According to general history, around 10,000 B.C. a group of nomadic people, from Asia following migrating herds of animals, crossed the ice-capped lands from Siberia to Alaska. The Eskimos, Mayas, Incas and Aztecs are the descendants of these first travelers. Their migration eventually reached down the Amazon River and north into the Orinoco Valley, along the coast of Venezuela and continued through South and Central America. The Garifuna history begins with the Arawaks who are the original inhabitants of Yurumein (St. Vincent) the land of our ancestors.
In 500 B.C., the Arawarks emerged on the banks of the Orinoco River. They traveled in dugout hollow canoes in treacherous waters and arrived to St. Vincent. They were the aboriginal settlers of the Greater and Lesser Antilles. The Arawaks were tall in stature and ranged in complexion from fair through dark with straight long black hair. They are a matrilineal society-people who trace their lineage from the mother. The women’s responsibilities were to take care of the family, cook, tended the farm and harvested the crops. The Arawaks practiced polygamy, meaning that men were able to have more than one wife. Arawaks believed in worshiping their ancestors. They believed that the spirits of the dead remained in their bones so they kept the skeletal remains of relatives in baskets inside their homes. The bones were kept in storage and hung from the ceiling of the house. The Arawaks’ belief in life after death was so powerful that great care was given to the departed and they were buried with gifts, and food.
The Arawaks were an agricultural tribe who farmed, hunted and fished. They fished by using net and fishing lines made from plant fibers. They made spears from wood and tipped it with sharpened bone or shell. The Arawaks also used poisonous plant to catch fish; the poison would stun the fish so they could be caught by hand. They also had a taste for shellfish like conch, oysters and crab. The cassava or yucca was their primary food, from which they made flour and cassava bread. The process of preparing the cassava was extensive then and still is to this very day. The cassava had to be peeled and then grated. The Arawaks developed a way of straining out the poisonous liquid by placing the grated cassava in a “ruguma” which is a woven sleeve like snake that hung from a pole to squeeze out the poison. The dried flour would then be baked on a large hot griddle called a “comal” that was placed over stones and fire. The cassava was then laid out in the sun to further dry. The cassava bread did not spoil so leftovers where stored and eaten for months to come. The Arawaks made use of the poisonous sap by making beer and soup out of it. Their diet also consisted of vegetables and fruits that they harvested like corn, guava, mamey, papaya, squash, yams, and pineapple. The Arawaks also used twines from stripped palm branches to make string and they utilized it to construct hammocks “uguru”. The Arawaks had an uncomplicated way of life and lived in peace for thousands of years.
The Arawak story is the first part of our Garifuna history that is often ignored and seldom told or known in our community. We tend to just dwell on the infamous sinking of the slave ships in the 1630’S that inadvertently saved us from a life of slavery. But, there is more to our historical accounts than that singular event. The foundation of Garifuna language, beliefs, food and tools can be traced back to our ancient Arawak forefathers. This vital part of our history should also be remembered and appreciated. Our Arawak ancestors contributed directly to our evolution. Remember that the fusion of the Arawak, Carib and African is what makes us Garinagu.
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