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Reconstruction of a Taíno village in Cuba
The Taínos were pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Bahamasmarker, Greater Antilles, and the northern Lesser Antilles. It is believed that the seafaring Taínos are relatives of the Arawakan people of South America. Their language is a member of the Maipurean linguistic family, which ranges from South America across the Caribbeanmarker.

At the time of Columbus's arrival in 1492, there were five Taíno kingdoms and territories on Hispaniolamarker (modern day Haitimarker and Dominican Republicmarker), each led by a principal Cacique (chieftain), to whom tribute was paid. As the hereditary head chief of Taíno tribes, the cacique was paid significant tribute. Caciques enjoyed the privilege of wearing golden pendants called guani, living in square bohíos instead of the round ones the villagers inhabited, and sitting on wooden stools when receiving guests. At the time of the Spanish conquest, the largest Taíno population centers may have contained over 3,000 people each. The Taínos 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 Caribs. Many Carib women spoke Taíno because of the large number of female Taíno captives among them.

By the 18th century, Taíno society had been devastated by introduced diseases such as smallpox, as well as other problems like intermarriages and forced assimilation into the plantation economy that Spainmarker imposed in its Caribbean colonies, with its subsequent importation of African slave workers. The first recorded smallpox outbreak in Hispaniolamarker occurred in December 1518 or January 1519. It is argued that there was substantial mestizaje (racial and cultural mixing) as well as several Indian pueblos that survived into the 19th century in Cubamarker. The Spaniards who first arrived in the Bahamas, Cuba and Hispaniola in 1492, and later in Puerto Rico, did not bring women. They took Taíno women for their wives, which resulted in mestizo children.


The indigenous peoples Columbus encountered in his first voyage called themselves "Taíno", meaning "good" or "noble", to differentiate themselves from Island-Caribs. This name applied to all the Taínos including those in the Lesser Antilles. Locally, the Taínos referred to themselves by the name of their location. For example, those in the Dominican Republic called themselves according to their island Quisqueya, those occupying the Bahamas called themselves Lucayo (small islands), and those in Puerto Rico called themselves Boricua and their island Borikén, meaning "Great land of the valiant and noble Lord". The Taínos would greet each other with a hand-in arm shake (hands grasping forearms close to elbows) and saying "Taino," meaning "Peace".

Some ethnohistorians, such as Daniel Garrison Brinton, called the same culture of people "Island Arawak" from the Arawakan word for cassava flour, a staple of the race. From this, the language and the people were eventually called "Arawak". However, modern scholars consider this a mistake. The people who called themselves Arawak lived only in Guyanamarker and Trinidadmarker and their language and culture differ from those of the Taíno.

Throughout time these terms have been used interchangeably by writers, travelers, historians, linguists, and anthropologists. Taíno has been used to mean the Greater Antillean tribes only, those plus the Bahamas tribes, those and 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 nor historians as being the same people although linguists are still debating whether the Carib language is an Arawakan dialect or creole language — or perhaps a 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 Taínos. He subdivides Taínos into three main groups: Classic Taíno, mostly from Puerto Rico and some from 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 Montserratmarker.


Two schools of thought have emerged regarding the origin of the indigenous people of the West Indies. One group contends that the ancestors of the Taínos came from the center of the Amazon Basin, subsequently moving to the Orinoco valley. From there they reached the West Indiesmarker by way of what is now Guyanamarker and Venezuelamarker into Trinidadmarker, proceeding along the Lesser Antilles all the way 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 Taínos diffused from the Colombian Andes. Julian H. Steward, the theory's originator, suggested a radiation from the Andes to the West Indies and a parallel radiation into Central America and into the Guianas, Venezuela, and the Amazon Basin.

Taíno culture is believed to have developed in the West Indies. The Taíno believed they had originated from caves in a sacred mountain on Hispaniola.

Culture and lifestyle

Dujo, a wooden chair crafted by Taínos.
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. Bohiques were extolled for their healing powers and ability to speak with gods and as a result, they granted Taínos permission to engage in important tasks.

