The term Arawak (from aru, the Lucayan word for cassava flour), was used to designate some of the peoples encountered by the Spanish in the West Indies in 1492 and thereafter. These include the Taíno, who occupied the Greater Antilles and the Bahamas (Lucayan), the Nepoya and Sapoyo of Trinidad and the Igneri, who were supposed to have preceded the Caribs in the Lesser Antilles, together with related groups (including the Lucayan) which lived along the eastern coast of South America, as far south as what is now Brazil. The group belongs to the Arawakan language family and they were the natives Christopher Columbus encountered when he first landed in the Americas. The Spanish described them as a peaceful primitive people.
Columbus, in his log, noted:
"They brought us barrels of 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... They would make fine servants... With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want."
On the islands of the Caribbean, the Taino very easily grew crops in conucos, large mounds of earth employed 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 of them would grow, and ripen regardless of the season. Yuca (cassava) was a staple food, and grows with minimal care in the tropical climate. The Taino also grew maize, unusual for Caribbean islanders. They used large, stable, slow rafts for trade to the Mesoamerican civilizations and inter-island travel but used smaller, faster but less stable canoes for intra-island shore travel. Taino women did all the agricultural and craft work at home, whereas the men were generally warriors.
The Taíno made crafts and played games. One of these games called Areyto, which included religious ceremonies as well as a game similar to soccer was played in the Batéy (a sort of arena-like field flanked by huge standing stones depicting images of the Taino religion). The Taíno devoted their energy to creative activities such as pottery, basket weaving, cotton weaving, stone tools and even stone sculpture. Men and women painted their bodies and wore jewelry 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 was first encountered by the Spaniards on the island declared Hispaniola. Hammocks were readily adopted as a convenient means to increase the crew capacity of ships and improved the sanitary conditions of the sleeping quarters; old straw — which was commonly used for bedding in earlier times, quickly became rotten and infested by parasites in the damp, cramped crew quarters of sailing ships. Cotton cloth hammocks could be easily washed if they became soiled and were strong and durable.
The Arawak had organized systems of religion and government. They believed in good and evil spirits, which could inhabit human bodies and natural objects. They sought to influence these spirits through their priests or shamans.
The Arawak's political system was hierarchical, in which the islands were broken up into groups; each island in turn was divided into petty states ruled by tribal chiefs known as caciques. These states were in turn divided into districts ruled by a sub-chief, with each village ruled by a head-man.
Their socio-political rivals within the Caribbean were the Caribs and the Ciboneys. The Caribs were considered aggressive, while the Ciboneys were considered docile. The Arawak used the Ciboney for slave labor. The Arawak treated the peaceful Ciboney as a subject people, having already pushed them to the extreme fringes of their territory. The Carib were attempting to expand their territory in the Lesser Antilles, which entailed the ethnic cleansing of the Ciboney and Arawak people, as the Caribs were known to torture and kill all non-Carib males, taking the females as slave-wives.
The virgin soil epidemic caused by the arrival of smallpox and other diseases from Europe, combined with Spain's harsh policies of enslavement, resettlement and the separation of families, the encomienda system, resulted in Taino society's drastic decline within a few decades after contact. Attacks by Carib tribes and unrelenting harsh treatment by the Europeans accelerated the process. Although Taino society was destroyed by European expansion, some of their bloodlines persist among the new settlers, primarily Western and African peoples.
While only the Carib remain among the original Antillean populations of Ciboney, Taino, and Carib, the Arawak have survived on mainland South America. Some 2,450 (1980 census) reside in Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guyana, with 2,051 living in Suriname alone.
The majority of the populations of Aruba, Puerto Rico, and Dominican Republic, and part of the Haitian population, are descended in part from the Arawaks — Taino in the case of the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico and to a much smaller degree the Ciboneys in the case of Haiti. The Ciboneys represent an earlier pre-Arawakan group that was found throughout the Caribbean. They were pushed out of the smaller islands of the Lesser Antilles and to the far west of the island of Hispaniola by the Tainos. The remaining Hispaniolan population was Arawakanized in speech. Taíno/Arawakan Language is spoken in Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, the Bahamas, Saint Lucia, Grenada by a few people in the present.
In Cuba, however, the Guanajabateys (the original name of the Ciboneys) continued speaking their original tongue. Columbus' interpreter (who was a Taino) couldn't understand them when Columbus landed in Cuba. The name "Ciboney" was given to these people by the Tainos in Hispaniola. The Tainos used the remnant Ciboney populations for slave labour. There are also Arawak survivor populations in Saint Lucia and a few other areas of the Caribbean. There are a few full-blooded Arawaks in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti , Jamaica, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas and Grenada. Also there are a few isolated communities in the Amazonian Basin of Guyana, Brazil and Venezuela.