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Arawak woman, by John Gabriel Stedman
Regions with significant populations
South America, Caribbean
Arawak, Arawakan languages, Taino, Caribbean English, Caribbean Spanish, Creole languages
Native American religion, Christianity

The Arawak are a group of Indigenous peoples of northern South America and of the Caribbean. Specifically, the term "Arawak" has been applied at various times from the Lokono of South America to the Taíno, who lived in the Greater Antilles and northern Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean. All these groups spoke related Arawakan languages.[1]


Arawak village (1860).

Early Spanish explorers and administrators used the terms Arawak and Caribs to distinguish the peoples of the Caribbean, with Carib reserved for indigenous groups that they considered hostile and Arawak for groups that they considered friendly.[2]: 121 

In 1871, ethnologist Daniel Garrison Brinton proposed calling the Caribbean populace "Island Arawak" because of their cultural and linguistic similarities with the mainland Arawak. Subsequent scholars shortened this convention to "Arawak", creating confusion between the island and mainland groups. In the 20th century, scholars such as Irving Rouse resumed using "Taíno" for the Caribbean group to emphasize their distinct culture and language.[1]


Arawakan languages in South America. The northern Arawakan languages are colored in light blue, southern Arawakan languages in dark blue.

The Arawakan languages may have emerged in the Orinoco River valley in present-day Venezuela. They subsequently spread widely, becoming by far the most extensive language family in South America at the time of European contact, with speakers located in various areas along the Orinoco and Amazonian rivers and their tributaries.[3] The group that self-identified as the Arawak, also known as the Lokono, settled the coastal areas of what is now Guyana, Suriname, Grenada, Bahamas, Jamaica[4] and parts of the islands of Trinidad and Tobago.[1][5]

Michael Heckenberger, an anthropologist at the University of Florida who helped found the Central Amazon Project, and his team found elaborate pottery, ringed villages, raised fields, large mounds, and evidence for regional trade networks that are all indicators of a complex culture. There is also evidence that they modified the soil using various techniques such as adding charcoal to transform it into black earth, which even today is famed for its agricultural productivity. Maize and sweet potatoes were their main crops, though they also grew cassava and yautia. The Arawaks fished using nets made of fibers, bones, hooks, and harpoons. According to Heckenberger, pottery and other cultural traits show these people belonged to the Arawakan language family, a group that included the Tainos, the first Native Americans Columbus encountered. It was the largest language group that ever existed in the pre-Columbian Americas.[6]

At some point, the Arawakan-speaking Taíno culture emerged in the Caribbean. Two major models have been presented to account for the arrival of Taíno ancestors in the islands; the "Circum-Caribbean" model suggests an origin in the Colombian Andes connected to the Arhuaco people, while the Amazonian model supports an origin in the Amazon basin, where the Arawakan languages developed.[7] The Taíno were among the first American people to encounter Europeans. Christopher Columbus visited multiple islands and chiefdoms on his first voyage in 1492, which was followed by the establishment of La Navidad[8] that same year on the northeast coast of Hispaniola, the first Spanish settlement in the Americas. Relationships between the Spaniards and the Taíno would ultimately take a sour turn. Some of the lower-level chiefs of the Taíno appeared to have assigned a supernatural origin to the explorers. When Columbus returned to La Navidad on his second voyage, he found that the settlement had been burned down and all 39 men he had left there had been killed.[9]

With the establishment of a second settlement, La Isabella, and the discovery of gold deposits on the island, the Spanish settler population on Hispaniola started to grow substantially, while disease and conflict with the Spanish began to kill tens of thousands of Taíno every year. By 1504, the Spanish had overthrown the last of the Taíno cacique chiefdoms on Hispaniola, and firmly established the supreme authority of the Spanish colonists over the now-subjugated Taíno. Over the next decade, the Spanish colonists presided over a genocide of the remaining Taíno on Hispaniola, who suffered enslavement, massacres, or exposure to diseases.[8] The population of Hispaniola at the point of first European contact is estimated at between several hundred thousand to over a million people,[8] but by 1514, it had dropped to a mere 35,000.[8] By 1509, the Spanish had successfully conquered Puerto Rico and subjugated the approximately 30,000 Taíno inhabitants. By 1530, there were 1,148 Taíno left alive in Puerto Rico.[10]

