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The Indigenous Peoples

Knowledge about the early inhabitants of Cuba is sketchy. The people who inhabited the island at the time of Columbus's landing, estimated at about 60,000, had no written language. Most of them, although peaceful, were annihilated, absorbed, or died out as a result of the shock of conquest. Whatever information is available comes primarily from the writings of early explorers and from later archaeological discoveries and studies of village sites, burial places, and so forth. These sources indicate that at least three cultures-the Guanahatabey, the Ciboney, and the Taino-swept through the island before the arrival of the Spaniards.

The first of these, the Guanahatabey, was the oldest culture on the island. It was a shell culture, characterized by its use of shell gouge and spoon as its principal artifacts. The Guanahatabey might have come from the south of the United States, for their artifacts display certain similarities with those of some early inhabitants of Florida. Yet some archaeologists and anthropologists are more inclined to accept the theory that the Guanahatabey migrated from South America through the chain of islands in the West Indies until finally settling in Cuba. By the time of the Spanish arrival, they had retreated to the most western part of Cuba.

The Guanahatabey built no houses and lived mostly in caves. They were fruit pickers and food gatherers and did little fishing or hunting. They seem to have relied on mollusks as their principal foodstuff. Their civilization apparently was in decline by the time the Europeans arrived.

The second culture, the Ciboney, was part of the larger South American Arawak group. The Ciboney inhabited western Cuba and the southwestern peninsula of Hispaniola. It is generally agreed that the Ciboney, as well as the more advanced Taino, the other Arawak group found in Cuba, originated in South America and had island-hopped along the West Indies. The Ciboney were a Stone Age culture and were more advanced than the Guanahatabey. They were highly skilled collectors, hunters, and fishermen and inhabited towns, usually near rivers or the sea. Some lived in caves while others had begun to inhabit primitive dwellings called bajareques or barbacoas. The Ciboney practiced some form of elementary agriculture, and their diet included turtles, fish, birds, and mollusks. Two of the more typical artifacts they developed included a stone digger (gladiolito) and a ball (esJerolito), both symbols of authority or high social status; they were also considered magical objects. The Ciboney fell prey to the more advanced Taino and became their servants, or nabories. Bartolome de Las Casas, an early chronicler known as the "protector of the Indians," described the Ciboney as "a most simple and gentle kind of people who were held like savages."

The Taino was the second and more advanced Arawak group to enter the island. The Taino people occupied the central and eastern parts of Cuba, as well as most of Hispaniola, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico. The Taino made extensive use of pottery and stone artifacts that are reminiscent of Old World neolithic artifacts. The short, olive-skinned Taino people subjected their children to artificial cranium changes by binding the frontal or occipital regions of their heads during early childhood; hence, their faces and particularly foreheads were unusually wide. They preferred high and fertile terrain close to sources of fresh water and lived in small villages in round houses with conical roofs made up of bamboo and thatched palm called caneyes or rectangular ones called bohios.

The Taino developed a rather advanced economic system based on agriculture with commonly cultivated fields. The cultivation and preparation of yuca (manioc), a sturdy tuber, played a significant role in their society. After the yuca, which has a period of growth longer than a year, had been harvested, the Taino grated it, drained it of its poisonous juice, and baked it into unleavened bread called cassava, which the Spaniards labeled "bread of the earth." This bread was both nutritious and tasty and kept for several months, even in humid weather.

Tobacco, cotton, corn, and white and sweet potato were also an important part of the Taino economy. Tobacco was used for smoking as well as for religious ceremonies and for curing the ill. After the Spanish occupation, tobacco became an important item for export. Cotton was mostly used for hammocks, bags, and fishing nets. Both the manufacture of textiles and the making of pottery items were tasks performed by women, while men engaged in hunting, fishing, or agriculture. The Taino also developed a number of wooden artifacts, such as powerful canoes, which gave them great mobility by water.

Society was organized along distinct class lines. At the top was the chief, or cacique, who managed all the affairs of the community and ruled over a specific territory. The line of inheritance to become a cacique was not direct; the eldest son of the cacique's eldest sister became chief when the former cacique died. If the cacique did not have any sisters, then his eldest son would inherit the post. The caciques were aided by the nitainos, a group of advisors who supervised communal work and seem to have been in charge of various sectors of the population. Aware of the nitainos' importance in controlling the labor supply, the Spaniards used them later on as overseers on their plantations. Next to the nitainos was the medicine man, or behique. The lower class was composed of the nabories, who did most of the work of the village.

The Taino believed in a supreme invisible being, and their religion was dominated by a series of gods represented by idols. Ancestor worship was common, and the Taino carved special idols resembling their ancestors. The souls of the dead were thought to reside in a nearby island and to return at night to hunt the living.

In terms of economic development, social organization, technological advances, and art, the native peoples of Cuba were far inferior to the more advanced civilizations of the mainland, such as the Maya and AZtec of Mexico or the Inca of Peru. The Ciboney and Taino left only a mild imprint on Cuba's later culture; the Guanahatabey left almost none. There was little mingling of races between Spaniards and Indians. A new society, first of Spaniards and then of Spaniards and blacks, supplanted the indigenous society. New institutions, new values, and a new culture replaced the old ones. Some Indian words, foods, and habits, as well as agricultural techniques, however, were retained by later generations. Retained also was the bohio, the typical and picturesque dwelling of many Cuban farmers, which still can be seen today and remains perhaps the most visible legacy of the native society.

For the most part, however, the Cuban native peoples' contribution to the development of a Cuban nationality must be considered minor. Nevertheless, for generations after the conquest, Native American warriors such as Batuey, who fought the Spanish conquest in eastern Cuba, were glorified in the pages of Cuban history books and raised to the status of folk heroes. They represented for Cuban children a symbol of native resistance against the oppressive Spanish conquistador. The Indians' innocence and kindness were contrasted with the cruelty of the Spanish invaders. But for those present-day Cubans in search of the roots of a uniquely Cuban national identity, this Indian heritage was not enough of a foundation. Unlike for the Mexicans, the glory of the Aztec past was not there for the Cubans to turn to. Instead, Cuban writers in search of the roots of Cuban nationality would later look to Spanish or Negro contributions and try to find in them the missing link with the past, but with little luck. The Spanish heritage was dismissed as part of the rejection of colonialism, and Negro contributions were never totally recognized, particularly by white Cuban society.

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Page last modified: 31-03-2013 19:26:34 ZULU