Pre-Columbian Cuba


The earliest inhabitants of Cuba were the Guanajatabey people, who migrated to the island from the forests of the South American mainland as long ago as 5300 BC. The Guanajatabeyes, who numbered about 100,000, were hunters, gatherers, and farmers. They were to cultivate cohiba (tobacco), a crop upon which the island's economy would one day depend. Spanish conquistador Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar later observed that the Guanajatabeyes were "without houses or towns and eating only the meat they are able to find in the forests as well as turtles and fish." Though the Guanajatabeyes are now considered to be a distinct population, early anthropologists and historians mistakenly believed that they were the Ciboney people who occupied areas throughout the Antilles islands of the Caribbean. More recently, researchers have speculated that the Guanajatabeyes may have migrated from the south of the United States, evidenced by similarities of artifacts found in both regions. Some studies ascribe a role to these original inhabitants in the extinction of the islands' megafauna, including condors, giant owls, and eventually ground sloths.

Further evidence suggests that the Guanajatabeyes were driven to the west of the island by the arrival of two subsequent waves of migrants, the Taíno and Ciboney. These groups are sometimes referred to as neo-Taíno nations. The new arrivals had migrated north along the Caribbean island chain from the Orinoco delta in Venezuela. These two groups were prehistoric cultures in a time period during which humans created tools from stone, yet they were familiar with gold (caona) and copper alloys (guanín).

Taíno and Ciboney cultures

The Taíno and Ciboney were part of a cultural group commonly called the Arawak, which extended far into South America. Initially the new arrivals inhabited the eastern area of Baracoa before expanding across the island. Traveling Dominican clergyman and writer Bartolome de las Casas estimated that the Cuban population of the neo-Taíno people had reached 200,000 by the time of the late fifteenth century. The Taíno cultivated the yucca root, harvested it and baked it to produce cassava bread. They also grew cotton and tobacco, and ate maize and sweet potatoes. According to Las Casas, they had "everything they needed for living; they had many crops, well arranged".