Arawak Peoples: Culture, Art & Religion

Instructor: Chelsea Schuyler
In this lesson, learn about the Arawak peoples, an indigenous culture from South America and the Caribbean. Explore their religion, language, family, food and other aspects of their culture. Also, discover the different art forms they developed.

The Arawak People

The Arawak were once a prosperous culture with a population estimated in the millions, until the Spanish arrival. After one century, they were just over 30,000. Today, only a few groups remain scattered mostly in isolated areas.

The Arawak are an indigenous people that are believed to have originated in the basin of the Orinoco River, in Venezuela. They populated large areas of South America and the Caribbean Antilles. The two largest tribes were the Taíno, living in the Caribbean and the Lokono in South America.

With the start of colonization, most of the population died from new illnesses. Many others were murdered or died defending their land. Today, small Arawak communities survive in Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil, Guyana, and Ecuador; but are very limited in number.

Other indigenous groups emerged from the Arawak and live further south in Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil, sharing a similar language. The Wayuu is the largest community with Arawak roots, located in an arid region of Northern Venezuela and Colombia. However, their culture has been deeply transformed since colonial times and is now distant from the traditional Arawak.


Historic location of the Arawak languages in South America
Location of the Arawak Languages


Culture

The Arawak were peaceful people that lived from hunting and agriculture and kept constant trade with neighboring communities.

Language

The Arawak is a family of dialects spoken by the Arawak peoples. By the time the Spanish arrived, it was widely used in the Americas. There are many varieties, but all share common characteristics, like the distinction between plurals, masculine and feminine words, and the use of prefixes and suffixes added to basic words to form more complex ideas. Some words from Arawak have been incorporated into Spanish; like iguana, batata (sweet potato), and caníbal (cannibal), among others.

Family

The Arawak lived in small communities, and each had a leader, the cacique. The men often had two or three wives, and the cacique had many more; because of his status, it was an honor for women to be married to him. In some groups, the men lived separately from the women and children. The tasks were differentiated, and men usually went hunting and prepared the fields, while women cooked and took care of the crops.

Food

The Arawak fished and hunted all types of wild animals, including capybaras, snakes, iguanas, and birds. Their agricultural system was the conuco, a mound of earth covered with leaves to protect the soil, in which seeds from different species were sown. This allowed for something to be harvested, regardless of what happened during the season. The main ingredient of their diet was cassava, and they also ate beans, sweet potatoes, and fruits. Tobacco was a common product for religious ceremonies.


The capybara, part of the Arawak diet
Capybara


Arts

The artistic expressions of the Arawak were diverse and included mostly crafts and religious objects.

Clothing and Body Decoration

Because of the tropical weather, the Arawak rarely wore clothes. Men were usually naked, and women wore a loincloth, basically a short piece to cover the genitals and, sometimes, the buttocks. Over the years, Spanish influences led to the adoption of Western attires. Body decoration was common, including body paint and jewelry. Some also pierced their bodies.

Architecture

There were two main types of houses, based on hierarchy. The caneye was for the common people and consisted of a rounded building. The bohio was rectangular and sometimes had a portico, and it was occupied by the cacique and his family. Both had wooden pillars to support the roof, and the walls and roof were made out of straw.


A bohio, the house of the cacique
A Bohio


Pottery and Crafts

Craft objects were produced for daily activities. The Arawak used clay to make pottery, sometimes decorated with white motifs of animals and birds. They also developed weaving techniques and produced baskets from palm fibers. Cotton was used for crafting fishing nets and hammocks for sleeping.

Sculptures and Rock Paintings

Some Arawak groups made small figurines in the form of animals and humans, out of stone and wood. Other groups carved and painted on the surface of large rocks, creating petroglyphs that represented animals, humans and abstract lines. These pieces were probably created for ceremonial purposes.


A petroglyph near the Orinoco River, in Venezuela
A petroglyph


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