The Arawak or Taino were a group of Native Americans that once occupied from what is now Florida through the islands of the West Indies and the western coast of South America as far south as what is now Brazil. The Arawak were also located in present day Bahamas, Cuba, and Hispaniola. The group belongs to the Arawakan language family and they were the Native Americans Christopher Columbus found when he first landed in America. The Spanish described the Arawak as a peaceful, gentle people. On the islands of the Caribbean the Arawak were able to grow crops very easily. They raised their crops in a conuco, a large mound that was devised especially for farming. They packed the conuco with leaves to prevent soil erosion and planted a large variety of crops to assure that something would grow, no matter what weather conditions prevailed. Yucca was a staple of their diet and grew easily in a tropical climate. Since the agriculture was so good the Arawak had plenty of extra time to make crafts and play games. One of these games was a lot like soccer. With plenty of leisure, the Arawak devoted their energy to creative activities such as pottery, basket weaving, cotton weaving, stone tools and even stone sculpture. Men and women painted their bodies and wore jewelry made of gold, stone, bone and shell. They also had time to participate in informal feasts, and dances. The Arawak also drank alcohol made from fermented corn and they also used tobacco in cigars. The Arawak had organized systems of religion and government. They believed in both good and evil spirits, which could inhabit both human bodies and natural objects. They sought to control these spirits through their priests or shamans. The Arawak's political system was a hierarchical one, in which the islands were broken up into groups, each island in turn was divided into provinces ruled by chiefs known as caciques. The provinces were allocated into districts ruled by a sub-chief and each village was ruled by a head-man.
Estimates of the Arawak population range from 100,000 to 400,000 at the time of Columbus' arrival, but by the 1500s their numbers had fallen to a few hundred at most. The main reasons for the Arawaks' massive decline was their lack of resistance to disease introduced by Europeans, especially smallpox, and being mercilessly overworked by the Spanish in mines and on farms. The Spanish also murdered the Arawaks in countless massacres, when they could derive no more benefit from them.
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