Before Columbus arrived in the New World, most Caribbean islands were already inhabited by a variety of indigenous tribes.
Most prominently among these were the Taínos and the Caribs. These themselves were separated into smaller chiefdoms but shared common languages, trade and sometimes war. The Taínos inhabited what is now Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola (the Dominican Republic and Haiti), and Puerto Rico. Hispaniola for example was split into five chiefdoms, as were most other larger islands.
The Caribs lived throughout the Windward Islands, Dominica, and possibly the southern Leeward Islands. They were rumored as being violent and for practicing cannibalism. The word 'Caribbean' derives from their name, as does the word 'cannibal'. It is however believed that these claims of violence and cannibalism were vastly exaggerated by the Taínos.
After the arrival of the conquistadors things changed. Bringing new weapons, greed and disease, most natives did not fare so well. Although attempting to align themselves with the invaders at first (the Taíno with the Spaniards and the Caribs with the English and Dutch) they eventually succumbed to illnesses, slavery and genocide.
The Spanish priest Bartolomé de Las Casas wrote of the fate of these indigenous tribes in his 1561 multi-volume History of the Indies:
"There were 60,000 people living on this island [Hispaniola], including the Indians; so that from 1494 to 1508, over three million people had perished from war, slavery and the mines. Who in future generations will believe this?"
While many historians believe he may have gotten his numbers wrong, it is clear that a massive genocide had taken place. Nowadays not a single Taíno still exists on Hispaniola and what remains there are of them are found only in DNA strands.
A 2003 mitochondrial DNA study under the Taino genome project for example determined that 62% of people in Puerto Rico have a direct-line maternal ancestry to the Taíno ancestors. While there are people who lay claim to close Taíno heritage and attempt to bring back the Taíno way of life, language and religion, its is thought that there are few true Taíno descendants. A small number is thought to exist in Cuba and the island of Dominica has a small population of about 3,000 direct Caribs descendants.
Closer to mainland Latin America there are more pureblood tribes that are related to the Taínos and Caribs, known as the Lokono. There are about 10,000 living primarily in the coastal areas of Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana and fortunately this population seems to be on the rise again.