When Columbus and his men arrived in the Caribbean they did not find empty islands. Estimates place the population of Arawakian peoples in the Greater Antilles at somewhere around 6 million, of which as many as 60,000 may have lived in the plains and low hills of Jamaica. The history of these people (the Taino, Igneris, and Ciboney) is all too often forgotten, or condensed into a few cursory ‘Pre-Columbian’ lines. The speed at which these people were obliterated—in a period as short as 30 years—belies the scope and diversity of their society and the effects of that society on the culture of today.
The Amerindian peoples of Jamaica fall into two broad categories: the Ciboney and Arawak. The Ciboney, a name that translates to ‘cave dweller’ in the Arawak language, were less a single similar group of people, and more a way to describe the many primitive hunter peoples who migrated to the island from South and Central America. Some of these people arrived on the island as early as 5,000 BCE. For perspective, during the 5th millennium BCE the entire global population was less than 6 million and the ancient civilizations of China, Egypt, and Rome were at least a thousand years away from formation. These people lived in almost complete isolation for millennia before the arrival of the a small contingent of Igneri in 600 CE, and the Taino around 300 years later in 900 CE.
The arrival of the Igneri and Taino (both Arawak-speaking peoples) marked the beginning of what was to become the major pre-Columbian inhabitation of Jamaica. Loosely organized into federations based on location and kinship, their villages were governed by chiefs or caciques. Taino people practiced a form of spirit worship that focused on carved wooden totems—indicative of various gods—called zemis. At the height of their civilization, the Taino had near 200 villages, mostly on the South Coast around what is today Old Harbour, St. Catherine. What may prove most interesting is that, as early Spanish records attest, Taino society was built largely on an enslaved labour force of Ciboney and Igneri peoples. That slavery existed in Jamaica before the coming of the Europeans neither exonerates nor vindicates the immense slave societies of the Spanish and British, but it does deepen our understanding of the complexity of pre-Columbian Jamaica.
Though almost all trace of Amerindian Jamaica was wiped out by the Spanish conquistadors, remnants of their cultural practice and possibly their bloodline still live on in Jamaica today. Words like canoe, hurricane, and hammock have Arawak roots. As do many of the practices of the Maroon people, who may well have cohabited with the last of the Taino. A powerful anthropological clue to this mixing of cultures is the deep medicinal understanding the Maroons have of plant species not found in Africa.
“The Taino of Jamaica,” Glenn Woodley, Published Apr 1, 2001
“The peoples of the Caribbean: an encyclopedia of archeology and traditional culture”
“Taíno Influence on Jamaican Folk traditions,” Lesley-Gail Atkinson
“Origins of the Tainan Culture, West Indies,” Sven Lovén, L. Antonio Curet University of Alabama Press, Jun 27, 2010
“Columbus and the golden world of the Island Arawaks: the story of the first Americans and their Caribbean environment,” Donald James Riddell Walker, Ian Randle Publishers, 1992
Rouse, Irving (1992). The Tainos, Rise and Decline of the People Who Greeted Columbus. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.
Watts, David (1987). The West Indies: Patterns of Development, Culture and Environmental Change since 1492. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.