Taíno influence has survived even until today, though, as can be seen in the religions, languages, and music of Caribbean cultures.[11] The Lokono and other South American groups resisted colonization for a longer period, and the Spanish remained unable to subdue them throughout the 16th century. In the early 17th century, they allied with the Spanish against the neighbouring Kalina (Caribs), who allied with the English and Dutch.[12] The Lokono benefited from trade with European powers into the early 19th century, but suffered thereafter from economic and social changes in their region, including the end of the plantation economy. Their population declined until the 20th century, when it began to increase again.[13]

Most of the Arawak of the Antilles died out or intermarried after the Spanish conquest. In South America, Arawakan-speaking groups are widespread, from southwest Brazil to the Guianas in the north, representing a wide range of cultures. They are found mostly in the tropical forest areas north of the Amazon. As with all Amazonian native peoples, contact with European settlement has led to culture change and depopulation among these groups.[14]

Modern population and descendants[edit]

Arawak people gathered for an audience with the Dutch Governor in Paramaribo, Suriname, 1880

The Spaniards who arrived in the Bahamas, Cuba, Hispaniola (today Haiti and the Dominican Republic), and the Virgin Islands in 1492 and later in Puerto Rico in 1493, brought women on their first expeditions. Many of the explorers and early colonists raped these Taíno women and others they came across.

By 1493 many Taínos were starting to be enslaved and the population taking a big hit due to the diseases the Spaniards brought to the islands, such as smallpox and syphilis, from lack of bathing & from raping woman.[15]

Eventually the Spaniards were able to take control of the islands due to the hit on the population, the political atmosphere between not only the different caciques (Chiefs), but also neighboring tribes like the Kalinago (a neighboring Arawakan tribe), and the depletion of crops due to being infected by pathogens brought by supplies on ships.[16]

During this Spanish occupation of the islands, many Taínos who escaped slavery maintained scattered populations in rural areas on these islands, whether in remote areas of dense forestation or in difficult to reach mountain sides and valleys.[17]

While much of the population was put into slavery. The Spaniards regularly did censuses on natives for the Spanish Crown, however their unwillingness to go into rural parts of the islands greatly undermined the actual number of Taínos.[18]

The Spanish Crown issued the Laws of Burgos in 1512, which forbade slavery of native populations in the New World and encouraged their conversion to Catholicism. These laws were created in response to the ongoing enslavement of the Taíno populations, and originally applied only to the island of Hispaniola before being expanded to include other islands in the West Indies.

While the decrees of Burgos had made slavery of native populations nominally illegal, the encomienda system still trapped many Taínos in forced labor. Additionally, many slave owning Spaniards on these islands were reluctant to release their enslaved Taínos.[19]

This is known as a Paper Genocide. For example the 1787 census in Puerto Rico lists 2,300 "pure" Indios in the population, but on the next census, in 1802, not a single Indio is listed. This created the myth that the Taíno people went extinct.[20]

They also implemented a caste system as a colonial tool to divide and opress indigenous claim called "Sistema de Castas" (or Society of Castes), otherwise known as "Blood Quantum".

In indigenous culture, the European social construct of race, did not exist. So if a Taíno woman birthed a child with a man from a different tribe, or a non indigenous man, if that child was raised within the culture and the teachings of the Taíno people they were not considered Mestizos (mixed person), they were still considered a full Taíno to all Taíno people.

Despite this Paper Genocide and the myth of extinction spread throughout colonial empires, Taíno people still continued to practice their culture and teachings passing it down from generation to generation. Much of this was done in secret or disguised through Catholicism in fear for their survival and of discrimination.

With the modern invention of DNA testing, many scientists came into shock and realization that the Taíno, did infact, not go extinct in the late 1700s. They found many communities and individuals around the islands having a substantial amount of Taíno dna in this modern time. Particularly in rural areas such as "Campos" (meaning small villages/towns in the country side).

With that realization, Taíno practices and culture started to be taken more seriously and living Taínos being studied under a modern lenses. Because of this, Taíno people started to become more open about sharing their Identities, passed down indigenous culture, and beliefs.

However, even before the DNA conformation in the scientific community, Taíno peoples within the different islands and dispora had started a movement around the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The movement's focus was to rebuild & fill in the pieces of Taíno culture and practices that were lost between families and communities.

By coming together and sharing individual knowledge passed down by either oral history or maintained practice, these groups were able to use that knowledge and cross-reference the journals of Spaniards to fill in parts of Taíno culture & religion long thought to be lost due to Colonization.

