Indigenous Peoples of the Caribbean Islands

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Indigenous Peoples of the Caribbean Islands

The Caribbean Islands had long been settled before European explorers arrived. The two major groups there were the Taíno and Kalinago.

The Taíno were spread across the Greater Antilles with islands organized into provinces, each governed by a Cacique, or chief.

Branches of the Taíno included the Guanahatabey in western Cuba, Lucayan in the Bahamas, and Western and Eastern branches spread across the Caribbean Islands.

Within these settlements, the Taíno practiced agriculture, cultivating crops such as maize, yams, and cassava. Their villages were often situated near the coasts, allowing for easy access to fishing grounds and trade routes. 


Taíno society had a matrilineal system of kinship and inheritance. This means that descent and property were traced through the maternal line, and women played important roles in decision-making within the community.

The Taíno were polytheistic, worshipping gods known as zemis. These deities were believed to control various aspects of life, from fertility and agriculture to weather and warfare.

Caribbean Culture and Tourism

Today, many individuals in the Caribbean proudly identify as Taíno or claim Taíno descent. This is particularly notable in countries like Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. In the last census, over 35,000 Puerto Ricans identified as Native American, highlighting the enduring legacy of the Taíno people in the region.

The Lucayan branch of the Taíno were the first New World peoples encountered by Columbus in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492. In his diary, 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.”

The Kalinago, formerly known as Caribs, inhabited the Lesser Antilles, the smaller islands to the east of the Taíno. At the time of European contact, the Kalinago occupied territories stretching from Trinidad and Tobago in the south to Dominica in the north. 

The name "Caribbean" itself is derived from the word "Carib," reflecting the influence of this indigenous group on the region's history. The Kalinago were renowned as skilled navigators and warriors, often engaging in raids on neighboring islands.

Their reputation as fierce fighters made them formidable adversaries to European colonizers. Europeans described the Kalinago border as the "poison arrow curtain" for the Kalinago's weapon for fighting against them.

Despite the impact of colonialism, the Kalinago and their descendants continue to maintain their cultural identity and traditions. Today, communities of Kalinago descent can still be found in the Antilles, with Dominica being a notable hub of Kalinago culture and heritage.

In Central America, the Garifuna people share common ancestry with the Kalinago, underscoring the interconnectedness of indigenous communities across the Caribbean.


World Geography Textbook