Who are the Arawak People?

Rock paintings made by the Arawak people.
  • Approximately 15,000 Arawak people exist today.
  • The leader in each family was known as a cacique.
  • Polygamy was common among the Arawak people.

The term "Arawak people" refers to a group of people who are native to the Caribbean and South America. Most people believe that these people were originally from the Orinoco Basin in Venezuela. This once vibrant community had an estimated population in the millions until the Spanish came along. Over the years, the name “Arawak” has also been used to describe the people of Taíno (the Greater and the Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean) and Lokono (South America). The Arawak people, who spoke the Arawakan languages, were mostly wiped out by new illnesses. The locals did not have any form of immunity against the new sicknesses. Aside from that, the war with the Spanish wiped out a fair share of the populace. Today, there are approximately 15,000 of them left, which is a shadow of what they once were, with most of them living in Guyana and a small percentage in other countries. Their languages are also dying out as evidenced by the fact that only the elderly know how to speak them.

Culture Of The Arawak People

The families of the Arawak people were small ones although each family had a leader known as a cacique. As is the case with most ancient cultures, polygamy was a common thing with the average man having either two or three wives. The cacique, by virtue of his status, had more wives. In fact, it was considered an honor for a woman to be married to the cacique. In some cases, the men stayed separately from the women and the children. The cacique’s family used to live in rectangular houses while the common people stayed in rounded huts.

As stated earlier, the Arawak people spoke the Arawakan languages, which were a group of dialects. By the time the Spanish arrived, the languages were widely spoken. Even as they have faded over the years, the Spanish language adopted some words. Examples of these words include iguana and cannibal.

For food, the Arawak people practiced a lot of agriculture, fishing, and hunting. Hunting, which was done by men, provided meat from animals like birds, iguanas, capybara, and snakes. The people practiced a special form of agriculture known as conuco that provided food like cassava, sweet potatoes, beans, and other foods.

Since the people were from South America, which is a hot region, it is not a surprise that the Arawak people hardly wore any clothes. For the men, most of them wore nothing while a loincloth was enough for the women to cover the genitals. However, forms of body decoration such as painting and jewelry were common. When the Spanish came, however, all this changed as clothes were adopted.

Present Population

When the Spanish occupiers arrived in South America, they did not bring their wives with them and so ended up taking local women as sexual partners. The resulting mixed-race children were known as mestizo children. Today, most of the small descendant population of mixed-race children live in countries like French Guiana, Guyana, Suriname, and Venezuela. However, their population is growing steadily.


More in World Facts