Pre-colonial Guyana and first contacts
The first people to reach Guyana made their way from Asia, perhaps as far back as 35,000 years ago. These first inhabitants were
nomads who slowly migrated south into Central and South America. Although great civilizations later arose in the Americas, the structure of
Amerindian society in
the Guianas remained relatively simple. At the time of
Christopher Columbus's voyages, Guyana's inhabitants were divided into two groups, the
Arawak along the coast and the
Carib in the interior. One of the legacies of the indigenous peoples was the word Guiana, often used to describe the region encompassing modern Guyana as well as
Suriname (former Dutch Guiana) and
French Guiana. The word, which means "land of waters", is appropriate considering the area's multitude of rivers and streams.
Historians speculate that the Arawak and Carib originated in the South American
hinterland and migrated northward, first to the present-day Guianas and then to the
Caribbean islands. The Arawak, mainly cultivators, hunters, and fishermen, migrated to the Caribbean islands before the Carib and settled throughout the region. The tranquility of Arawak society was disrupted by the arrival of the bellicose Carib from the South American interior. The warlike behavior of the Carib and their violent migration north made an impact. By the end of the 15th century, the Carib had displaced the Arawak throughout the islands of the
Lesser Antilles. The Carib settlement of the Lesser Antilles also affected Guyana's future development. The Spanish explorers and settlers who came after Columbus found that the Arawak proved easier to conquer than the Carib, who fought hard to maintain their independence. This fierce resistance, along with a lack of gold in the Lesser Antilles, contributed to the Spanish emphasis on conquest and settlement of the
Greater Antilles and the mainland. Only a weak Spanish effort was made at consolidating Spain's authority in the Lesser Antilles (with the arguable exception of
Trinidad) and the Guianas.