This movement led to Yukayekes (Taíno Tribes) finally being reformed resulting in many Taíno families coming out of hiding, and also those who had lost their connection as a result of Colonization began to reconnect their lineages.

Today there are many legitimate Yukayekes such as "Higuayagua" and "Yukayeke Taíno Borikén". The Taíno language has also been revived in different dialects thanks to remaining Arawak speaking nations in South America that have helped filled in words lost.

In the 21st century, about 10,000 Lokono live primarily in Guyana, with smaller numbers present in Venezuela, Suriname, and French Guiana.[21] Despite colonization, the Lokono population is growing.[22]

Notable Arawak[edit]

  • Damon Gerard Corrie, Barbados Lokono of Guyana Lokono descent, radical international indigenous rights activist, and creator of the militant Indigenous Democracy Defence Organization (IDDO), the only such global pan-tribal and multi-racial indigenous NGO in existence.[23] He is also the creator of the only Phonetic English to Arawak dictionary (2021),[24] and the only comprehensive books about Lokono-Arawak Culture called 'Lokono Arawaks' (2020),[25] and on traditional Lokono-Arawak spirituality in 'Amazonia's Mythical and Legendary Creatures in the Eagle Clan Lokono-Arawak Oral Tradition of Guyana',[26] and another work that challenges the 'No natives were here when European settlement occurred colonial version of the history of Barbados in the book 'Last Arawak Girl Born in Barbados – a 17th Century Tale' (2021)[27]
  • John P. Bennett (Lokono), first Amerindian ordained as an Anglican priest in Guyana, linguist, and author of An Arawak-English Dictionary (1989).[28]
  • Foster Simon, Artist,[29]
  • Oswald Hussein, Artist
  • Jean La Rose, Arawak environmentalist and indigenous rights activist in Guyana.
  • Lenox Shuman, Guyanese politician
  • George Simon (Lokono), artist and archaeologist from Guyana.[30]
  • Tituba, one of the first women to be accused of practicing witchcraft during the Salem witch trials.[31]
  • Dominic King, the first Olympian of Arawakian heritage.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Rouse, Irving (1992). The Tainos. Yale University Press. p. 5. ISBN 0300051816. Retrieved 16 June 2015. Island Carib.
  2. ^ Kim, Julie Chun (2013). "The Caribs of St. Vincent and Indigenous Resistance during the Age of Revolutions". Early American Studies. 11 (1): 117–132. doi:10.1353/eam.2013.0007. JSTOR 23546705. S2CID 144195511.
  3. ^ Hill, Jonathan David; Santos-Granero, Fernando (2002). Comparative Arawakan Histories: Rethinking Language Family and Culture Area in Amazonia. University of Illinois Press. pp. 1–4. ISBN 0252073843. Retrieved 16 June 2014.
  4. ^ "The History of Jamaica". Government of Jamaica.
  5. ^ Olson, James Stewart (1991). The Indians of Central and South America: An Ethnohistorical Dictionary. Greenwood. p. 29. ISBN 0313263876. Retrieved 16 June 2014.
  6. ^ Tennesen, M. (September–October 2010). "Uncovering the Arawacks". Archaeology. 63 (5): 51–52, 54, 56. JSTOR 41780608.
  7. ^ Rouse, Irving (1992). The Tainos. Yale University Press. pp. 30–48. ISBN 0300051816. Retrieved 16 June 2014. Island Carib.
  8. ^ a b c d "Hispaniola | Genocide Studies Program". gsp.yale.edu. Retrieved 19 January 2017.
  9. ^ Keegan, William F. (1992). Destruction of the Taino. pp. 51–56.
  10. ^ "Puerto Rico | Genocide Studies Program". gsp.yale.edu. Retrieved 19 January 2017.
  11. ^ "Exploring the Early Americas". Library of Congress. 12 December 2007.
  12. ^ Hill, Jonathan David; Santos-Granero, Fernando (2002). Comparative Arawakan Histories: Rethinking Language Family and Culture Area in Amazonia. University of Illinois Press. pp. 39–42. ISBN 0252073843. Retrieved 16 June 2014.
  13. ^ Olson, James Stewart (1991). The Indians of Central and South America: An Ethnohistorical Dictionary. Greenwood. pp. 30, 211. ISBN 0313263876. Retrieved 16 June 2014.
  14. ^ Lagasse, P. "Arawak".
  15. ^ [citation needed]
  16. ^ [citation needed]
  17. ^ [citation needed]
  18. ^ [citation needed]
  19. ^ [citation needed]
  20. ^ [citation needed]
  21. ^ "Lokono" (PDF). DICE Missouri. Retrieved 27 June 2024.
  22. ^ Olson, James Stewart (1991). The Indians of Central and South America: An Ethno-historical Dictionary. Greenwood. p. 211. ISBN 0313263876. Retrieved 16 June 2014.
  23. ^ "The Law on the Indigenous Peoples of Ukraine does not fully comply with international standards – Damon Gerard Corrie | CTRC". Ctrcenter.org. Retrieved 8 August 2022.
  24. ^ Corrie, D. (2021). A Phonetic English to Arawak Dictionary. Damon Corrie. ISBN 979-8-201-10203-6.
  25. ^ Corrie, Damon (2 September 2020). Lokono-Arawaks: Corrie, Damon: 9781393432555: Amazon.com: Books. ISBN 978-1393432555.
  26. ^ Corrie, Damon (14 October 2019). Amazonia's Mythical and Legendary Creatures in the Eagle Clan Lokono-Arawak Oral Tradition of Guyana: 9781393821069: Corrie, Damon: Books. ISBN 978-1393821069.
  27. ^ Corrie, Damon (28 September 2021). The Last Arawak girl born in Barbados – A 17th Century Tale: Corrie, Damon: 9781393841937: Amazon.com: Books. ISBN 978-1393841937.
  28. ^ "As Indigenous Heritage Month continues ... Indigenous artists pay homage to Lokono Priest John Bennett". Guyana Chronicle. 13 September 2015. Retrieved 20 January 2021.
  29. ^ Neola Damon (8 September 2019). "Indigenous art exhibition honors George Simon – Department of Public Information, Guyana". Dpi.gov.gy. Retrieved 8 August 2022.
  30. ^ "The Arawaks left their physical signatures here – George Simon". Guyana Chronicle. 7 September 2015. Retrieved 20 January 2021.
  31. ^ "Tituba's Race—Black, Indian, Mixed? How Would We Know?". ThoughtCo. 1 January 2010. Retrieved 20 January 2021.


