino and Carib people that were, before the arrival of Christopher Columbus, the most predominant indigenous Indian cultures 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.


It is very difficult to know exactly when the people that Christopher Columbus saw in 1492 had 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.


Two schools of thought have emerged regarding the origin of the indigenous people of the West Indies. One group contends that the ancestors of the Taínos came from the center of the Amazon Basin, subsequently moving to the Orinoco valley. From there, they reached the West Indies by way of what is now Guyana and Venezuela into Trinidad, proceeding along the Lesser Antilles all the way to Cuba and the Bahamian archipelago. Evidence that supports this theory includes the tracing of the ancestral cultures of these people to the Orinoco Valley and their languages to the Amazon Basin.

The alternate theory, known as the circum-Caribbean theory, contends that the ancestors of the Taínos diffused from the Colombian Andes. Julian H. Steward, the theory's originator, suggested a radiation from the Andes to the West Indies and a parallel radiation into Central America and into the Guianas, Venezuela and the Amazon Basin.

Taíno culture developed in the West Indies as the Taínos were pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Bahamas, Greater Antilles, and the northern Lesser Antilles. It is believed that the seafaring Taínos were relatives of the Arawakan people of South America. Their language is a member of the Maipurean linguistic family, which ranges from South America across the Caribbean.

Columbus and his crew, landing on an island in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492 were the first Europeans to encounter the Taíno people. Columbus wrote:
They traded with us and gave us everything they had, with good will..they took great delight in pleasing us..They are very gentle and without knowledge of what is evil; nor do they murder or steal….Your highness may believe that in all the world there can be no better people ..They love their neighbors as themselves, and they have the sweetest talk in the world, and are gentle and always laughing.

It was Columbus who called the Taínos "Indians", an identification that has grown to encompass all the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere. The word "Indian" was an invention of Christopher Columbus, who erroneously thought that he had arrived in the East Indies. The misnomer remains, and has served to imagine a kind of racial or cultural unity for the autochthonous peoples of the Americas. The unitary idea of "Indians" was not one shared by most indigenous peoples, who saw themselves as diverse. But the "Indian" gave Europeans a fixed person who could be labeled (as "primitive" or "heathen," for example), given a legal designation, and classified. Thus, the word "Indian" gave Europeans a valuable tool for colonization. Today, many native peoples have proudly embraced an imagined spiritual, ethnic, or cultural unity of "Indians."
A Carib
The indigenous people he encountered in his first voyage described themselves "Taíno", meaning "good" or "noble", to differentiate themselves from Island-Caribs. This name applied to all the Island Taínos including those in the Lesser Antilles. Locally, the Taínos referred to themselves by the name of their location. For example, those in Puerto Rico are known as Boricua (which means people from the island of the valiant noble lords) their island was called Borike'n (Great land of the valiant noble lord) and those occupying the Bahamas are known as Lucayo (small islands).

Some ethno-historians called the same culture of people "Island Arawak" from the Arawakan word for cassava flour, a staple of the race. From this, the language and the people were eventually called "Arawak." However, modern scholars now consider this a mistake. The people who called themselves Arawak lived only in the Guiana’s and Trinidad, and their language and culture differ from those of the Taíno.

However, throughout time these terms have been used interchangeably by writers, travelers, historians, linguists, and anthropologists. Taíno has been used to mean the Greater Antillean tribes only, those plus the Bahamas tribes, those and the Leeward Islands tribes or all those excluding the Puerto Rican tribes and Leeward tribes. Island Taíno has been used to refer to those living in the Windward Islands only, those in the northern Caribbean only or those living in any of the islands.

Modern historians, linguists and anthropologists now hold that the term Taíno should refer to all the Taíno/Arawak tribes, except for the Caribs. The Caribs are not seen by anthropologists nor historians as being the same people although linguists are still debating whether the Carib language is an Arawakan dialect or Creole language — or perhaps a distinct language, with an Arawakan pidgin often used in communication.

At the time of Columbus's arrival in 1492, there were five Taíno kingdoms and territories on Hispaniola (modern day Haiti and Dominican Republic), each led by a principal Cacique (chieftain), to whom tribute was paid. As the hereditary head chief of Taíno tribes, the cacique was paid significant tribute. At the time of the Spanish conquest, the largest Taínos population centers may have contained over 3,000 people each. The Taínos were historical neighbors and enemies of the fierce Carib tribes, another group with origins in South America who lived principally in the Lesser Antilles. The relationship between the two groups has been the subject of much study.

For much of the 15th century, the Taíno tribe was being driven to the Northeast in the Caribbean (out of what is now South America) because of raids by fierce Caribs.

