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Long before Columbus, the islands of the Caribbean were home to Native American peoples. Over thousands of years, these island inhabitants built rich and diverse cultures, with their own technology, diet, history, religion, and art. Sadly, these people all but disappeared in less than a generation after their first contact with Europeans.

Caribbean map

They are known today as Lucayan [Tainos]: an anglicized version of the Spanish ‘Lucayos,’ which derives from the Arawakan words Lukkunu Kaíri (‘island men’). The Lucayans share a common ancestry with the Taino societies of Puerto Rico, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Cuba and Jamaica (the Greater Antilles), who they separated from around A.D. 600 when they began to colonize the Turks and Caicos and the Bahamas (hereafter called the Lucayan Islands). By 1492, they had settled all of the larger Lucayan Islands. In addition, they continued to exchange goods with other Tainos living in the Greater Antilles.

To date, most of what has been written about the Tainos has drawn upon the written record left by the Spanish. However, because the chronicles were written to serve political objectives, be they for or against the native peoples, and because the chroniclers themselves were limited in their abilities to understand a non-western culture, these documents are rife with errors and misinformation. The uncritical use of the historical record has hampered efforts to understand native West Indian societies. For although we continue to speak of Tainos as a single unified group, there were regional differences in language and culture, if not also in race. One need look only to the Soviet Union or the former Yugoslavia to be reminded of the fragility of national identities. The present paper draws on the last two decades of anthropological scholarship to present a brief chronicle of the development and extinction of Lucayan Taino culture.

This article was originally written for Times of the Islands: The International Magazine of the Turks and Caicos. It was published in the Summer 1996 issue and is reprinted here with their kind permission. Although the article uses the Turks and Caicos and Bahamas as its starting point, much of the information is relevant to all of the Native Peoples of the West Indies.

Times of the Islands, ISSN 1017-6853, is published four times per year by Times Publications Ltd., P.O. Box 234, Providenciales, Turks and Caicos Islands, BWI. E-mail: timespub@caribsurf.com