'Land of the Iguanas'

The history of the first settlers in our region, the Amerindians, is well known. The peaceful Arawaks and the war-like Caribs were the two tribes to inhabit the Lesser Antilles, those islands ranging from St. Kitts and Nevis in the north to Trinidad and Tobago in the south.

What we know about these people comes from the written records of the Europeans and the archaeological remains of Amerindian settlements; however, these sources aren’t always aligned. While the written documents give us details of events, names and other such occurrences, there tends to be a bias towards seeing these people as savages. The physical evidence is less partial about the Amerindian lifestyle, with archaeological evidence telling the story of what they ate, where they lived, burial methods, tools and other man-made materials used.

It is believed the Awaraks named Saint Lucia Ioüanalao, meaning ‘Land of the Iguanas’, probably because of the large number of iguanas found on the island. The Caribs are said to have named the island Hewanarau, which later became Hewanorra, and is now the name of Saint Lucia’s international airport.

indian caribbean map, arawaks, caribs, native americans caribbean
The above map is a rendition of the Caribbean during the era of the Amerindian peoples.

Expert Sea Navigators

The first written account of contact between European explorers and the Amerindians took place in Saint Lucia in 1605. These early records described the native people as being stocky with long black hair and red skin. The Arawaks were reported to be amicable people whereas the accounts described the Caribs as practising cannibalism.

Archaeological evidence shows that Amerindians lived in Micoud, Vieux Fort, Laborie, Dennery and Choiseul. The settlements were usually located near mangroves and beaches where fresh water could be found. The Amerindian people were expert seafarers who excelled in canoe making as the sea was their only way of reaching tribes on neighbouring islands and was a main source of their food. As such, these first settlers of the Caribbean were experienced navigators, using the position of the stars to guide them on the waters.

The New World

A few of the intricacies of the Caribs and Arawaks’ social life are established. We know the Carib war chief was called a cacique and that power was hereditary; we also know that women and children lived separately from the men, and both boys and girls were taught to hunt and gather food. Bows and arrows were used to hunt agoutis, iguanas and to fish. The arrowheads were made from sharpened shells that were dipped in poison to kill the prey faster. Along with meat and seafood, meals consisted of yam, cassava, sweet potato and corn.

The arrival of the Europeans brought the end of these indigenous races of people. Through war, slavery and disease, entire populations were all but wiped out in a matter of years. Today, few people in the Caribbean islands have Carib or Arawak blood in them, and most of their customs have been lost. With the loss of what they saw as free labour, the Europeans turned to Africa, and so began centuries of slavery.