The Taíno were an indigenous people of the Caribbean. At the time of European contact in the late fifteenth century, they were the principal inhabitants of most of Cuba, Hispaniola (the Dominican Republic and Haiti), Jamaica, Puerto Rico, The Bahamas and the northern Lesser Antilles. The Taíno were the first New World peoples to be encountered by Christopher Columbus during his 1492 voyage. They spoke the Taíno language, an Arawakan language.
The ancestors of the Taíno originated in South America, and the Taíno culture as documented developed in the Caribbean. Taíno groups were in conflict with the Island Caribs of the southern Lesser Antilles. At the time of contact, the Taíno were divided into several groups. Western Taíno groups included the Lucayans of the Bahamas, the Ciboney of central Cuba, and the inhabitants of Jamaica. The Classic Taíno lived in Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, while the Eastern Taíno lived in the northern islands of the Lesser Antilles.
At the time of Columbus’s arrival in 1492, there were five Taíno chiefdoms in Hispaniola, each led by a principal Cacique (chief), to whom tribute was paid. The Taíno name for Hispaniola was Ayiti (“land of high mountains”), which is the source of the name Haiti. Cuba was divided into 29 chiefdoms, many of which have given their name to modern cities, including Havana, Batabanó, Camagüey, Baracoa, and Bayamo. Taíno communities ranged from small settlements to larger centers of up to 3,000 people. They may have numbered 2 million at the time of contact.
The Spanish conquered various Taíno chiefdoms during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century. According to The Black Legend, warfare and harsh enslavement by the colonists decimated the population;[full citation needed] however, most scholars believe that European diseases caused the majority of deaths. A smallpox epidemic in Hispaniola in 1518–1519 killed almost 90% of the surviving Taíno. The remaining Taíno were intermarried with Europeans and Africans, and were incorporated into the Spanish colonies. The Taíno were considered extinct by the end of the century. However, since about 1840, there have been attempts to create a quasi-indigenous Taíno identity in rural areas of Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. This trend accelerated among Puerto Rican communities in the mainland United States in the 1960s. At the 2010 U.S. census, 1,098 people in Puerto Rico identified themselves as “Puerto Rican Indian”, 1,410 identified as “Spanish American Indian”, and 9,399 identified as “Taíno”. In total, 35,856 Puerto Ricans considered themselves Native American.
A direct translation of the word “Taíno” signified “men of the good”. Additionally, the name was used by the indigenous people of Hispaniola to indicate that they were “relatives”.[full citation needed] The Taíno people, or Taíno culture, has been classified by some authorities as belonging to the Arawak, as their language was considered to belong to the Arawak language family, the languages of which were present throughout the Caribbean, and much of Central and South America.
The early ethnohistorian Daniel Garrison Brinton called the Taíno people the “Island Arawak”.
Nevertheless, contemporary scholars have recognized that the Taíno had developed a distinct language and culture.
Taíno and Arawak appellations have been used with numerous and contradictory meanings by writers, travelers, historians, linguists, and anthropologists. Often they were used interchangeably; “Taíno” has been applied to the Greater Antillean nation only, or including the Bahamian nations, or adding the Leeward Islands nations, or all those excluding the Puerto Rican and Leeward nations. Similarly, “Island Taíno” has been used to refer to those living in the Windward Islands only, to the northern Caribbean inhabitants only, as well as to the population of the entire Caribbean.
Modern historians, linguists and anthropologists now hold that the term Taíno should refer to all the Taíno/Arawak nations except for the Caribs, who are not seen to belong to the same people. Linguists continue to debate whether the Carib language is an Arawakan dialect or creole language, or perhaps an individual language, with an Arawakan pidgin used for communication purposes.
Rouse classifies as Taíno all inhabitants of the Greater Antilles (except the western tip of Cuba), the Bahamian archipelago, and the northern Lesser Antilles. He subdivides the Taíno into three main groups: Classic Taíno, mostly from Haiti, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic; Western Taíno, or sub-Taíno, for population from Jamaica, Cuba (except for the western tip), and the Bahamian archipelago; and Eastern Taíno for those from the Virgin Islands to Montserrat.
Two schools of thought have emerged regarding the origin of the indigenous people of the Caribbean.
- One group of scholars contends that the ancestors of the Taíno came from the center of the Amazon Basin, and are related to the Yanomama. This is indicated by linguistic, cultural and ceramic evidence. They migrated to the Orinoco valley on the north coast. From there they reached the Caribbean by way of what is now Guyana and Venezuela into Trinidad, proceeding along the Lesser Antilles to Cuba and the Bahamian archipelago. Evidence that supports this theory includes the tracing of the ancestral cultures of these people to the Orinoco Valley and their languages to the Amazon Basin.
