CARIBBEAN HISTORY: Pre-Columbus




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The Life of the Amerindians


The Mongoloid were people that lived in Central East Asia. They were nomadic hunters that hunted the buffalo and deer. When the herds moved away from the grazing area the hunters had to follow them in order to get their food supply. In this way, the herds also probably led the people out of central Asia crossing the Bearing Strait and into North America - although they had no knowledge that they were moving from one continent to another. The Amerindians settled throughout North America and they were known as the ancestors of the Red Indian tribes we know today, as well as of the Eskimos in the far north. Even though they were nomadic some still followed the settled agricultural pursuit and developed agricultural civilizations of their own.
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(Picture of the Bering Strait)
The migrations continued through the South of America, from where the Arawaks and Caribs then migrated to the West Indies. The Arawaks can still be traced through their language to two different lands in South America where the Indians speak related languages. In appearance, the ancestors of the Arawaks looked as though they came from some where on the border land between Bolivia, Peru and Brazil. They eventually migrated on to the West Indies. The land of the Caribs was further South than that of the Arawaks. They migrated across Brazil to the interior of Guyana, then North to the Coast of Venezuela, and so on to the West Indies, possibly about 2,000 years ago.
The Amerindian civilization of Arawaks and Caribs was essentially agricultural, representing an important advance in the scale of civilization over the paleolithic period of human history. They cultivated the soil by constructing mounds of earth, firstly to loosen soil, secondly to protect the roots against the dry season, and thirdly for composting with shoveled ashes.
The national food was cassava. The Arawaks developed the technique of changing the poisonous prussic acid of cassava juice into a kind of non-poisonous vinegar by cooking it. They called this 'cassareep'. The cassareep together with one of the known spices, the chilli pepper, made the pepper pot, the Carib 'tomali', which stabilized the digestion to a high degree and made easier the consumption of cassava cakes.
The Arawaks further developed the 'grater' for making cassava cakes. In their development of graters, juice squeezers, large flat ovens of coarse clay on which the cassava cakes were baked, as well as in the development of cassareep and the pepper pot, the Arawak culture represented essentially an annex to the Amerindian civilization of Eastern Venezuela and Guiana.
The Arawaks grew just enough food for their families and for themselves,including maize, cassava, sweet potato, yautia and groud nuts. There was no storing and trading of food taking place. They did not lack protein but, compared with the Caribs, placed less emphasis on high protein foods and balanced their diet with more vegetables. Some foods they ate were fish, shellfish, turtle and manatee (seacow). Fishing was mainly done by nets made of fibers, bones, hooks and harpoons. The Arawak method of catching the turtle shows some ingenuity: a remora was acugh and tied on a long line to a canoe. The remora would dive for the turtle and attach itself to the back with its suckers. The turtle would then be pulled into the canoe by the fishermen.
The Arawaks hunted very small animals whose meat they enjoyed very much. To help them hunt they would have small dogs called 'alcos' which could not bark, but made a growling noise. They also ate ducks, doves, parrots and a lot of fruits and vegetables such as pineapples, mammee apple, star apple,guavas and cashews.
The Arawaks' food was carefully prepared and they knew about stewing, baking and roasting , techniques which they used in their food preparation - they stewed iguana, baked cassava, and smoked fish.
One of the most important crops grown by our Amerindian ancestors was maize, from which, in certain places, a species of beer was brewed. They also knew the sweet potato and a variety of tropical fruits such as the guava, custard apple, mammy apple, pawpaw, alligator pear, star apple and pineapple. Columbus has stated that he saw beans being cultivated in Hispaniola; and the Amerindians knew also, among the spices, cinnamon, and wild pimento. They introduced peanuts to the Spaniards and it would appear that these were eaten regularly with cassava in Hispaniola.
