The Taíno were seafaring indigenous peoples of the Bahamas, Greater Antilles, and the northern Lesser Antilles. They were one of the Arawak peoples of South America, and the Taíno language was a member of the Arawakan language family of northern South America.
At the time of Columbus‘ arrival in 1492, there were five Taíno chiefdoms and territories on Hispaniola (modern day Haiti and Dominican Republic), each led by a principal Cacique (chieftain), to whom tribute was paid.
Cuba, the largest island on the Antilles, was originally divided into 29 chiefdoms. Most of the native settlements later became the site of Spanish colonial cities retaining the original Taino names, for instance; Havana, Batabanó, Camagüey, Baracoa and Bayamo.
Puerto Rico also was divided into chiefdoms. As the hereditary head chief of Taíno tribes, the cacique was paid significant tribute. At the time of the Spanish conquest, the largest Taíno population centers may have contained over 3,000 people each.
The Taíno were historically enemies of the neighboring Carib tribes, another group with origins in South America, who lived principally in the Lesser Antilles. The relationship between the two groups has been the subject of much study. For much of the 15th century, the Taíno tribe was being driven to the northeast in the Caribbean (out of what is now South America) because of raids by the Carib. Women were taken as captives, resulting in many Carib women speaking Taíno.
The Spaniards, who first arrived in the Bahamas, Cuba, and Hispaniola in 1492, and later in Puerto Rico, did not bring women in the first expeditions. They took Taíno women for their common-law wives, resulting in mestizo children. Sexual violence in Haiti with the Taíno women by the Spanish was also common. Scholars suggest there was substantial mestizaje (racial and cultural mixing) in Cuba, as well, and several Indian pueblos that survived into the 19th century.
The Taíno became extinct as a culture following settlement by Spanish colonists, primarily due to infectious diseases to which they had no immunity. The first recorded smallpox outbreak in Hispaniola occurred in December 1518 or January 1519. The 1518 smallpox epidemic killed 90% of the natives who had not already perished. Warfare and harsh enslavement by the colonists had also caused many deaths. By 1548 the native population had declined to fewer than 500.
The Taíno people, or Taíno culture, has been classified by some authorities as belonging to the Arawak, as they were descended from the same language family. The early ethnohistorian, Daniel Garrison Brinton, called these the “Island Arawak.” The name was derived from the Arawakan word for cassava flour, a staple of their diet. The Arawakan language family is made up of languages that were present throughout the Caribbean, and much of Central and South America.
Contemporary scholars have recognized that the Taino had developed a distinct language and culture. Taino and Arawak were often used interchangeably by writers, travelers, historians, linguists, and anthropologists. Taíno has been used to mean the Greater Antillean tribes only, or including the Bahamian tribes, or adding the Leeward Islands tribes, or all those excluding the Puerto Rican and Leeward tribes. Island Taíno has been used to refer to those living in the Windward Islands only, those in the northern Caribbean only, or those living in any of the islands.
Modern historians, linguists and anthropologists now hold that the term Taíno should refer to all the Taíno/Arawak tribes except for the Caribs. The Caribs are not seen by anthropologists or historians as being 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 often used to communicate.
Rouse classifies all inhabitants of the Greater Antilles (except the western tip of Cuba), the Bahamian archipelago, and the northern Lesser Antilles as Taíno. He subdivides the Taíno into three main groups: Classic Taíno, mostly from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic; Western Taíno or sub-Taíno, from Jamaica, Cuba (except for the western tip) and the Bahamian archipelago; and Eastern Taíno, from the Virgin Islands to Montserrat.
Taíno society was divided into two classes: naborias (commoners) and nitaínos (nobles). These were governed by chiefs known as caciques (who were either male or female), who were advised by priests/healers known as bohiques. Caciques enjoyed the privilege of wearing golden pendants called guanin, living in square bohíos, instead of the round ones or 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 gods. 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 child (son or daughter) of the deceased’s sister. 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 sometimes wore short skirts. Taíno women wore a similar garment (nagua) after marriage.
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, or 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. 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 (dujo) 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 chiefdoms’ boundaries. Often, chiefs made wagers on the possible outcome of a game.
Taíno spoke an Arawakan language and did not have writing. Some of the words used by them, such as barbacoa (“barbecue”), hamaca (“hammock”), kanoa (“canoe”), tabaco (“tobacco”), yuca, batata (“sweet potato”), and juracán (“hurricane”), have been incorporated into Spanish and English.
Food and agriculture
Taíno staples included vegetables, fruit, meat, and fish. There were no large animals native to the West Indies, 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, poisoned, 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, and hutias and dogs were stored in corrals.
Due to this lack of larger sized game in the area, the Taíno people became very skilled fishermen. One technique used while fishing 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 gather them in. This poison did not effect the edibility of the fish. Taíno tribesmen, 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. 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, and it allowing 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/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. It was cooked and eaten off the cob. Corn bread becomes moldy faster than cassava bread in the high humidity of the West Indies. 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 religion centered on the worship of zemís. Zemis are gods, spirits, or ancestors. The major Taíno gods are Yúcahu and Atabey. Yúcahu, which means spirit of cassava, was the god of cassava (the Taínos’ main crop) and the sea. Atabey, mother of Yúcahu, was the goddess of the moon, fresh waters and fertility.
The minor Taíno gods related to growing of cassava, the process of life, creation and death. Baibrama was a minor god worshiped for his assistance in growing cassava and curing people from its poisonous juice. Boinayel and his twin brother Márohu were the gods of rain and fair weather, respectively. Guabancex was the goddess of storms (hurricanes). Juracán is often identified as the god 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.
