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Early Caribbean Peoples

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A Study of Pre-Columbian Caribbean Peoples: Success, Failure and an Untimely Demise

William Warren

Term Essay

Professor Moore


The tropical island chain located in the Atlantic Ocean is known for its beautiful beaches, tropical rainforests and terrific wildlife. This particular region is full of vitality and is highly capable of supporting a highly diverse cross section of plants, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, birds and, certainly, people. The lush tropical climate was home to relatively primitive people compared to Europeans at the time but these peoples had a rich, beautiful culture very well suited to the surprisingly harsh area in which they lived. Although the Caribbean is certainly easier to exist in than Siberia it was not without its share of hardship and misgivings. These early peoples had a vibrant culture at the time of the arrival of Columbus with aspects of government, art and war prevalent in almost every group.

The history of these early people before Columbus arrived is a difficult one to discern for several reasons. One reason is that there are no written records made by these peoples themselves. Aside from the problems of lack of knowledge, there are also problems with the sources with which we do gain our information. Archaeological sites are a major source of information but is always under the interpretation of those digging up the artifacts and can often only yield postulation. The other main source of information is from accounts of European colonizers when they first reached the new world. These accounts make up a large portion of the pieces of the puzzle when trying to create an accurate account of the civilizations that existed in the Caribbean during this time. Unfortunately, these sources must be viewed with much skepticism because they were all heavily laced with agenda. Columbus went to great lengths to talk about the color of the indigenous populations skin color to make it abundantly clear that they were not African people to defend himself from claims that he was actually in Africa. At the time Africa belonged to Portugal so in order to defend his assumptions on location he went to great lengths to describe race as opposed to other more pertinent details. Bartolome de Las Casas was hugely important in detailing the lives of the native people of the Caribbean because he was, in some ways, a great defender of them. However, his position against the mistreatment of these people caused him to exaggerate details and to grasp at generalizations in order to convince Europeans that the native populations were just like their ancestors several hundred years ago. For example he hugely inflated the number of people originally living on Puerto Rico to the impossibly high number of 600,000 in order to magnify the population decrease that was caused by the arrival of Europeans in the area. Still, these accounts are very valuable and play an important role in developing the history of the Caribbean before Columbus.

Pre-Columbian Caribbean societies dealt with the same difficulties that any blossoming civilization must cope with. Feeding their people, developing social structures and finding ways to harness the wild environment around them. Environment plays a very important role in the development of civilizations and dictates how they dress, when and what they hunt, the structures in which they live and the size of a society that can develop. The environment played an especially critical role in the Caribbean. Inhabiting a small island chain is much different than inhabiting a whole continental type land form. It is difficult to create a cohesive society when groups are inherently fractured. It is difficult to establish permanent agricultural settlements due to the fact that when land goes fallow there isn't enough room to just spread out, a group would have to move to another island to support there populous. As the people who inhabited the Caribbean

attempted to adapt to their environment they met many successes and failures in attempting to establish functional and lasting societies.

There were three main groups of people that inhabited the Caribbean before Columbus first landed on the sandy shores of this tropical locale. They were the Taino, the Ciboney and the Carib. Each had very different and fascinating societies that developed in the Caribbean. Some more developed than others, some more warlike and some more interested in culture and religion. Each will be analyzed, assessed and evaluated in the following discussion.

Before the actual details of each particular people can be assessed it is necessary to discuss how they came to inhabit the Caribbean in the first place. The Caribbean islands first began to see signs of inhabitancy about 6,000 years ago when people migrated from mainland areas that can be found around the Caribbean; there would be other migrations aside from the mainland aside from this first one. Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican republic were the first islands to be inhabited and archaeologists have concluded that they most likely originated from the Yucatan peninsula do to the fact that primitive stone tools found in these regions are very similar to sites on the Yucatan. About 2,000 years later, other groups of people began to migrate into the lesser Antilles from more southern sites in South America and worked there way north through the smaller island chains and eventually found habitation in Puerto Rico and the areas surrounding it. These people who migrated from the mainland into the Caribbean were non-agricultural migrant people who lived a hunter and gatherer lifestyle. They moved when they needed to and remained this way for thousands of years. Things began to change around A.D. 750 when a large population boom occurred. People began to congregate into more cohesive groups, develop more intricate economies, manufacture pottery. This is the time period when we see start to see the development of the Ciboney, Taino, and Carib cultures that would be evident when the Spanish first arrived in the area in 1492.

The Ciboney people will be the first discussed. They were the most primitive of the three groups and the earliest to emerge. The Ciboney were a predominantly migrant people who were found in the greatest intensity in the western Caribbean, especially Cuba. Archeological research into Ciboney sites reveal no evidence of pottery, eating utensils, weapons or even



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