Taínos lived in a matrilineal society. When a male heir was not present the inheritance or succession would go to the eldest child (son or daughter) of the deceased’s sister. The Taínos were very experienced in agriculture and lived a mainly agrarian lifestyle but also fished and hunted. A frequently worn hair style 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. Some Taíno practiced polygamy. Men, and sometimes women, might have 2 or 3 spouses, and it was noted that some caciques would even marry as many 30 wives.

Taínos lived in metropolises called yucayeques, which varied in size depending on the location; those in Puerto Rico and Hispaniola being the largest and those in the Bahamas being the smallest. In the center of a typical village was a 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 would surround the central plaza and could hold 10-15 families. The cacique and his family would live in rectangular buildings (caney) of similar construction, with wooden porches. Taíno home furnishings included cotton hammocks (hamaca), mats made of palms, wooden chairs (dujo) with woven seats, platforms, and cradles for children.

Caguana Ceremonial ball court (batey), outlined with stones.
The Taínos played a ceremonial ball game called batos. The game was played between opposing teams consisting of 10 to 30 players per team using a solid rubber ball. Normally, the teams were composed of only men, but occasionally women played the game as well. The Classic Taínos played in the village's center plaza or on especially designed rectangular ball courts called batey. Batey is believed to have been used for conflict resolution between communities; the most elaborate ball courts are found in chiefdoms' boundaries. Often, chiefs made wagers on the possible outcome of a game.


Taínos spoke a Maipurean language but lacked a written language. Some of the words used by them such as barbacoa ("barbecue"), hamaca ("hammock"), kanoa ("canoe"), tabaco ("tobacco"), yuca, batata ("potato"), and Juracán ("hurricane") have been incorporated into the Spanish and English languages.

Food and agriculture

Cassava (yuca) roots, the Taínos' main crop
Taíno staples included vegetables, fruit, meat, and fish. Large animals were absent from the fauna of the West Indies, but small animals such as hutias, earthworms, lizards, turtles, birds, and other mammals were eaten. 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 extracted from trees and other vegetation. Taínos 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.

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, which improved soil drainage and fertility as well as delaying erosion, and allowing for longer storage of crops in the ground. Less important crops such as corn were faised in simple clearings created by slash and burn technique. Typically, Conucos were 3 feet high and 9 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 out of wood. Women squeezed the poisonous variety of "cassava" to extract the toxic juices preparatory to grinding 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. Instead, it was eaten off the cob. A possible explanation for this is that corn bread becomes moldy faster than cassava bread in the high humidity of the West Indies. Taínos 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.


Taínos used cotton and palm extensively for fishing nets and ropes. 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, and sometimes put various poisons on their arrowheads. For warfare, they employed the use of a wooden war club, which they called a macana, that was about one inch thick and was similar to the coco macaque.


Taíno religion centered on the worship of zemís or cemís. Cemís 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 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 juracán only 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, 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.

Rock petroglyph overlayed with chalk in the Caguana Indigenous Ceremonial Center in Utuado, Puerto Rico.
Cemí was also the name of the physical representations of the gods. These representations came in many forms and materials and could be 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, 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 serving communal bread, first to the cemi, then to the cacique, and then to the common people, the village epic would be sung to the accompanyment of maraca and other instruments.

Taínos also employed body modification as an expression of their faith. 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 themselves descended from the union of Deminaán 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), and then put his bones into a gourd or calabash. These bones then turned to fish and the gourd broke and all the water of the world came pouring out.

Taínos believed that the souls of the dead go to Coaybay, the underworld, and there they rest by day, and when night comes they assume the form of bats and eat the fruit "guayaba".

Spaniards and Taínos

Chief Agüeybana greeting Juan Ponce de León in Puerto Rico
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 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 Taínos were the Guanahatabeys in the western tip of Cuba, and the Island-Caribs in the Lesser Antilles from Guadaloupemarker to Grenadamarker. The Taínos called the island Guanahaní which Columbus renamed as San Salvador (Spanish for "Holy Savior"). It was Columbus who called the Taíno "Indians", an identification 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 Taínos in Hispaniola. 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 observed, the Taínos had their hands cut off and were left to bleed to death. This also gave way to a service requirement called encomienda. Under this system, Taínos were required to work for a Spanish land owner for most of the year, which left little time to tend to their own community affairs.

