The Arawak were a once-predominant group of Native Americans originally inhabiting an area that stretched from present-day Florida down through the islands of the West Indies and the coastal area of South America as far as southern Brazil. The group is in the Arawakan linguistic family. The Arawak were the first natives of the Americas encountered by the Italian-Spanish navigator and thief Christopher Columbus.
A number of Arawak tribes have been extinct for several hundred years. Those of the Lesser Antilles were subjugated in fighting with the Carib peoples in the late 15th century. The Arawak population in the West Indies fell from a probable 2 to 3 million to a few thousand by the early 16th century; by the end of that century, island Arawak were extinct. This catastrophic mortality rate was due to the introduction of European diseases, damage to the Arawak’s food supplies, and Spanish brutality and enslavement.
Before the Spanish conquest, the large-island ecologies, offering bountiful harvests and abundant fish, combined with the compact and stable island populations, permitted the development of an elaborate political and social structure.
A class of hereditary chiefs ruled three other classes, the lowest of which was composed of slaves. The conflict between classes was apparently minimal. In this matrilineal society, rulers were succeeded by their eldest sister’s eldest son. Religion offered a hierarchy of deities parallel to the social structure.
The Arawak tribes of South America better survived European contact because their groups were smaller and more scattered. Their social structure was also matrilineal but much less complex. Mainland Arawak traded with the Dutch and English. In the 17th and 18th centuries, they made a transition to plantation agriculture.
In the 20th century, the existing Arawak began to accept wage-paying jobs as a supplement to farming, hunting, and fishing. Although their present-day culture reflects various non-Arawak influences, this group has been noted since pre-Columbian times as skilled potters, weavers, and wood- and metalworkers.
Today some 15,000 Arawak live in Guyana, with smaller numbers in Suriname and French Guiana. Arawakan-speaking groups are also widespread in other parts of South America.