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Ciboney, Arawak and Caribs: 1500 BC -1500

A string of islands, between Florida and Venezuela, encloses the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. The tightly clustered group at the southern end of this chain provides an easy sequence of stepping stones to the three largest islands - Puerto Rico, Hispaniola and Cuba.

From the second millennium BC humans make their way along this chain from south America. The first to do so are a group of hunter-gatherers known to archaeologists as the Ciboney.

In the early centuries of the Christian era more sophisticated tribes of neolithic farmers, the Arawak, move gradually north through the islands pushing the Ciboney ahead of them. From about1000 a third group, the Caribs, begin to exert the same pressure on the Arawak.

The Caribs, more primitive and ferocious than the Arawak, expand their territory by ruthless warfare. When they defeat their Arawak neighbours, it is their custom to marry the women and eat the men. The Arawak know these people as canibas, their own version of the word Caribs.

The Spaniards, the next group to arrive in the islands, are alarmed and fascinated by the man-eating canibas. News of them spreads rapidly in Europe, resulting in a new word - cannibal.

When Columbus reaches the Bahamas and the Greater Antilles, in 1492, these northern islands are occupied by the Arawak with only a few pockets of Ciponey surviving. The smaller islands of the Lesser Antilles, in the south, are by now largely Carib.

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