- The alternate theory, known as the circum-Caribbean theory, contends that the ancestors of the Taíno diffused from the Colombian Andes. Julian H. Steward, who originated this concept, suggests a migration from the Andes to the Caribbean and a parallel migration into Central America and into the Guianas, Venezuela, and the Amazon Basin of South America.
Taíno culture as documented is believed to have developed in the Caribbean. The Taíno creation story says that they emerged from caves in a sacred mountain on present-day Hispaniola. In Puerto Rico, 21st century studies have shown a high proportion of people having Amerindian MtDNA. Of the two major haplotypes found, one does not exist in the Taíno ancestral group, so other Native American people are also part of this genetic ancestry.
Taíno society was divided into two classes: naborias (commoners) and nitaínos (nobles). These were governed by male chiefs known as caciques, who inherited their position through their mother’s noble line. The nitaínos functioned as sub-caciques in villages, overseeing naborias work. Caciques were advised by priests/healers known as bohiques. Caciques enjoyed the privilege of wearing golden pendants called guanín, living in square bohíos, instead of the round ones of ordinary villagers, and sitting on wooden stools to be above the guests they received. Bohiques were extolled for their healing powers and ability to speak with deities. They were consulted and granted the Taíno permission to engage in important tasks.
The Taíno had a matrilineal system of kinship, descent, and inheritance. When a male heir was not present, the inheritance or succession would go to the oldest male child of the sister of the deceased. The Taíno had avunculocal post-marital residence, meaning a newly married couple lived in the household of the maternal uncle. He was more important in the lives of his niece’s children than their biological father; the uncle introduced the boys to men’s societies. Some Taíno practiced polygamy. Men, and sometimes women, might have two or three spouses. A few caciques had as many as 30 wives.
The Taíno women were highly skilled in agriculture. The people depended on it, but the men also fished and hunted. They made fishing nets and ropes from cotton and palm. Their dugout canoes (kanoa) were made in various sizes, which could hold from 2 to 150 people. An average-sized canoe would hold about 15–20 people. They used bows and arrows for hunting, and developed the use of poisons on their arrowheads.
A frequently worn hair style for women featured bangs in front and longer hair in back. They sometimes wore gold jewelry, paint, and/or shells. Taíno men and unmarried women were usually naked. After marriage, women wore a small cotton apron, called a nagua.
The Taíno lived in settlements called yucayeques, which varied in size depending on the location. Those in Puerto Rico and Hispaniola were the largest, and those in the Bahamas were the smallest. In the center of a typical village was a central plaza, used for various social activities such as games, festivals, religious rituals, and public ceremonies. These plazas had many shapes, including oval, rectangular, narrow, and elongated. Ceremonies where the deeds of the ancestors were celebrated, called areitos, were performed here.
Often, the general population lived in large circular buildings (bohios), constructed with wooden poles, woven straw, and palm leaves. These houses, built surrounding the central plaza, could hold 10–15 families each.[full citation needed] The cacique and his family lived in rectangular buildings (caney) of similar construction, with wooden porches. Taíno home furnishings included cotton hammocks (hamaca), sleeping and sitting mats made of palms, wooden chairs ( or duho) with woven seats, platforms, and cradles for children.
The Taíno played a ceremonial ball game called batey. Opposing teams had 10 to 30 players per team and used a solid rubber ball. Normally, the teams were composed of men, but occasionally women played the game as well. The Classic Taíno played in the village’s center plaza or on especially designed rectangular ball courts called batey. Games on the batey are believed to have been used for conflict resolution between communities. The most elaborate ball courts are found at chiefdom boundaries. Often, chiefs made wagers on the possible outcome of a game.
Some words that they used, such as barbacoa (“barbecue”), hamaca (“hammock”), kanoa (“canoe”), tabaco (“tobacco”), yuca, batata (“sweet potato”), and juracán (“hurricane”), have been incorporated into Spanish and English.
For warfare, the men made wooden war clubs, which they called a macana. It was about one inch thick and was similar to the .
Food and agriculture
Taíno staples included vegetables, fruit, meat, and fish. There were no large animals native to the Caribbean, but they captured and ate small animals, such as hutias and other mammals, earthworms, lizards, turtles, and birds. Manatees were speared and fish were caught in nets, speared, trapped in weirs, or caught with hook and line. Wild parrots were decoyed with domesticated birds, and iguanas were taken from trees and other vegetation. The Taíno stored live animals until they were ready to be consumed: fish and turtles were stored in weirs, hutias and dogs were stored in corrals.