By the 18th century, Taíno society had been devastated by introduced diseases such as smallpox, as well as other problems like intermarriages and forced assimilation into the plantation economy that Spain imposed in its Caribbean colonies, with its subsequent importation of African slave workers. The first recorded smallpox outbreak in Hispaniola occurred in 1507. The Spaniards, who first arrived in the Bahamas, Cuba and Hispaniola in 1492, and later in Puerto Rico, did not bring women. They took Taíno women for their wives, which resulted in mestizo children.

The Taínos were very experienced in agriculture and live a mainly agrarian lifestyle but also fished and hunted. Men, and sometimes women, might have two or three spouses, and it was noted that some caciques would even marry as many 30 times.

Early population estimates of Hispaniola, probably the most populous island inhabited by Taínos, range from 100,000 to 1,000,000 people. The maximum estimates for Jamaica and Puerto Rico, the most densely populated islands after Hispaniola, are 600,000 people.


In a sad account about human extinction, the Dominican priest Bartolomé de Las Casas wrote (1561) in his multivolume History of the Indies, “there were 60,000 people living on this island [when I arrived in 1508], including the Indians; so that means from 1494 to 1508, over three million people had perished from war, slavery and the mines. Who in future generations will believe this?”
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The Taíno population was not immune to Old World diseases, notably smallpox. Many of them were worked to death in the mines and fields, put to death in harsh put-downs of revolts or committed suicide (throwing themselves out of the cliffs or consuming manioc leaves) to escape their cruel new masters. La Casas wrote that the Spaniards:

"made bets as to who would slit a man in two, or cut off his head at one blow; or they opened up his bowels. They tore the babes from their mothers breast by their feet, and dashed their heads against the rocks...they spitted the bodies of other babes, together with their mothers and all who were before them, on their swords....and by thirteen’s, in honor and reverence for our Redeemer and the twelve Apostles they put wood underneath and, with fire, they burned the Indians alive"

Because of the increased number of people (Spanish) on the islands, there was a higher demand for food from the Taíno method of plantation which was being converted to Spanish methods. Because so many Taínos were put into slavery, they had little time for community affairs, and the supply of food became so low in 1495 and 1496 that famine occurred and combined with diseases like smallpox, which the Taínos had no immunity to, a staggering death toll began to unfold.  By 1507 their numbers had shrunk by 80 to 90% to 60,000. By 1531 the number was down to 600. Scholars now believe that, among the various contributing factors, epidemic disease was the overwhelming cause of the population decline of the American natives.

Along with disease devastating the Taino population, the Tainos were being tortured and murdered by the Spanish.  On Columbus' second voyage, he began to require tribute from the Taínos in Hispaniola. Each adult over 14 years of age was expected to deliver a hawk’s bell full of gold every three months, or when this was lacking twenty five pounds of spun cotton. If this tribute was not observed, the Taínos had their hands cut off and were left to bleed to death. This also gave way to a service requirement called encomienda. Under this system, Taínos were required to work for a Spanish land owner for most of the year, which left little time to tend to their own community affairs.

Many people still identify themselves as descendants of the Taínos, and most notably among some Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, both on the island and on the United States mainland. People claiming to be Taíno descendants have been active in trying to assert a call for recognition of their tribe. A recent study conducted in Puerto Rico suggests that over 61% of the population possess Taíno mtDNA.

Scholarly documented reconstructions of the Taino civilization has benefited, in the second half of the 20th century, from an emerging interdisciplinary research involving linguistic, anthropology, ethnology, archaeology and history, which presents a picture of a self sufficient people that had a vibrant culture, an elaborate vision of the in temporal, and an ecologically adjusted way of live.


Carib, Island Carib or Kalinago people, after whom the Caribbean Sea was named, live in the Lesser Antilles islands. They are an Amerindian people whose origins lie in the southern West Indies and the northern coast of South America

The Caribs are believed to have left the Orinoco river area in South America to settle in the Caribbean. Over the century leading up to Columbus' arrival in the Caribbean archipelago in 1492, the Caribs are believed to have displaced the Maipurean-speaking Arawaks who settled the island chains earlier in history.

The islanders also traded with the Eastern Taíno of the Caribbean Islands. The Caribs were the source of the silver which de Leon found in the possession of the Taíno; gold was not smelted by any of the insular Amerindians, but rather was obtained by trade from the mainland. Carib's

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.

The Caribs seem to have owed their dominance in the Caribbean basin to their mastery of the arts of war. Extremely warlike and ferocious, they seem to have overrun the Lesser Antilles and to have driven out the Arawak about a century before the arrival of Christopher Columbus.

The Karibs/Caribs were expert boat builders and skilled, and 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. They were incredibly accurate bowmen and used a powerful poison to paralyze their prey.

