Each Caribbean island has a different history of human migration and occupation. While some parts of the Caribbean have been inhabited for at least 5000 years (Cruxent and Rouse 1969), and perhaps as many as 9,000 years (Vega and Veloz 1982), others have been settled for only a little over 800 years. The contemporary Caribbean is a dynamic mix of independent nations, as well as departments and territories under the jurisdiction of England, the Netherlands, France, and the United States. Languages spoken include English, Spanish, French, Dutch, and various creoles and dialects. Ethnicity varies from island to island as well as within islands, and includes various African, European, Asian, and Native American ancestries and cultural heritages.

While the origins of earliest cultures of the Caribbean are somewhat speculative, the first pre-Columbian lithic (stone tool) material culture assemblages from Cuba and Hispaniola exhibit convincingly strong resemblance to lithics found in Honduras and Belize in Central America. It is believed that a land bridge that connected these Greater Antilles islands to Central America was submerged some 5000 years ago by rising oceanic waterways (Rouse 1992; Veloz 1993). Very little is known about these pre-ceramic or archaic people of the Caribbean (referred to as "Casimiroid" after an archaeological site) despite their lengthy early occupation in the Greater Antilles. Common lithic artifacts include knives and spearpoints, perhaps used for exploiting terrestrial resources of the time, perhaps even for hunting mega-fauna like the now extinct ground sloths. Lithic artwork, including beads and pendants broadly suggests a ceremonial, if not simply a social component to Casimiroid culture.

Another pre-ceramic cultural group, referred to as "Ortoiroid", appeared around 2000 B.C.. These people originated in mainland South America and migrated north into the Caribbean. While similar to the Casimiroid in their lack of ceramic technology, they differed in their orientation towards the sea and coastal resources. Ortoiroid artifacts lack the artistic decoration found in the Casimiroid tradition. It has been suggested (Waters 1980; Keegan 1992) that the Ortoiroid were transient peoples, moving often to exploit new island environments.

In western Cuba it appears that the preceramic age lasted up to the point of 15th century Spanish contact. Ethnohistoric evidence suggests that an archaic people, referred to as "Guanahatabey", lived in caves, subsisted primarily on fishing, and did not make or use ceramics. While Keegan (1989) has suggested that the existence of such a people is based on Spanish legend and perhaps on a mistaken understanding of Taino myths, Rouse (1992) points out that no archaeological sites have yielded ceramics in western Cuba, even though it is a highly-investigated area.

Rouse further postulates that an archaic culture in western Cuba provided a buffer that would help explain the lack of cultural contact between the chiefdom-level Taino Indians of the Caribbean and the state-level societies found in Central America.

There were two principal migrations of ceramic-making peoples in the Caribbean: the Saladoid and the Ostionoid. The Saladoid originated in the Orinoco River Valley of South America and migrated north through the Lesser Antilles, Puerto Rico, and to the eastern coast of Hispaniola (Veloz 1993). The Ostionoid developed from cultural interactions already in place in the Caribbean, and then migrated west to the point of the Guanahatabey frontier in Cuba, south into Jamaica, and north into the Bahamas (Rouse 1992).

The Saladoid were agriculturalists, used river terraces for their gardens, and made extensive use of casabe bread baked from yuca flour. They made beads and ornaments with exotic lithics, showing evidence for extensive trade. By A.D. 600 interaction across the Mona passage had led to a variety of new ceramic styles including that of the Ostionoid peoples, the relatives of the Taino Indians who encountered Columbus on their landscape one fateful day in 1492.

Rouse (1982, 1992) has categorized the Taino of 1492 by sociopolitical development in the following way: the most advanced tribal society is found in the "Classic Taino", who lived in Puerto Rico, Hispaniola (except the western-most region), and eastern Cuba; the "Western Taino" were found in Jamaica, the Bahamas, and Cuba (except the western most region); and the "Eastern Taino" occupied the Virgin Islands and most likely the Lesser Antilles to the point of Guadeloupe. The Island Carib were in the Lesser Antilles from Guadeloupe south to mainland South America. The Guanahatabey lived in the western portion of Cuba.

Early Spanish colonization in the Caribbean has been relatively well documented (see Deagen 1988; Keegan 1991; Sauer 1966; Wilson 1990). Accounts by Chanca, Pane, Las Casas, Oviedo, Martyr, Benzoni, and Columbus represent a wealth of information concerning the land, people, and events in the Caribbean, and it is not surprising that textual evidence has driven interpretations about Caribbean Indians in academic literature (see Keegan 1991:xii-xiii; Wilson 1990:7-12). However, when interpreting these historical accounts, one must be prepared to assess issues of intentional misrepresentation, selective or tendentious accounting, and contextual cultural biases that often cloud the distinction between accuracy and invention.

