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The Arawak people are one of the tribes of indigenous peoples of the Caribbean. The group belongs to the Arawakan-language family. They migrated from South America through the Greater Antilles of the Caribbean to the Bahamas in the Atlantic. They developed different cultures on the islands, and several groups have been given distinct names.
The Arawak people include the Taíno, who occupied the Greater Antilles and the Bahamas (where they were known as Lucayan); the Nepoya and Suppoya of Trinidad; the Lokono of Guyana; the Igneri, who preceded the Carib in the Lesser Antilles; together with related groups (including the Lucayan) who lived along the northeastern coast of South America, as far south as what is now Brazil.
The word Arawak comes from aru, the Lucayan word for cassava flour, a staple of their diet.
The Arawak people migrated into the Antilles from South America.
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Scholars believe that the first tribe encountered by Christopher Columbus were Lucayan-Arawak Indians, who lived on the island he called Santa María de la Concepción (known as Mamana by the Lucayan and now called Rum Cay, in the Bahamas). Columbus noted in his log:
Saturday, 13 October 1492: ... They brought us sticks of the cotton thread and parrots 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...
Sunday, 14 October 1492: ... These people have little knowledge of fighting, as Your Majesties will see from the seven I have had captured to take away with us so as to teach them our language and return them, unless Your Majesties' orders are that they all be taken to Spain or held captive on the island itself, for with fifty men one could keep the whole population in subjection and make them do whatever one wanted.
The island became abandoned as the Spanish took the Lucayan as laborers; most died from infectious diseases. The islands passed back and forth between Spanish and English control.
On 17 February 1627, Captain Henry Powell, ship Olive Blossom, landed to settle the island. Sometime afterward, he brought about thirty Arawak from Guiana as laborers. He later was appointed as the first English Governor of the Isle of Barbados.
By 1739, Moravian Brethren missionaries arrived in Fort Nassau on the Berbice River in Guyana, then a Dutch colony, where they founded Pilgerhut (Pilgrims' Watch) as a mission. It followed practices of their mother congregation in Herrnhut, Saxony. They taught their ways by example. The missionary Heinrich Beutel wrote about the Lucayan villagers he encountered:
Used to the heat of the rain forest, Arawak families lived without clothes. Arawak men had never done gardening or work around home. They only hunted fish, and let the women do the rest. Even women expecting babies, or with little ones in their care, worked in cassava patches while men sat in hammocks under the shade. When asked if they wanted to get married did not seem in a hurry. The Indians kept themselves cleaner than the Europeans. Believing that sweat weakens the body, they bathed frequently throughout the day. In their houses—thatched shelters without walls—they sat on clean sand, and they treated one another very politely. Young people called their parents and others of that age “honoured ones.” Older people called all young men “handsome ones” and it took them a while to learn the European titles for women, girls and children, and how to use them. Even though the Arawaks did not have an exact word for humility, they well knew the attitude. One should not look another person in the face while speaking “like a dog,” they believed. Rather, one should rise so that others might sit and count it a privilege to give. Arawak hospitality always involved eating and drinking together and even drank of fermented cassava, held frequent love feasts, and fought at their festivals.
The villagers showed an interest in learning and, after two learned to read, they began to hold classes for the rest. They helped the missionaries translate scriptures and songs into their language. The Arawak and Europeans did not share a common understanding of right and wrong. They lived according to rigid ethics of their own, something the Europeans realised they could learn from the Arawaks. Soon Pilgerhut, with its hour-a-day meetings (and monthly all-day meetings) attracted up to one hundred and fifty villagers. During the cassava harvest, or at great fish poisonings along the river, they sang German and Arawak songs. Rarely, during these evening meetings, the believers noticed new faces among the crowd—not Arawak, but painted Caribs and Waraus, clutching tall spears. By 1748 the first Arawak European-style wedding was celebrated at Pilgerhut.