Due to this lack of large game, the Taíno people became very skilled fishermen. One technique was to hook a remora, also known as a suckerfish, to a line secured to a canoe and wait for the fish to attach itself to a larger fish or even a sea turtle. Once this happened, men would jump into the water and bring in their assisted catch. Another method used by the Taínos was to take shredded stems and roots of poisonous senna shrubs and throw them into nearby streams or rivers. Upon eating the bait, the fish were stunned just long enough to allow the fishermen to gather them in. This poison did not affect the edibility of the fish. Taíno youth, mostly young boys, also collected mussels and oysters in shallow waters and within the mangroves.
Taíno groups in the more developed islands, such as Puerto Rico, Hispaniola, and Jamaica, relied more on agriculture (farming and other jobs). Fields for important root crops, such as the staple yuca, were prepared by heaping up mounds of soil, called conucos. This improved soil drainage and fertility as well as delaying erosion, allowed for longer storage of crops in the ground. Less important crops such as corn were raised in simple clearings created by slash and burn technique. Typically, conucos were three feet high and nine feet in circumference and were arranged in rows. The primary root crop was yuca or cassava, a woody shrub cultivated for its edible and starchy tuberous root. It was planted using a coa, a kind of hoe made completely from wood. Women processed the poisonous variety of cassava by squeezing it to extract the toxic juices. Then they would grind the roots into flour for baking bread. Batata (sweet potato) was the next most important root crop.
Contrary to mainland practices, corn was not ground into flour and baked into bread, but was cooked and eaten off the cob. Corn bread becomes moldy faster than cassava bread in the high humidity of the Caribbean. Corn also was used to make an alcoholic beverage known as chicha. The Taíno grew squash, beans, peppers, peanuts, and pineapples. Tobacco, calabashes (West Indian pumpkins), and cotton were grown around the houses. Other fruits and vegetables, such as palm nuts, guavas, and Zamia roots, were collected from the wild.
Taíno spirituality centered on the worship of zemís. A zemí is a spirit or ancestor. The major Taíno zemis are Atabey and her son, Yúcahu. Atabey, was the zemi of the moon, fresh waters, and fertility. Other names for her include, Guabancex, Atabei, Atabeyra, Atabex, and Guimazoa. Guabancex was the non-nurturing aspect of the zemi Atabey who had control over natural disasters. Juracán is often identified as the zemi of storms, but the word simply means hurricane in the Taíno language. Guabancex had two assistants: Guataubá, a messenger who created hurricane winds, and Coatrisquie who created floodwaters. The Taínos of Quisqueya (Dominican Republic) called her son, “Yucahú Bagua Maorocotí”, which means “White Yuca, great and powerful as the sea and the mountains”. He was the spirit of cassava, the zemi of cassava – the Taínos’ main crop – and the sea.
The minor Taíno zemis related to the growing of cassava, the process of life, creation, and death. Baibrama was a minor zemi worshiped for his assistance in growing cassava and curing people from its poisonous juice. Boinayel and his twin brother Márohu were the zemis of rain and fair weather, respectively.
Maquetaurie Guayaba or Maketaori Guayaba was the zemi of Coaybay or Coabey, the land of the dead. Opiyelguabirán’, a dog-shaped zemi, watched over the dead. Deminán Caracaracol, a male cultural hero from whom the Taíno believed themselves to be descended, was worshipped as a zemí. Macocael was a cultural hero worshipped as a zemi, who had failed to guard the mountain from which human beings arose. He was punished by being turned into stone, or a bird, a frog, or a reptile, depending on interpretation of the myth.
Zemí was also the name the people gave to their physical representations of the Zemis, whether objects or drawings. They were made in many forms and materials and have been found in a variety of settings. The majority of zemís were crafted from wood, but stone, bone, shell, pottery, and cotton were used as well. Zemí petroglyphs were carved on rocks in streams, ball courts, and on stalagmites in caves. Cemí pictographs were found on secular objects such as pottery, and on tattoos. Yucahú, the zemi of cassava, was represented with a three-pointed zemí, which could be found in conucos to increase the yield of cassava. Wood and stone zemís have been found in caves in Hispaniola and Jamaica. Cemís are sometimes represented by toads, turtles, fish, snakes, and various abstract and human-like faces.
Some zemís are accompanied by a small table or tray, which is believed to be a receptacle for hallucinogenic snuff called cohoba, prepared from the beans of a species of Piptadenia tree. These trays have been found with ornately carved snuff tubes. Before certain ceremonies, Taínos would purify themselves, either by inducing vomiting (with a swallowing stick) or by fasting. After communal bread was served, first to the zemí, then to the cacique, and then to the common people, the people would sing the village epic to the accompaniment of maraca and other instruments.