While population estimates vary greatly (see review in Wilson 1990:35, 90-92), it is believed that several million Taino lived on the island of Hispaniola, called Quisqueya or Haiti by its inhabitants, at the time of Spanish contact. (Deagan and Cruxent 1993:71; Wilson 1990:35). The Taino were principally yuca farmers and lived in sedentary, nucleated villages under various degrees of political cohesion. Their matrilineal descent, avunculocal residence society (Keegan and MacLachlan 1989) appeared to have levels of sociopolitical stratification, whereby hereditary chiefdoms defined various social structures, religion, and daily life. The Taino were master ceramicists, stone carvers, cotton sewers, and wood workers, and traveled in boats (canoa or cayuco) to other islands on trading expeditions. They spoke different dialects from a root Arahuacan language, and engaged in dynamic variations of religious and cultural behavior within the Caribbean.

Many early Spanish accounts describe a male-dominated culture of savage, bride-capturing, man-eaters who became referred to as Carib Indians. While verifiable evidence for cannibalism is lacking (Davis 1992), the Spanish texts speak of it frequently. The genesis of these stories may have been from a Spanish misunderstanding of a Taino creation myth that involves a father eating his son's flesh (Stevens-Arroyo 1988:88), from a desire by Taino storytellers to pit the Spanish against enemy factions on other islands (Wilson 1990), or from some actual ritual practice associated with dead bodies or bones that may have been misconstrued or misunderstood. Regardless of its origin, it is apparent that a meaningful European distinction was created between peaceful Arawaks (Taino) and man-eating Caribs that was used to justify the Spanish treatment of Indians. It may be that the Carib Indians of the Caribbean, as described by the Spanish, never existed! (Hulme 1986; Sued Badillo 1978).

Columbus and his three famous ships landed on the Bahamian island called Guanahani in 1492 (Morison 1942; Sauer 1966). After cruising around the Bahamas and Cuba, one of the ships, the Santa Maria, ran aground on the north coast of Haiti. A fort called La Navidad was built from the ship's timbers and 39 men stayed on the island while Columbus and the remaining ships returned to Spain. A year later, Columbus returned to find La Navidad destroyed and all the men killed. A town was established further east at a site called La Isabella. Soon after, the Spanish became engaged in a plan of environmental exploitation and colonization. Spanish forts, churches, and towns were built throughout the region and a new political order was imposed on the Caribbean landscape (Ewen 1990, 1991; Wilson 1990). The Spanish "encomienda" system of exacting tribute from the Taino, followed by the Spanish "repartimiento" system of forced labor spelled disaster for the indigenous people, struggling to retain their cultural autonomy (Moya Pons 1992).

Soon after the Taino were taken as slaves to work in gold mines, African slaves arrived on Caribbean soil. From the start of Spanish colonialism, the Caribbean was a region of many cultures. Diseases, warfare, enslavement, and suicide all contributed to the decimation of the indigenous peoples. However, it appears that starvation, arising from the disruption of agricultural scheduling, may have wreaked the most havoc (McKee 1990; Sale 1990; Wilson 1990). While there were notable Taino and cimaron (runaway slave) rebellions, the strong arm of Spain subjugated its subordinate populations.

While there is no doubt of the violence inherent to strategies of Spanish colonialism, it is important not to overlook the resistence, acculturative responses, and transculturation that also occurred during this period. Archaeological sites of cultural contact in the Caribbean demonstrate shifts away from traditional lifeways, but also show responses to new social stresses (Deagan and Cruxent 1993; Ewen 1991). It is fair to say that the indigenous inhabitants of the Caribbean were decimated as a cultural group. However, key remnants of pre-Columbian lifeways have persisted, creolized in various dietary, architectural, medical, linguistic, genetic, religious, and artistic forms to the present day (Garcia-Arevalo 1990:272-276; Rouse 1992:169-172; Stevens-Arroyo 1988:251-252; Vega 1981, 1987).

Contrary to the many references to the extinction of the Taino, there are still people living in the Caribbean region who consider themselves Indians! There is a Carib Indian reservation on the island of Dominica, and other Indian settlements on nearby St. Vincent and the Grenadines (Bousquet 1994; Gregoire and Kanem 1989; Layng 1983; Palacio 1989). There are also communities with strong Indian heritage in eastern Cuba and in Puerto Rico (Barreiro 1989, 1990; Gonzalez 1990; Nogueras Vidal 1990; Rivero de la Calle 1978). On the Central American and South American coast there are groups including the Garifuna who have indigenous Caribbean ancestries (Gonzalez 1988). In other parts of the Caribbean, notably in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dutch Antilles islands of Bonaire and Curacao (Haviser 1991), there is a growing national consciousness of the indigenous contributions to their cultural and biological makeup (Barreiro 1990).

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