History & Culture of Jamaica – Pre-Columbian Era


Taíno Village

People had lived in the New World for thousands of years before Europeans arrived. They were Paleolithic hunter-gatherers of North Asian tribes who crossed Beringia, a land bridge that connected Siberia and western Alaska when sea levels were lower. North Asians crossed what is now the Bering Strait into Alaska. These populations expanded south of the Laurentide Ice Sheet and, by 14,000 years ago, spread rapidly throughout both North and South America. The descendants of these early migrants are known as Paleo-Indians.


Over the past two million years, our climate has been influenced by artic ice sheets formed during the Ice Ages. And, as glaciers formed, much of the world’s water became trapped in the ice. As a result, the oceans' levels were as much as 100–150 metres lower than today’s levels, revealing the floor of the Bering Sea and creating a land bridge across the un-glaciated area called Beringia. Glaciers never formed in Beringia because the climate was too dry.

At the height of the last Ice Age, human beings entered Beringia from the Siberian steppes and, over time, crossed into the Americas.

Most of Beringia became submerged by water when the last Ice Age ended. Parts of it, however, can still be found in Siberia, Alaska and the Yukon.

While there seems to be general agreement that the Americas were first settled from Asia, the patterns, the timing, and the places of origin of the migrations remain unclear. And, while advances in archaeology, the geology of the Pleistocene, physical anthropology, and DNA analysis have shed progressively more light on the subject, significant questions remain unresolved.

There seems to be broad agreement, nevertheless, that the earliest of these migrations via Beringia took place at least 13,500 years ago, near the end of the last ice age. There also exists evidence that suggests people migrated into the Americas much earlier, perhaps as early as 40,000 years ago, and some might have arrived later via the Pacific Ocean, populating the two continents’ coastal areas. This remains a minority view, though newer technology does seem to offer some support.

At the Old Crow Flats—in Canada’s Yukon Territory—mammoth bones have been found that are broken in distinctive ways indicating human butchery. The radiocarbon dates on these vary between 25,000 and 40,000 years BP. Moreover, stone microflakes have been found in the area, indicating tool production.

From Alaska, new arrivals travelled south through the mainly glacier-free Mackenzie Valley and through what is now Canada’s Northwest Territories and British Columbia before spreading out across North and Central America and, finally, crossing the isthmus of Central America into South America.

These early migrants diversified into hundreds of culturally distinct tribes and nations. And, throughout this process, advanced civilizations rose and fell. When the Europeans arrived in 1492, the great Maya civilization had declined, but the Aztec and Inca were still expanding. These nations of the Americas did not see themselves as one people. And only later would their European conquerors give the area its unifying name America and identify its inhabitants as Indians.

The particular people who interest us are those who settled in the West Indies, and especially those who inhabited the Greater Antilles—the islands of Cuba, Hispaniola (Haiti and Dominican Republic), Jamaica and Puerto Rica. Before 1492, New World “Indians” had little or no known sustained contact with other parts of the world. However, they had developed varied and productive agricultural economies, their lifestyles and belief systems differed widely, and they spoke hundreds of different languages.

The pre-Columbian era of the Americas continues to be studied and analyzed. It seems safe to say, however, before the arrival of Europeans, the Caribbean islands were inhabited by descendants of migratory waves from South America known as Canoe People. Canoe People had sailed northward in dugout canoes—some upwards of 100 feet long—from their ancestral home in the Orinoco region of the Guianas and Venezuela.

The islands’ settlement probably began as early as 4000 BCE, most likely starting with the Ciboney (Guanahatabey). Later migrations included others from South America, including the Arawakan-speaking Saladoid and Igneris people. Little is known of the Ciboney, and it is not certain that they ever inhabited Jamaica. Apparently, “Ciboney” is a Taíno word meaning “cave-dweller.”

West Indies

There are, at least, three theories of how the Ciboney entered the West Indies: (1) they came from South America, pre-dating the Taíno who displaced them; (2) they came from Central America; and (3) having reached Florida from South America, they later migrated south to some of the Greater Antilles. The popular view seems that the Ciboney were diverse groups of hunter-gatherers from South America who travelled north from island to island in separate migrations over a long period. Some findings also support some Central American origin, especially regarding inhabitants of Cuba’s extreme west end.

By 250 BC, the Saladoid people appear to have been in decline, and by about 600 AD, they seem to have developed a new cultural expression, probably in response to local conditions. This new tradition is known as Ostionoid. The Ostionoid culture was defined by larger populations and the expansion of settlements.  Ostionoid peoples practiced agriculture in raised mounds and developed a distinctive artistic expression in pottery, bone, shell and stone.  In many Ostionoid villages, they also constructed planned open spaces for ball courts or other ritual functions. I’ve read that about 600 AD, a culture known as the “Redware people” arrived in Jamaica. Little is known of them, however, beyond the red pottery they left.

