Few people realize that the Caribbean was inhabited long before Christopher Columbus set foot in the Bahamas.
The Arawaks were the first people to live in the Caribbean islands and parts of South America. They were also the first to be seen by Columbus and his men. Their name, pronounced “air-ah-wack”, refers to their main crop, cassava root.
Are there still Arawak people alive today?
Yes, descendants of the Arawak still live in certain places in South America and the Caribbean. Mainly, they inhabit Trinidad, Guyana, French Guiana, Suriname, and the coast of Venezuela. However, their population is small. About 15,000 Arawak live in Guyana.
Many descendants no longer speak Lokono, the Arawak language. As of 2011, only around 2,500 people still spoke the language. Several conservation groups are making efforts to keep the Arawak language and culture from becoming extinct.
Unfortunately, few Arawak people still live in the Caribbean islands. This is due to the fact that many perished from diseases brought over by Europeans during the colonial era.
Arawaks of the past
Although most Arawaks today maintain the same modern lifestyle of everyone else around them, Arawaks of the past lived in a similar way to the native American tribes of North America. They made simple thatch huts with a wooden frame, and slept in hammocks. These hammocks are still popular among the Arawak people today.
Since Caribbean weather is warm or hot, Arawaks did not wear a lot of clothing. Men wore loincloths, or nothing at all, and women wore short skirts. They usually did not wear shirts, blouses or footwear, unless the weather turned colder. Both men and women let their hair grow long, often decorating it with feathers.
A leader called a cacique ruled each Arawak community. This chief-like figurehead usually inherited his position from his father or uncle.
Lifestyle of the Arawaks
Since many of them lived in the Caribbean islands, members of an Arawak tribe learned to swim and fish from an early age. They relied on the land and sea for sustenance. As an agricultural nation, they cultivated cassava root, beans, peanuts, corn, and peppers. They also hunted in the forest or fished for food.
In general, the Arawaks were a peaceful people. When at war, they used bows and arrows or clubs to fight. At times, they found an enemy in the Caribs, another indigenous nation that sometimes raided Arawak camps and took members as slaves.
Otherwise, Arawak tribes traded goods with other tribes with similar cultures, such as the Tainos and the Guajiros.
Interesting facts about the Arawaks
- The English word “canoe” comes from the Arawak word canoa. The Arawaks used canoes as an important means of transportation.
- The Arawaks made beautiful pottery out of clay, decorating it with familiar birds and other wildlife. They also painted petroglyphs onto large rocks.
- They developed complex weaving techniques palm baskets and cotton fiber hammocks.
- Arawak tribe members frequently used body paint and jewelry.
- Words from the Arawak language have become part of the Spanish language. Examples are iguana, caníbal (cannibal) and batata (sweet potato).
- Men sometimes had more than one wife, and chiefs had many wives.
Main image source: Unknown (internet).