One Taíno oral tradition explains that the Sun and Moon come out of caves. Another story tells of people who once lived in caves and only came out at night, because it was believed that the Sun would transform them. The Taíno believed they were descended from the union of the cultural hero Deminán Caracaracol and a female turtle. The origin of the oceans is described in the story of a huge flood that occurred when a father murdered his son (who was about to murder the father). The father put his son’s bones into a gourd or calabash. When the bones turned into fish, the gourd broke, and all the water of the world came pouring out.
Taínos believed that Jupias, the souls of the dead, would go to Coaybay, the underworld, and there they rest by day. At night they would assume the form of bats and eat the guava fruit.
Spaniards and Taíno
Columbus and the crew of his ship were the first Europeans to encounter the Taíno people, as they landed in The Bahamas on October 12, 1492. After their first interaction, Columbus described the Taínos as a physically tall, well-proportioned people, with a noble and kind personality.
In his diary, Columbus wrote:
They traded with us and gave us everything they had, with good will … they took great delight in pleasing us … They are very gentle and without knowledge of what is evil; nor do they murder or steal…Your highness may believe that in all the world there can be no better people … They love their neighbours as themselves, and they have the sweetest talk in the world, and are gentle and always laughing.
At this time, the neighbors of the Taíno were the Guanahatabeys in the western tip of Cuba, the Island-Caribs in the Lesser Antilles from Guadeloupe to Grenada, and the Calusa and Ais nations of Florida. Guanahaní was the Taíno name for the island that Columbus renamed as San Salvador (Spanish for “Holy Savior”). Columbus called the Taíno “Indians”, a reference that has grown to encompass all the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere. A group of Taíno people accompanied Columbus on his return voyage to Spain.
On Columbus’ second voyage to their culture, he began to require tribute from the Taíno in Hispaniola. According to Kirkpatrick Sale, each adult over 14 years of age was expected to deliver a hawks bell full of gold every three months, or when this was lacking, twenty-five pounds of spun cotton. If this tribute was not brought, the Spanish cut off the hands of the Taíno and left them to bleed to death. These cruel practices inspired many revolts by the Taíno and campaigns against the Spanish — some being successful, some not.
In 1511, several caciques in Puerto Rico, such as Agüeybaná II, Arasibo, Hayuya, Jumacao, Urayoán, Guarionex, and Orocobix, allied with the Carib and tried to oust the Spaniards. The revolt was suppressed by the Indio-Spanish forces of Governor Juan Ponce de León. Hatuey, a Taíno chieftain who had fled from Hispaniola to Cuba with 400 natives to unite the Cuban natives, was burned at the stake on February 2, 1512.
In Hispaniola, a Taíno chieftain named Enriquillo mobilized more than 3,000 Taíno in a successful rebellion in the 1520s. These Taíno were accorded land and a charter from the royal administration. Despite the small Spanish military presence in the region, they often used diplomatic divisions and, with help from powerful native allies, controlled most of the region. In exchange for a seasonal salary, religious and language education, the Taíno were required to work for Spanish and Indian land owners. This system of labor was part of the encomienda.
Taíno society was based on a matrilineal system and descent was traced through the mother. Women lived in village groups containing their children. The men lived separately. Because of this Taíno women had extensive control over their lives, their co-villagers, and their bodies. Since they lived separately from men, they were able to decide when they wanted to participate in sexual contact. This social organization partially shaped the views of conquistadors who came in contact with Taíno culture. They reportedly perceived women as “macha women” who had strong control over the men.
Although unclear, most historical evidence suggests that Taíno gender roles were non exclusive regarding most of the activities in their community.
Taíno women played an important role in intercultural interaction between Spaniards and the Taíno people. When Taíno men were away fighting intervention from other groups, women assumed the roles of primary food producers or ritual specialists. Women seem to have participated in all levels of the Taíno political hierarchy, occupying roles as high up as being caciques. Potentially, this meant that Taíno women could make the important choices for the village and could give the permission for Taíno men and women to take on the important tasks needed. There is evidence that suggests that the women who were wealthiest among the tribe collected crafted goods that they would then use for trade or as gifts.