In 1511, several caciques in Puerto Rico, such as Agüeybaná, Urayoán, Guarionex, and Orocobix, allied with the Caribs and tried to oust the Spaniards. The revolt was pacified by the 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 remaining Taíno in a successful rebellion in the 1530s. These Taíno were accorded land and a charter from the royal administration.

Population decline

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 multivolume 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 were not immune to Old World diseases, notably smallpox. Many of them were worked to death in the mines and fields, put to death in harsh put-downs of revolts or committed suicide (throwing themselves out of the cliffs or consuming manioc leaves) to escape their cruel new masters. La Casas wrote that the Spaniards
made bets as to who would slit a man in two, or cut off his head at one blow; or they opened up his bowels. They tore the babes from their mothers breast by their feet, and dashed their heads against the rocks...they spitted the bodies of other babes, together with their mothers and all who were before them, on their swords....and by thirteens, in honor and reverence for our Redeemer and the twelve Apostles they put wood underneath and, with fire, they burned the Indians alive.

In thirty years, between 80% and 90% of the population died. Because of the increased number of people (Spanish) on the island, there was a higher demand for food from the Taíno method of plantation which was being converted to Spanish methods. Because so many Taíno were put into slavery, they had little time for community affairs, and the supply of food became so low in 1495 and 1496 that famine occurred and combined with diseases like smallpox to which the Taíno had no immunity. This took a staggering death toll. By 1507 their numbers had shrunk to 60,000. By 1531 the number was down to 600. Scholars now believe that, among the various contributing factors, epidemic disease was the overwhelming cause of the population decline of the American natives.

Taíno heritage in modern times

Many people still identify themselves as descendants of the Taínos, and most notably among in Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, both on the islands and on the United States' mainland. The concept of living Taíno has been proved controversial, as the historical canon has for so long declared the Taíno to be 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 recent research does point towards a large mestizo population.

Frank Moya Pons, a Dominican historian documented that Spanish colonists intermarried with Taíno women, and, over time, these 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 Taínos were declared extinct in Spanish documents as early as the 16th century; however Taíno Indians kept appearing in wills and legal records in the ensuing years.

Anthropologist and archaeologist Dr. Pedro J. Ferbel Azacarate writes that Taínos and Africans lived in isolated Maroon communities, evolving into a rural population with predominantly Taíno cultural influences. 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 recent study conducted in Puerto Rico suggests that over 61% of the population possess Amerindian mtDNA. However, this study does not specify tribes, and Natives from many tribes were brought to the Greater Antilles in the Indian slave trade. 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 (Caucasian and Negroid)."

Heritage groups, such as the Jatibonicu Taíno Tribal Nation of Boriken, Puerto Rico (1970), the Taíno Nation of the Antilles (1993) and the United Confederation of Taíno People (1998), have been established to foster Taíno culture. Peoples who claim to be of native descent in the islands of Puerto Rico, Hispaniola and Eastern Cuba attempt to maintain some form of 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."