Because of their ability to fight, they became the spearhead and the last bastion of the resistance against the European colonization of the Caribbean and significantly delayed the settling of their land by the Europeans by defending their island against the colonialist masters, Spanish, French and English excellently. The Spanish were the first to try and failed miserably. The French were the next to try by using missionaries. The British were more brutal and systematically destroyed the Caribs.

In the 17th century, when several European countries struggled for control of the Lesser Antilles, the Caribs were all but eliminated as most were killed in battle, or suffered many years of brutal treatment by the European colonists. Those who escaped death did so by retreating to remote, rugged islands such as St. Vincent and Dominica, where they could hide from European forces. 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.

Today the largest remaining population of 3,000 Caribs lives in the 3,700-acre Carib Territory of northeast Dominica. This territory, where they retain a degree of autonomy, was granted to then by the crown in 1903. In July 2003, Caribs observed 100 Years of Territory.

Although the main remaining Carib population lives in Dominica, there are several hundred ethnic Caribs in Trinidad, as well as a Carib population in St.Vincent, the size of which is not known. Some ethnic Carib communities remain on the South American mainland, in countries such as Venezuela, Guatamala, Colombia, Brazil, French Guiana, Guyana and Suriname.

The Caribs are believed to have been polytheists. Early Carib culture, as seen from a distance, appears especially patriarchal. Women carried out primarily domestic duties and farming, and in the 17th century lived in separate houses (a custom which also suggests South American origin) from men. Women were responsible for all domestic chores, raising children, made the ceramics and pottery, and basically played a subordinate role in their society.

Carib men were warriors who made all the weapons of war, and the tools used for hunting, fishing and trapping. Interestingly, they also did the majority of the basket weaving.
Although subordinate, women were highly revered and held substantial socio-political power. Island Carib society was reputedly more socially egalitarian than Taíno society. Although there were village chiefs and war leaders, there were no large states or multi-tiered aristocracy. The local self-government unit may have been the longhouse dwellings populated by men or women, typically run by one or more chieftains reporting to an island council.


The English word cannibal originated from the Carib word karibna ("person") – as recorded by Columbus as a name for the Caribs.

Instances of cannibalism are said to have been noted as a feature of war rituals: the limbs of victims may have been taken home as trophies. While the Kalinago would chew and spit out one mouthful of flesh of a very brave warrior, so that his bravery would go to him, there is no evidence that they ate humans to satisfy hunger. The Kalinago also had a tradition of keeping the bones of their ancestors in their houses; initially this had been taken as evidence that they ate human flesh.
Missionaries such as Pere Jean Baptiste Labat and Cesar de Rochefort described the Kalinago practice of preserving the bones of their ancestors in their houses in the belief that the ancestral spirits would always look after the bones and protect their descendants. Today a similar practice to this is still practiced in tribes of the Amazon.


Even after Columbus was presented with evidence that the cannibalism of the indigenous people was a myth, the myth was perpetuated because in 1503, Queen Isabella ruled that only people that were better off under slavery (including cannibals) could legally be taken as slaves. This provided Spaniards an incentive and legalistic pretext for identifying various Amerindian groups as cannibals in order to enslave them and take their lands away from them.

To this day the Kalinago people fight against what they regard as a misconception about their ancestors. The film Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (filmed in Dominica, along with Part 2 of the series) was recently criticized by the National Garifuna Council for portraying the Carib people as cannibals.
Author: Lulu Basuil is an environmentalist, avid diver, a lover of nature, and an educator by vocation. Born in Portugal, she considers herself a global citizen and spends as much time as possible traveling around the globe and writing of her travels and observations.

  Email : Lulu Basuil
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September 2008
This month’s Did You Know section is dedicated purely to the Caribbean…. with a fascinating look at an almost extinct Indian tribe know as the Caribs, to a fabulous rum punch recipe that is sure to knock your socks off, then on to part 3 of our introduction to Caribbean writers and the kick off of a new segment for our readers – Creole, the widely spoken language of the Caribbean Islands. ---> Read More
December 2008
Christmas was first observed on a regular basis in Guyana when the Dutch immigrants made permanent settlements there. Christmas was a popular season during the slavery era for most of the population with the notable exception of the Amerindians who lived for the most part in scattered communities in the hinterland. One of its striking features then was that although Christmas was a Christian festival celebrating the birth of Christ, for a long while it had very little religious emphasis. ---> Read More
November 2008
Known as "The Spice Island of the Caribbean," anyone visiting Grenada will be enticed by the sweet scents of nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and vanilla wafting on the balmy breeze. In fact, there are more spices in Grenada per square mile than anywhere else on the planet. Economic progress in fiscal reforms and prudent macroeconomic management has boosted annual growth through construction and trade activity. Tourist facilities are being expanded and tourism is the leading foreign exchange earner. And, best of all, since the hurricanes of 2004-2005, Grenada has really rebounded exceptionally fast and exceptionally well. ---> Read More
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