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History, Pre-Columbian Society

caciques, Ciboney, Spanish conquest, pineapples, cassava

Cuba’s first inhabitants were indigenous people who arrived by sea, following the trade winds westward from the coast of Venezuela along the islands of the Caribbean. Little evidence remains of the first indigenous people, the Ciboney (or Guanahacabibe), who began settling the island about 1000 bc. The Ciboney lived along the coast and survived by fishing, hunting, and gathering plant foods. They lived in small, seminomadic clans and left no written record of their society, religions, or languages.

A more warlike group of the Arawakan language family reached Cuba in two waves, beginning with the sub-Tainos, who arrived about ad 900, gradually pushing the Ciboney to the western third of the island. Members of the Arawakan language family lived in thatched houses and were governed by caciques (tribal chiefs). They survived by fishing and collectively working gardens, where they grew cassava, maize (corn), beans, sweet potatoes, yucca, tomatoes, and pineapples. They also grew tobacco, which they used for religious ceremonies and medicinal purposes. A second migratory wave, the Tainos, swept into the eastern coastal area of Cuba from the neighboring island of Hispaniola in the 15th century, just before the Spanish conquest.

When explorer Christopher Columbus reached the island on October 27, 1492, Cuba’s indigenous population numbered approximately 112,000, with 92,000 sub-Tainos, 10,000 Tainos, and 10,000 Ciboney. Columbus claimed the island for Spain, the nation that had sponsored his voyage.

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