The Amerindians also knew of, and cultivated, two additional crops which facilitated a further development of what we would today call 'civilized' existence. They cultivated cotton, which they used on the one hand for petticoats, and on the other, for the manufacture of hammocks for sleeping purposes. Researchers, found a bone, needle and buttons in his Trinidad researches. The Amerindians knew also of tobacco, which was exceedingly popular among them; possibly in its origin it was connected in some way with religious rites. The Arawaks used it both for snuff and for smoking, generally in the form of cigars, (though the pipe was not unknown); while in the form of chewing tobacco in rolls; it was used as currency by the Caribs.
Fishing played some part in the economy of the Amerindian society, and the Amerindians developed the canoe and the pirogue which enabled them to move from island to island, in the sheltered waters of the Gulf of Paria. The canoes appeared to even have cabins for the women. Molluscs or shell fish figured prominently in the Amerindian diet, and particularly the chip chip, as investigations of the middens indicate. But bones representing fish and tortoise have also been found. In comparison with the shellfish and the fish, bird bones, however, are extremely scarce.
These Amerindians had no knowledge of metals. Their tools were of polished stone, bone, shell, coral or wood - some of their wooden artifacts have been fortunately preserved through accidental burial in the pitch lake of Trinidad. They made pottery and wore ornaments. Exhumations of over twenty burials indicate evidence of arthritis and a high incidence of dental caries, but not of rickets. Their age would appear not to have exceeded forty years, and their height no more than five feet seven inches. They seem to have been, however, a people of great physical strength.
The Amerindians had a simple but well established family life, in which, as in most under-developed society, there appeared to be some sexual grounds for the differentiation of labour. Possibly a result of religious beliefs, Arawaks men alone could collect gold. The women prepared the cassava, cared for the poultry, brought water from the river, wove cloth and mats, and shared in the agricultural work using the primitive implement of the Amerindians, "the digging stick".
It is not clear whether the Amerindian women of Trinidad and Tobago displayed as much readiness, as has been noticed of the Amerindian women in Hispaniola, to promiscuity in their sexual relations as a form of welcome to strangers. Nor is it clear whether in Trinidad, as in Hispaniola, there was the same accentuation of feminine tendencies among male Amerindians which has been noted of them in comparison with the Negroes of Africa.
And the records do not permit us positively to involve Trinidad in the 470-year old argument as to whether syphilis was an export from the Old World to the West Indies, or an importation from the West Indies into Spain, and thence into Europe. Researchers did find evidence of syphilis in the exhumations.
What is certain is that syphilis would appear to have been as prevalent in Guiana and Venezuela as in the Greater Antilles and Mexico, and that the Arawaks developed a peculiar remedy for the disease.
The Amerindian tribe was governed by a cacique, very much as a father governs his family. If Columbus is to be believed, fighting between two Amerindians was rare, and so was adultery. The only crime punished by the community was theft, for which the punishment in Hispaniola, even where petty thefts was concerned, was death - the culprit being pierced to death with a pole or pointed stick.
The Arawaks were a relatively peaceful people; the Caribs essentially warlike. While both painted their bodies with roucou, partly no doubt to present a terrifying appearance in time of war, the Caribs were distinguished from the Arawak in their use of poisoned arrows. The Caribs have also been conventionally described as 'cannibals'.
As far as Trinidad is concerned, there would appear to have been several distinct tribes of Amerindians present in the island towards the end of the fifteenth century. The Caribs tended to settle for the most part in North and West, around what is today Port-of-Spain; two of their principal settlements were located in Arima and Mucurapo. The Arawaks some to have concentrated above all in the South East and it is recorded that on one occasion the Arawaks took Tobago from the Caribs.
Researchers, however, challenged the view that there were any Caribs in Trinidad. He based this on the absence of two facts customarily associated with the Caribs. First, he found no evidence of the use of bows and arrows, which, in his view, is confirmed by the relative scarcity of bird bones in the middens. But he admits the possibility that the spines of the sting ray and eagle ray, found in large numbers in the middens, in some cases obviously improved by man, might have been used as arrows on lance heads. In the second place he emphatically denies any evidence of cannibalism in the remnants of the animal foods found in the middens. Not a single human bone was found.



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