The Karankawa Indians lived in southern Texas along the Gulf of Mexico and have been extinct as a group since the mid-1800s. Information is somewhat sparse on the Karankawa, but we do know many things about their way of life.
The Karankawa were nomadic bands of people who migrated between the coastal areas in winter and inland during warmer weather. It is unclear whether they formed villages large enough to require a more complicated tribal system. They obtained food by hunting, gathering, and fishing. They did not farm or raise gardens.
Fishing was good in the winter, when large schools of redfish and drum fish moved into the bays and lagoons, which were shallow enough for people to wade in and catch fish, using long arrows shot by bows. They also used dugout canoes to travel between the barrier islands. Oysters, clams, scallops and mollusks were plentiful year-round, but were assumed to be safe only during cool weather. The Karankawa caught turtle and alligator for food as well. They built shelters in the winter and stayed in large camps for several months, and became more nomadic in warmer weather and moved inland, migrating from place to place as food supplies grew scarcer. Inland, they were able to hunt deer, bear, rabbits, turkeys, ducks and other wild game. Berries, seeds and nuts grew here as well. The area abounds with water including rivers, creeks and swamps.
The Karankawa are described in notes by explorers as being very large and typically standing over six feet tall; having elaborate tattoos and pierced lips, noses, ears and nipples and routinely smearing their bodies with alligator grease and dirt to ward off mosquitoes. All this gave them a fierce appearance, not to mention an off-putting smell, and so along with reports of cannibalism by the Karankawa, European explorers arriving in the 1500s and 1600s saw them as a people to be feared. The Karankawa are sometimes referred to by these explorers as “savages” and “giants.” The Karankawa did very little trading with other tribes, and their main association with different groups of people was to do battle when their territory was invaded.
The Karankawa people sometimes practiced cannibalism, eating captured enemy warriors and leaders after a battle. This was to obtain the magic power of these warriors, and not for food. This type of cannibalism was common among other coastal tribes in Texas and Louisiana as well. The ritual was performed while the victim was still alive, and thus was torturous and gruesome.
Disease, colonization, the Spanish slave trade, battles with the French and outright genocide by European settlers contributed to the demise of the Karankawa. By the 1850s, the people as a tribe no longer existed.