Maquetaurie Guayaba or Maketaori Guayaba was the god of Coaybay or Coabey, the land of the dead. Opiyelguabirán’, a dog-shaped god, watched over the dead. Deminán Caracaracol, a male cultural hero from which the Taíno believed to descend, was worshipped as a cemí. Macocael was a cultural hero worshipped as a god 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.
Cemí was also the name the people gave to their physical representations of the gods, whether objects or drawings. They were made in many forms and materials and have been found in a variety of settings. The majority of cemís were crafted from wood but stone, bone, shell, pottery, and cotton were also used. Cemí 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 god of cassava, was represented with a three-pointed cemí, which could be found in conucos to increase the yield of cassava. Wood and stone cemís have been found in caves in Hispaniola and Jamaica. Cemís are sometimes represented by toads, turtles, fishes, snakes, and various abstract and human-like faces.
Some of the carved cemís include 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 cemi, 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.
Taíno also modified or decorated their bodies to express their religion. The higher the piercing or tattoo on the body, the closer to their gods. Men usually wore decorative tattoos and the women usually had piercings.
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 Deminán Caracaracol and a female turtle. The origin of the oceans is described in the story of a huge flood, which occurred when a father murdered his son (who was about to murder the father). The father put the 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 fruit “guayaba“.
Spaniards and Taíno
Columbus and his crew, landing on an island in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492, were the first Europeans to encounter the Taíno people. Columbus described the Tainos as a physically tall, well-proportioned people, with a noble and kind personality.
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 Timacua and Ais tribes of Florida. The Taíno called the island Guanahaní which 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 back to Spain.
On Columbus’ second voyage, 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 Taino 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 over 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 forced labor was part of the encomienda.
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 Bartolomé de Las Casas (who was living in the Dominican Republic at the time) 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’s 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. The Taíno population estimates range all over, from a few hundred thousand up to 8,000,000. 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 encomienderos to exploit the native population by stealing 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 Taino 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
Many people identify as descendants of the Taíno, most notably among the Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, both on the islands and on the United States mainland. The concept of “living Taíno” has proved controversial. The people and society were long declared extinct.
Some scholars, such as Jalil Sued Badillo, an ethnohistorian at the University of Puerto Rico, assert that the official Spanish historical record speak of the disappearance of the Taínos. Certainly there are no full-blood Taíno people alive today, but survivors had descendants and intermarried with other ethnic groups. Recent research notes a high percentage of mestizo ancestry among people in Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic.
Frank Moya Pons, a Dominican historian, documented that Spanish colonists intermarried with Taíno women. Over time, some of their mestizo descendants intermarried with Africans, creating a tri-racial Creole culture. 1514 census records reveal that 40% of Spanish men in the Dominican Republic had Taíno wives. Ethnohistorian Lynne Guitar writes that Taíno were declared extinct in Spanish documents as early as the 16th century; however, individual Taíno natives kept appearing in wills and legal records in the ensuing years.
Anthropologist and archaeologist Dr. Pedro J. Ferbel Azacarate writes that Taíno and Africans lived in isolated Maroon communities, evolving into a rural population with predominantly Taíno cultural influences, as they had the advantage of knowing the native habitat. Ferbel documents that even contemporary rural Dominicans retain Taíno linguistic features, agricultural practices, foodways, medicine, fishing practices, technology, architecture, oral history, and religious views. However, these cultural traits are often looked down upon by urbanites as being backwards. “It’s surprising just how many Taino traditions, customs, and practices have been continued,” says David Cintron, who wrote his graduate thesis on the Taíno revitalization movement. “We simply take for granted that these are Puerto Rican or Cuban practices and never realize that they are Taino.”
A 2002 study conducted in Puerto Rico suggests that over 61% of the population possess Amerindian mtDNA. Other studies indicate a wider range. Juan Carlos Martinez, a biology professor at the University of Puerto Rico who conducted his own mtDNA studies, says, “Our results suggest that our genetic inheritance of indigenous origin can’t be very low and could be even higher than the inheritance from the other two races (Caucasoid and Negroid). “On average Puerto Ricans possess approximately 10-15% Native American MtDNA, most of it Taíno in origin; it is mixed into the genome in short pieces, consistent with a single short period of unions between the races several hundred years ago. Haplotypes A and C have been found, indicating more than Taíno Amerindian ancestry, as their ancestral group, the Yanomama, do not have haplotype A.
Heritage groups, such as the Jatibonicu Taino Tribal Nation of Boriken (Puerto Rico) (1970), the Taíno Nation of the Antilles (1993), United Confederation of Taíno People (1998) and El Pueblo Guatu Ma-Cu A Boriken Puerto Rico (2000), have been established to foster Taíno culture. However, it is controversial as to whether these Heritage Groups represent Taíno culture accurately. Some Taino groups are known to ‘adopt’ other native traditions (mainly North American Plains Indian). Many aspects of Taíno culture have been lost and/or creolized with Spaniard and African cultures over time on the Caribbean Islands. People who claim to be of native descent in the islands of Puerto Rico, Hispaniola and Eastern Cuba have been trying to maintain cultural connection with their historic identities. Antonio de Moya, a Dominican educator, wrote in 1993, “the [Indian] genocide is the big lie of our history… the Dominican Taínos continue to live, 500 years after European contact.”
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 Guaka-kú teaches and uses their script among their own members. The LGTK (Liga Guakía Taína-ké) has promoted teaching their script among elementary and middle school students to strengthen their interest in Taíno identity.