Native American Civilizations: Central America and the Caribbean


Figure 1.--This photograph from San Blas Island in Panama was taken in 1942, It shows a Kuna boy on horseback. Notice the Mola embroideries on his vest.

Central America in geographic terms is part of North America. Etnographic studies of North America commonly focus primarily on American and Canadian tribes and those of northern Mexico. Central America is often not considered. This is in part because American anthropolgists have focused primarily on those tribes found within the United Satates. Also the Maya dominated much of northern Central America. The Central American tribes south of the Mayan areas in the north were relatively small and primitive. Most disappeared as a result of Spanish slave raiding and exposure to European diseases. This was the same fate as the Arawaks and Caribs in the Caribbean. One of the few tribes to survive are the Cuna. Unlike Centrl America, the Maya never settled the Caribbean, although they are known to have traded with the people of western Cuba. The Caribbean were heavily settled by the Arawaks, Caribs, and to a lesser extent the Chiboneys. Historians debate the relationship between the Arawaks and Caribs. Some theorize that the differences between the two people were a Spanish colonial convention rather than real differences. These people were descimated by the Spanish early in the colonial era through both ill-treatement and disease.

Central America

Central America in geographic terms is part of North America. Etnographic studies of North America commonly focus primarily on American and Canafian tribes and those of northern Mexico. Central America is often not considered. This is in part because American anthropolgists have focused primarily on those tribes found within the United States. The Maya dominated much of northern Central America. The Central American tribes south of the Mayan areas in the north were relatively small and primitive. Most disappeared as a result of Spanish slave raiding and exposure to European diseases. This was the same fate as the Arawaks and Caribs in the Caribbean. One of the few tribes to survive south of the Mayan areas are the Cuna. The Cuna are a matriarchial tribe inhabiting the isolated San Blas Archipelago, along the Caribbean coast of Panama. Some believe the Cuna were related to the Caribs who inhabited some of the Caribbean islands. Decision are made by the women and family lineage follows that of the woman's family. The Cuna perhaps because of their isolated island homeland have retained much of their traditional culture and have resisted assimilation into the modern world and Panamanian society. Columbus entered the Boca del Toro area of western Panama on his fourth and last voyage (1502). He is known to have landed on some of the islands. This appears to have been before the Cuna arrived, fleeing both the Spanish and other native America tribes in what is now Colombia. The Cuna are virtualy all that are left of the Native American civilization that Columbus and Spanish conquistadores encountered in southern Central America and the Caribbean. The Cuna practice a democratic lifestyle and are largely self sufficient. The Cuna live in about 40 settlements on the about 365 islands that make up the San Blas Archipelago as well as the mainland. It cannot be said that the Cuna live just as the Spanish found them. They have accepted a variety of modern conveniences, but they have been very selective and have kept much of their ancient culture and traditions. The Cuna are note for their Mola embroideries.

Caribbean

The Caribbean was settled by three primary tribes: Chiboneys, Arawaks (Tainos), and the Caribs. The Chiboneys were the first known people to settle the Caribbean island (about 3,000 BC). They left little evidence in terms of cultural artifacts, so little is known about them. Next came the Arawaks who when the Europeans arrived were in the process of being overcome by the more war-like Caribs. Much more is known about the Arawaks and Caribs because they were thriving cultures present in the Caribban at the time of Columbus' arrival. The population of Native Americans is not known with any precession, but some historians estimate about 8 million people. The Spanish after the initial encounter began to enslave the Native Americans. The population collapsed. Some resisted, some commited suiside, and other died because of abuse after being enslaved. Probably even more important was their lack of resistance to European diseases. The Native Americans were within decaded desimated by the Spanish after the European discovery (1492). Practically no pure-blood native Ameicans survive in the Caribbeans, but as a result social interactions, some Caribbean people (especially in Cuba and the Dominican Republic) today have Native American features. A great deal of dishonesty exists in discussions of Caribbean Native Americans. Some authors ignore the Arawak displacement of the Chiboney and the Carib displacement of the Arawaks and only want to describe the European conquest of a peaceful, innocent people. Historians debate the relationship between the Arawaks and Caribs. Some theorize that the differences between the two people were a Spajish colonia convention rather than real differences. Some authots will even group the Arawaks and Caribs together so they can more easily focus on the European conquest. While it is true that the European (mostly Spanish) treatment of the Caribbean Native Americans was a historical tragedy, in no way should the Caribs be idealized as a peaceful, innocent people.








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Created: 5:52 AM 11/24/2006
Last updated: 6:30 PM 5/30/2010