Charles Daniel Dance noted in his Chapters From a Guianese Log-book (1881):
The children all spoke a Dutch [German] patois besides the Arawak Indian tongue; and with a Dutch teacher to instruct them, it is not difficult to conceive the manner in which they read their English lessons.
On the islands of the Caribbean, the Taíno grew crops in conucos, large mounds of earth used as planting beds for vegetable farming. They packed the conuco with leaves to provide nutrition and prevent soil erosion. They planted a large variety of crops to ensure that some would grow and ripen regardless of the season. Yuca (cassava) was a staple food. The Taino also grew maize, which was unusual for Caribbean islanders. Taino women did all the agricultural and craft work.
They used large, stable, slow rafts for trade to the Mesoamerican civilizations and inter-island travel. Smaller, faster but less stable canoes were used for intra-island shore travel. The men generally used their time as warriors, fishermen, hunters and in trading.
The Taíno crafted items and clothing to support their lives. The women made the pottery and baskets, used for many purposes, and wove and sewed cotton for clothing.
Men's competitive games were part of their ritual worship and ceremony. Areyto included religious ceremonies, and another game was similar to football (soccer). Both were played in the batéy (an arena-like field flanked by huge standing stones depicting images of the Taino religion). Men generally worked the stone tools and made stone sculpture.
Men and women painted their bodies and wore jewellery made of gold, stone, bone, and shell. They also participated in informal feasts and dances. The Taíno drank alcohol made from fermented corn, and used tobacco in religious ceremonies.
The Taino developed the hammock (the name derives from the Taíno term hamaca), which the Spanish first saw used on the island they later named Hispaniola. The Spanish adopted hammocks to use on ships as a convenient means to increase the crew capacity and improve sanitary conditions of the sleeping quarters. Previously straw had been used for bedding, but it quickly became rotten and infested by parasites in the damp, cramped crew quarters. Cotton cloth hammocks could be washed easily if they became soiled, and were strong and durable.
The Arawak of the Amazon Basin were known for making terra preta, a soil produced by slow-burning fires. The fires were used to clear the dense foliage, and the ashes enriched the soil with phosphorus and potassium. This innovation helped the Arawak develop more densely populated settlements, from the Acutuba tribes (about 100-200 people per settlement) to the Manacapuru, to finally the Paradao. The latter were estimated to have towns numbering thousands of people. The soil produced by these tribes is still used today to support the growing number of people settling in the Basin. It can be a model of a sustainable way of farming rather than shifting away from exhausted fields to clear new ones.
The Native Americans were decimated by epidemics of infectious Eurasian diseases brought from Europe, such as smallpox, to which they had no immunity. In addition, Spain's harsh policies of enslavement, resettlement, and the separation of families – the encomienda system – contributed to the dramatic decline of Taino society within a few decades after contact. Survivors intermarried with new peoples in the islands, and some of their DNA survives among descendants in the region.
Frederick Albion Ober, after his trip in July 1898 of the West Indies, notes:
Only the Carib remain among the original Antillean populations of Ciboney, Taino, and Carib. Communities of Taino-descendents continue to exist in Eastern Cuba. Taíno/Arawakan language is not spoken but there is a strong "indio" identity to the present day.
Recent DNA studies indicate that the majority of people in Puerto Rico have direct-line maternal ancestry to Taíno/Arawakan ancestors. This study, under the Taino genome project, started in 1999 through a grant from the United States National Science Foundation. After testing mitochondrial DNA of residents throughout the island, researchers found that 62 percent of Puerto Ricans have direct-line maternal Amerindian ancestry. (Over the many generations since European encounter, other maternal ancestors have contributed to non-direct lines.)
The Orinoco Arawak tribes, whose ancestors were common to those groups that migrated to the islands, live throughout northern mainland South America. Several hundred thousand reside in Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, St. Vincent, and French Guiana. Approximately 300,000 Wayuu Arawak live in Venezuela, with 150,000 Wayuu in the neighbouring area of Colombia. Approximately 1,600 Lokono/Arawak live at St. Cuthbert's Mission (Arawak: Pakuri) in Guyana.
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