Guanahatabey: Indigenous Caribbeans

Now in our second week of American Black History Month and the theme ‘People who Changed the Americas’, we explore the Caribbean and it’s historical relevance to the region across the Atlantic, starting with the Guanahatabey peoples, a small group of indigenous people to Western Cuba.

The Guanahatabey (also spelled Guanajatabey) were an indigenous people of western Cuba at the time of European contact. Archaeological and historical studies suggest the Guanahatabey were archaic hunter-gatherers with a distinct language and culture from their neighbours, and another group of indigenous peoples, the Taíno.

Currently, the leading theory on the origins of the Guanahatabey, are that they may have been a relict of an earlier culture that spread widely through the Caribbean before agriculturalist Taíno even became the agriculturalist pioneers in the region.

 Contemporary historical references, largely corroborated by the archaeological findings of Rouse, placed the Guanahatabey on the western half of Cuba, adjacent to the Taíno living in the rest of Cuba and the rest of the Greater Antilles.

Once living in what is now known as the Pinar del Río Province and parts of Habana and Matanzas Provinces, the group would have used the vast and very dense Cuban rainforest to support themselves and their communities.

Archaeological surveys of the area reveal that the population is what we would consider ‘anarchaic’, as they were mostly hunter-gatherers who lived in caves and refrained from building houses or settlements.

This is one of the first comparisons to the Taino that Historicans have established, as unlike their neighbours, the Taíno they practiced no agriculture and subsisted mostly on shellfish and foraging, and supplemented their diet with fish and game.

Furthermore, They were an aceramic, pre-ceramic community who preferred stone, shell, and bone tools and would have used grinding and lithic reduction techniques.

Sadly, the language of the Guanahatabey is lost except for a handful of place-names. However, what we do know is that the language was uniqely distinct from the Taino, as when the Guanahatabey were contacted by Christopher Columbus, his Taino interpreter could not communicate with the group.

As similar archaic sites dating back centuries have been found around the Caribbean, archaeologists consider the Guanahatabey to be late survivors of a much earlier culture that existed throughout the islands before the rise of the agricultural Taíno. Similar cultures existed in southern Florida at roughly the same time, though this may be simply an independent adaptation to a similar environment. It is possible the Guanahatabey were related to the Taíno, though no characteristically Taíno sites have ever been found in their territory.

Extinction or Disapearance?

Columbus visited the Guanahatabey region in April 1494, during his second voyage. The expedition encountered the locals but their Taíno interpreters could not communicate with them, implying they spoke a different language. The first known recorded use of the name “Guanahatabey” is in a 1514 letter by the conquistador Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar; Bartolomé de las Casas also referred to them in 1516. Both writers described the Guanahatabey as primitive cave-dwellers who chiefly ate fish. The accounts are second-hand, evidently coming from Taíno informants. As such, scholars such as William F. Keegan cast doubt on these reports as they could reflect Taíno legends about the Gaunahatabey rather than reality. The Spanish made sporadic references to the Guanahatabey and the distinctive language into the 16th century. They seem to have disappeared before any further information about them was recorded.

In the 20th century, misreadings of the historical record led scholars to confuse the Guanahatabey with another group specific to the Cuban region, the Ciboney. Bartolomé de las Casas referred to the Ciboney, and 20th-century archaeologists began using the name for the culture that produced the archaic-level aceramic sites they found throughout the Caribbean. As many of these sites were found in the former Guanahatabey region of western Cuba, the term “Ciboney” came to be used for the group historically known as the Guanahatabey. However, this appears to be an error; las Casas distinguished between the Gaunahatabey and the Ciboney, who were a western Taíno group of central Cuba subject to the eastern chiefs.