Finally, the Taíno and Carib arrived. The Taíno of the Greater Antilles represented the last stage of the Ostionoid cultural tradition. Often these people are referred to using the catch-all term, “Arawak,” which usually refers to the Lokono of South America and the Taíno of the Greater Antilles and the most northern of the Lesser Antilles, all of whom spoke Arawakan languages.

Island Carib

The last group to arrive in the Caribbean were the Carib, a fierce people whose name comes from the Arawakan word—and later the Spanish word—for cannibal. Like the Taíno, the Carib originated in the Orinoco region of the Guianas and Venezuela, but had darker skin and were taller. 

The Carib were warlike people who swept over the Lesser Antilles of the eastern Caribbean, leaving death and destruction in their wake. Their men slaughtered and their women abducted, the Taíno of the Lesser Antilles were assimilated by the more aggressive Carib or disappeared altogether. By the late 15th century, the Carib migration had reached the Greater Antilles, but the Spaniards’ arrival prevented them from making further conquests. Although they raided Arawak villages in Jamaica, probably from bases in Cuba and Hispaniola, the Carib apparently did not settle permanently.

When the Spanish arrived in the West Indies, the less well-organized Ciboney had already been driven by Taíno farmers and fishermen to western Hispaniola (Haiti) and western Cuba. These groups were culturally different from each other. The Ciboney of Cuba, known as Guanahatabey, were hunter-gatherers with a distinct language and culture from the Taíno who were their neighbours. Within a century of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas, the Ciboney culture was considered extinct. 

The Taíno is the group in which we’re most interested. (These early West Indians used the word Taíno, which means “good” or “noble,” to distinguish themselves from their enemies, the Caribs.) The Taíno settled throughout the islands and small parts of mainland North America. A group, known as the Western Taíno probably arrived in Jamaica in two waves—around 650 AD and 900 AD. By the time the Spaniards arrived, the Taíno were considered to be Jamaica’s aboriginal inhabitants. Jamaica was known to the Taíno as “Xaymaca,” which meant “land of wood and water.” A Taíno couple is depicted on Jamaica’s coat of arms.

At the time of the Norman conquest of England, the Taíno inhabited an area that stretched from southern Brazil to South America and up through the islands of the West Indies to Florida and the Bahamas. The ecology of the Caribbean, especially in the Greater Antilles, provided plenty of fresh water, fertile soil and an abundance of fish. This, combined with stable populations, permitted the development of a complex political and social structure.

A short, brown-skinned people with straight black hair, the Taíno had broad faces and flat, wide noses. Their three-tiered social classes lived in large villages ruled by hereditary chiefs (caciques)—the lowest rank being slaves. Friction between classes was apparently minimal. Theirs was a matrilineal society in which chieftains were succeeded by their eldest sister’s eldest son. Related families lived together in large thatch houses. 

They were seagoing people and built their villages close to the coast or near rivers. The Taíno hollowed out the trunks of cedar and silk-cotton trees for transportation, crafting canoes that carried from one to fifty or more persons.

They were known for their fine wood carving and cotton cloths. They cultivated cotton, sweet potatoes, fruits, vegetables, tobacco and manioc (cassava). These early Jamaicans were especially skilled as artisans and spinners and weavers of cotton—the island supplied cotton hammocks (a Taíno invention) and other cotton cloth to Cuba and Hispaniola. Their wood and stone carvings were well-shaped and beautifully finished.

Generally believed to have been a peaceful people, the Taíno enjoyed dancing, singing and playing a ceremonial ball game (batos), perhaps as a substitute for warfare and as an outlet for competition between villages.

They believed that when they died, their souls went to a place of peace and plenty called coyaba—a place where there were no hurricanes, droughts or sickness, and where they spent their time feasting and dancing. They are known to have buried their dead in caves, placing the head and bones of their dead in pottery bowls.

 At their peak, an estimated 60–100 thousand Taíno lived in Jamaica.

The Taíno were the first natives of the Americas encountered by Christopher Columbus. At first, they welcomed the Europeans, for they were pleased to learn that the strange pale-skinned visitors abhorred cannibalism, and they hoped the Spaniards would be useful allies against the man-eating Island Caribs. Little did these early Jamaicans know that the arrival of these “allies” was the beginning of the end for them.