See also


  1. Saunders, Nicholas J. The Peoples of the Carribbean: An Encyclopedia of Archaeology and Traditional Culture. ABC-CLIO, 2005: xi, xv. ISBN 978-1576077016
  2. 1492 and Multiculturalism
  3. Alfred W. Crosby, The Columbian Exchange Westport, 1972, p. 47
  4. Documenting the Myth of the Taino Extinction, by Lynne Guitar
  5. Rouse,
  6. Rouse, p.30-48.
  7. Rouse, p.16
  8. Rouse, p.15
  9. Alegría, p.348.
  10. Rouse, p.15.
  11. Rouse, p.13.
  12. Rouse, p.12.
  13. The Taínos of Quisqueya (Dominican Republic) called him "Yucahú Bagua Maorocotí", which means "White Yuca, great and powerful as the sea and the mountains".
  14. Other names for this goddess include Guabancex, Atabei, Atabeyra, Atabex, and Guimazoa.
  15. Rouse, p.119.
  16. Rouse, p.121.
  17. Rouse, p.13,118.
  18. Rouse, p.118.
  19. Rouse, p.14.
  20. Kirkpatrick Sale, "The Conquest of Paradise",p100, ISBN 0-333-57479-6
  21. Kirkpatrick Sale, "The Conquest of Paradise",p155, ISBN 0-333-57479-6
  22. Rouse, p.7.
  23. American Indian Epidemics
  24. Kirkpatrick Sale, "The Conquest of Paradise",p157, ISBN 0-333-57479-6
  25. "La tragédie des Taïnos", in L'Histoire n°322, July-August 2007, p.16
  26. Smallpox Through History
  27. Tinker, T. & Freeland, M. (2008). Thief, Slave Trader, Murderer: Christopher Columbus and Caribbean Population Decline. (pp. 25-50)Retrieved September 23, 2008, from [Academic Search Premier Database]
  28. The War Against Smallpox
  29. European Disease in the New World
  30. The Story Of... Smallpox
  31. Ferbel, Dr. P. J. "Not Everyone Who Speaks Spanish is from Spain: Taíno Survival in the 21st Century Dominican Republic." Kacikie: Journal of Caribbean Amerindian History and Anthropology. (retrieved 24 Sept 2009)
  32. Taliman, Valerie. Taino Nation alive and strong. Indian Country Today. 24 Jan 2001 (retrieved 24 Sept 2009)
  33. Martínez Cruzado, Juan C. (2002). The Use of Mitochondrial DNA to Discover Pre-Columbian Migrations to the Caribbean:Results for Puerto Rico and Expectations for the Dominican Republic. Kacike: The Journal of Caribbean Amerindian History and Anthropology. Lynne Guitar, Ed. (Date of access: 25 September, 2006)
  34. Ferrer, Melba. "UPR study finds high Taino DNA rate: Tests contradict theory of extinction of P.R. natives." San Juan Star. 1 April 1999 (retrieved 24 Sept 2009)
  35. Antonio de Moya, E. (l993). "Animación sociocultural y polisíntesis en la transformación del sistema educativo Dominicano." La Revista de Educación. 1(2): 6-10.


  • Guitar, Lynne. 2000. "Criollos: The Birth of a Dynamic New Indo - Afro - European People and Culture on Hispaniola." KACIKE: The Journal of Caribbean Amerindian History and Anthropology, 1(1): 1-17
  • Indigenous Resurgence in the Contemporary Caribbean: Amerindian Survival and Revival. Edited by Maximilian C. Forte. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2006.
  • DeRLAS. Some important research contributions of Genetics to the study of Population History and Anthropology in Puerto Rico. Newark, Delaware: Delaware Review of Latin American Studies. August 15, 2000.
  • The Role of Cohoba in Taíno Shamanism Constantino M. Torres in Eleusis No. 1 (1998)
  • Shamanic Inebriants in South American Archaeology: Recent lnvestigations Constantino M. Torres in Eleusis No. 5 (2001)
  • Tinker, T & Freeland, M. 2008. "Thief, Slave Trader, Murderer: Christopher Columbus and Caribbean Population Decline." (pp=25-50). Retrieved from Academic Search Premier Database on September 23, 2008.
  • TAINOS: Alive and well in Puerto Rico and the United States?.

External links

  • Island Thresholds, Peabody Essex Museum’s interactive feature, showcases the work of Caribbean artists and their exploration of culture and identity.
  • Taino Diccionary, A dictionary of words of the indigenous peoples of caribbean from the encyclopedia "Clásicos de Puerto Rico, second edition, publisher, Ediciones Latinoamericanas. S.A., 1972" compiled by Puerto Rican historian Dr. Cayetano Coll y Toste of the "Real Academia de la Historia". Provided by the Jatibonicu Taino Tribal Nation of Boriken (Puerto Rico).

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