The term cacicazgo comes from the word cacique, which means “chief or head of house.” It dates to the arrival of the Europeans to the Greater Antilles in the 15th century. The system was used among Arawak-speaking societies to designate both the chiefs of the villages as well as the leaders who controlled various communities.

These chiefdoms, as a type of socio-political organization, were identified by anthropologists in the 1940s. In 1955, Kalervo Oberg categorized it as an intermediate level between tribes and states.

On some islands, the most important chiefs dominated or exercised great influence over large areas. Their power was established based on a complex network of alliances related to family, matrimonial and ceremonial ties. These alliances reflected the cultural and ethnic unity of the indigenous communities in a territory that banded together as part of a defensive strategy to face external threats, such as the attacks by the Caribes on communities in Puerto Rico.

On Hispaniola (today occupied by the Dominican Republic and Haiti), the recognition of a powerful chief was based on the support and subordination of lesser chiefs, who offered a contribution in the form of a tribute that consisted of luxury or military objects. The subordinate communities retained broad autonomy and control of their land.

These territorial and political units were called cacicazgos or provinces by the Spanish, who compared them, because of their structure, to the señoríos or domains of Europe. Some specialists estimate that the chiefdoms could cover areas greater than a single island. It is believed that Hispaniola was controlled mostly by five chiefdoms, a situation that some specialists believe only occurred on that island.

In the Greater Antilles, the organization of chiefdoms is mainly associated with the so-called Taino culture. Its economy was based on agriculture, which produced more than enough food to meet the needs of the village, thus allowing specialization of tasks. The chiefdom had a strict hierarchical structure among its members. Social level was passed down based on heredity.

The chiefdom structures coexisted with tribal communities in which the social organization was relatively egalitarian and the leadership was based mainly on the personal performance of the individual. This latter model predominated among the Caribes in the Lesser Antilles.

The parallel presence of chiefdoms and independent tribes also appeared in other parts of the Caribbean, especially in Venezuela. In Colombia, Panama and Costa Rica the chiefdom structures reached higher levels of complexity. There was greater centralization and the chiefdoms covered larger areas. They consisted of diverse ethnic groups and had higher numbers of inhabitants. They were known for their militaristic nature and their desire for expansion. In these higher-level chiefdoms, the top leaders maintained tight control over the production and trade of certain resources, especially gold and copper articles that were of high artistic quality. The social differentiation was greater and ceremonial aspects were more important.

One notable case in the Colombian area of the Caribbean was the chiefdom of Tairona, which controlled two large entities that ruled numerous towns. The communities that were part of this chiefdom had an extensive trade network, which suggests economic integration of the region, including settlements located on the coast and in the mountains.

Author: Reniel Rodríguez Ramos
Published: December 15, 2011.

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