Despite women being seemingly independent in Taíno society, during the era of contact Spaniards took Taíno women as an exchange item, putting them in a non-autonomous position. Dr. Chanca, a physician who traveled with Christopher Columbus, reported in a letter that Spaniards took as many women as they possibly could and kept them as concubines. Some sources report that, despite women being free and powerful before the contact era, they became the first commodities up for Spaniards to trade, or often, steal. This marked the beginning of a lifetime of kidnapping and abuse of Taíno women.
Early population estimates of Hispaniola, probably the most populous island inhabited by Taínos, range from 100,000 to 1,000,000 people. The maximum estimates for Jamaica and Puerto Rico are 600,000 people. The Spanish priest and defender of the Taíno, Bartolomé de las Casas (who had lived in Santo Domingo), wrote in his 1561 multi-volume History of the Indies:
There were 60,000 people living on this island [when I arrived in 1508], 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?
Researchers today doubt Las Casas’ figures for the pre-contact levels of the Taíno population, considering them an exaggeration. For example, Anderson Córdova estimates a maximum of 500,000 people inhabiting the island. They had no resistance to Old World diseases, notably smallpox. The encomienda system brought many Taíno to work in the fields and mines in exchange for Spanish protection, education, and a seasonal salary. Under the pretense of searching for gold and other materials, many Spaniards took advantage of the regions now under control of the anaborios and Spanish encomenderos to exploit the native population by seizing their land and wealth. It would take some time before the Taíno revolted against their oppressors — both Indian and Spanish alike — and many military campaigns before Emperor Charles V eradicated the encomienda system as a form of slavery.
In thirty years, between 80% and 90% of the Taíno population died. Because of the increased number of people (Spanish) on the island, there was a higher demand for food. Taíno cultivation was converted to Spanish methods. In hopes of frustrating the Spanish, some Taínos refused to plant or harvest their crops. The supply of food became so low in 1495 and 1496 that some 50,000 died from the severity of the famine. Historians have determined that the massive decline was due more to infectious disease outbreaks than any warfare or direct attacks. By 1507 their numbers had shrunk to 60,000. Scholars believe that epidemic disease (smallpox, influenza, measles, and typhus) was the overwhelming cause of the population decline of the indigenous people.
Taíno heritage in modern times
Some scholars, such as Jalil Sued Badillo, an ethnohistorian at the University of Puerto Rico, assert that although the official Spanish histories speak of the disappearance of the Taínos as an ethnic identification, many survivors left descendants – usually by intermarrying with other ethnic groups. Recent research revealed a high percentage of mixed or tri-racial ancestry in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Those claiming Taíno ancestry also have Spanish ancestry or African ancestry, and often, both.
Frank Moya Pons, a Dominican historian, documented that Spanish colonists intermarried with Taíno women. Over time, some of their mixed descendants intermarried with Africans, creating a tri-racial Creole culture. 1514 census records reveal that 40% of Spanish men on the island of Hispaniola had Taíno wives. Ethnohistorian Lynne Guitar writes that the Taíno were declared extinct in Spanish documents as early as the sixteenth century; however, individual Taínos continued to appear in wills and legal records for several decades after the arrival of the Spaniards.
Evidence suggests that some Taíno men and African women inter-married and lived in relatively isolated Maroon communities in the interior of the islands, where they evolved into a hybrid rural or campesino population with little or no interference from the Spanish authorities. Scholars also note that contemporary rural Dominicans retain Taíno linguistic features, agricultural practices, food ways, medicine, fishing practices, technology, architecture, oral history, and religious views. Often these cultural traits are looked down upon by urbanites as backward, however.
Sixteen “autosomal” studies of peoples in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean and its diaspora (mostly Puerto Ricans) have shown that between 10–20% of their DNA is indigenous, with some individuals having slightly higher scores and others having lower scores or no indigenous DNA at all. A recent study of a population in eastern Puerto Rico where the majority of persons tested claimed Taíno ancestry and pedigree showed that they had 61% mtDNA (distant maternal ancestry) and 0% y-chromosome DNA (distant paternal ancestry) demonstrating as expected that this is a hybrid creole population.
Groups, such as the Jatibonicu Taino Tribal Nation of Boriken Puerto Rico (1970), the Taíno Nation of the Antilles N.Y.C. (1993), United Confederation of Taíno People N.Y.C (1998), and El Pueblo Guatu Ma-Cu A Borikén Puerto Rico (2000), have been established to foster Taíno culture.
Taíno activists have created two unique writing scripts. The scripts are used to write Spanish, not a retained language from pre-Columbian ancestors. The organization teaches and uses their script among their own members.
In February 2018, a DNA study from an ancient tooth determined that the Taínos have living descendants in Puerto Rico, indicating that most Puerto Ricans have a degree of Taíno ancestry.
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