The native Arawak peoples of the Caribbean have provided the world with bountiful products and words—tomatoes, potatoes, and, you guessed it—hammocks.
While it is impossible to know precisely where and when hammocks first originated, it’s clear that indigenous communities stretching all throughout what is today Latin America regularly used them for work and leisure long before Europeans arrived.
A Tree, A Net, A Bed
Sailing up to the New World, Columbus and his crew encountered the indigenous Arawak peoples on the island of Hispaniola (today’s Haiti and Dominican Republic), who called their hanging beds ‘amaca’ in their Taíno dialect. ‘Amaca’ referenced the local hamac trees, the bark of which was used to weave not only the hammocks in that region, but also the fishing nets. The same word, ‘amaca,’ was also used to refer to these nets, hinting that perhaps a tired fisherman strung his up one hot afternoon and decided it looked like a tempting spot for a nap. And, voilà! The hammock we know today was born.
Columbus returned to Europe bearing news not only of the New World he’d encountered, but also never before seen resources and goods, including the hammock.
Hammocks Invade Europe
The travelogues and letters of subsequent European explorers, conquerors, and colonizers of the New World are filled with references to netted, hanging beds. It was clear that hammocks were widely used by the native peoples from the Yucatán of Mexico down to Brazil, who constructed them in various styles and materials—fibers from hamaca, palm, and sisal plants, and even cotton.
The first written usage of the word ‘hammock’ appears in the letters of Bartolomé de Las Casas. Writing about the native peoples of Hispaniola, he observed:
“They lye on a coarse Rug or Matt, and those that have the most plentiful Estate or Fortunes, the better sort, use Net-work, knotted at the four corners in lieu of Beds, which the Inhabitants of the Island of Hispaniola, in their own proper Idiom, term ‘Amacas.’”
Hamacas, Hammacks, and Hängemattes
By the mid-1600s, ‘amaca’ had transformed into ‘hamaca’, officially entering the Spanish language.
As the hamaca spread across Europe, so did various linguistic forms of the word itself. Soon it appeared in an anglicized form, ‘hammock’, which we use today. The word first appeared in the English Dictionary of Sea Terms in 1841, for it was sailors who most appreciated and used these leisurely and functional devices.
In the past, some have argued that ‘hammock’ derives from Northern Europe, where words such as ‘Hängematte’ (German), ‘hängmatta’ (Swedish), and ‘hangmat’ (Dutch) have long been in use. It seems obvious that these words are descriptive—that is, they’re all ‘hanging mats.’ But this has been disproven as folk etymology. Rather, Europeans modified the original ‘hamaca’ in a way that created meaning in their own tongue.
So What’s In A Name?
Today, across Latin America, hammocks no longer double as fishing nets, nor are they made of the itchy bark of a hamaca tree. From Colombia to Brazil to Mexico, the art of hammock-making has been cultivated and refined. And rest assured that nearly anywhere you travel, ask for a hammock, hamaca, or a Hängematte, and your meaning is sure to get across!