  • Jesse, C., (2000). The Amerindians in St. Lucia (Iouanalao). St. Lucia: Archaeological and Historical Society.
  • Haviser, J. B. (1997). "Settlement Strategies in the Early Ceramic Age". In Wilson, S. M. (ed.). The Indigenous People of the Caribbean. Gainesville, Florida: University Press.
  • Hofman, C. L., (1993). The Native Population of Pre-columbian Saba. Part One. Pottery Styles and their Interpretations. [PhD dissertation], Leiden: University of Leiden (Faculty of Archaeology).
  • Haviser, J. B., (1987). Amerindian cultural Geography on Curaçao. [Unpublished PhD dissertation], Leiden: Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University.
  • Handler, Jerome S. (January 1977). "Amerindians and Their Contributions to Barbadian Life in the Seventeenth Century". The Journal of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society. 33 (3). Barbados: Museum and Historical Society: 189–210.
  • Joseph, P. Musée, C. Celma (ed.), (1968). "LГhomme Amérindien dans son environnement (quelques enseignements généraux)", In Les Civilisations Amérindiennes des Petites Antilles, Fort-de-France: Départemental d’Archéologie Précolombienne et de Préhistoire.
  • Bullen, Ripley P., (1966). "Barbados and the Archeology of the Caribbean", The Journal of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, 32.
  • Haag, William G., (1964). A Comparison of Arawak Sites in the Lesser Antilles. Fort-de-France: Proceedings of the First International Congress on Pre-Columbian Cultures of the Lesser Antilles, pp. 111–136
  • Deutsche, Presse-Agentur. "Archeologist studies signs of ancient civilization in Amazon basin", Science and Nature, M&C, 08/02/2010. Web. 29 May 2011.
  • Hill, Jonathan David; Santos-Granero, Fernando (2002). Comparative Arawakan Histories: Rethinking Language Family and Culture Area in Amazonia. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0252073843. Retrieved 16 June 2014.
  • Olson, James Stewart (1991). The Indians of Central and South America: An Ethnohistorical Dictionary. Greenwood. ISBN 0313263876. Retrieved 16 June 2014.
  • Rouse, Irving (1992). The Tainos. Yale University Press. p. 40. ISBN 0300051816. Retrieved 16 June 2014. Island Carib.

External links[edit]