The aborigines numbered no fewer than 100,000 when Christopher Columbus chanced upon the island in 1492. The Spaniards who claimed the island lent the name Arawaks to the indigenous peoples, but there were several distinct groups that had left the Orinoco basin of South America and island-hopped their way up Caribbean islands over centuries.
The earliest to arrive were the Gauanajatabeys, hunter-gatherers who lived in the west, in what is now Pinar del Río Province. They were followed by the Ciboneys, who settled along the south coast, where they established themselves as farmers and fishermen. Little is known of these pre-Ceramic peoples (3500 b.c.– a.d. 1200). The pre-Ceramic tribes were displaced by the Taíno, who first arrived from Hispaniola around a.d. 1100 and, in a second wave, in the mid-15th century, when they were driven from their homeland on Hispaniola by the barbarous Caribs.
The Taíno lived in bohíos, thatched circular huts. Villages, which allied with one another, consisted of 15 or so families who shared property and were governed by a cacique, or clan leader. Since the land produced everything, the indigenous peoples were able to live well and peaceably. The indigenous peoples culled fish from the rivers (often using guaicán, or sucker fish, tethered on lines to bait larger fish) and birds from the trees, which also produced tropical fruits and nuts in abundance. The Taíno also used advanced farming techniques to maximize yields of yucca (also called manioc) and corn, or maize.
Although they went naked, the Taíno were skilled weavers who slept in tightly woven cotton nets (a precursor to today’s hammocks) strung from poles—the Spaniards would later use native labor to weave sailcloth. They were also skilled potters and boat builders who hewed canoes from huge tree trunks. It seems they had evolved at least basic astronomical charts, painted on the walls of caves.
After making landfall in the Bahamas in 1492 during his first voyage to the New World, Columbus took on indigenous guides and threaded the maze of islets that lay to the southwest. On the evening of October 27, 1492, Columbus first set eyes on the hazy mass of Cuba. He voyaged along the north coast for four weeks, and finally dropped anchor on November 27, 1492, near today’s Gibara.
“They are the best people in the world,” Columbus recorded of the Indians, “without knowledge of what is evil; nor do they murder or steal. … All the people show the most singular loving behavior… and are gentle and always laughing.” The Spaniards would change that forever.