Pre-Columbian Caribbean Life: The Taíno

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Reconstruction of a Taíno village in Cuba

Taíno is an ethnohistoric term used to describe certain tribes in the Virgin Islands and Greater Antilles between 1200-1500 AD. They are distinguished from the earlier Ceramic-Age tribes and the later Carib and mestizo cultures. They were all but decimated by their contact with the Spanish after Columbus discovered them.

Creation Myth of the Taíno

According to the Taíno Article Taíno Caves by Dr. Lynne Guitar, the Taíno told a creation myth involving a cave on Hispaniola filled with ancestor spirits. These spirits only left the cave at night to dine on a local fruit, the jobo, but always returned to their cave before sunrise.

One night they did not return to the cave and were turned to humans, creating the Taíno people. Like all myths, it was not a “belief” but a story used to transmit useful cultural information.

Taíno Origins and Language

The Taíno people developed through several waves of immigration to the islands. They came in canoes from Central America, South America, and Trinidad & Tobago in at least four separate waves. The various peoples merged to eventually form what would be recognized as the Taíno culture.

Because they spoke an Arawak-derivative language, they were sometimes referred to as the Island Arawaks, distinguishing from the Arawaks of South America. The Spaniards called them Indians, believing they were in the Indies. Taíno is how the Tanios referred to themselves in communicating with the Spaniards.

Taíno Society and Culture

The Taíno were a highly mobile society, traveling in long canoes between islands. Territories were divided into caciquats and governed by caciques, or tribal chiefs. The hierarchy involved levels of prestige among the caciques, some higher or lower ranking than others. Ascendency in rank was matrilineal, and rulers were succeeded by the eldest son of their eldest sister, although women could fill the position as well.

The Taínos were farmers and lived in individual family dwellings that were grouped in villages, and sometimes larger towns. They grew primarily cassava root and sweet potatoes, but sometimes corn. Their meat supplies came from smoking and drying fish, crocodiles and other large reptiles, birds, and amphibians.

Although Columbus described them as a “people poor in everything”, the Taíno people were thriving in the Caribbean at the time of his arrival. Within a decade of his arrival, however, the large majority of the Taínos would be gone, the victims of slavery, violence and disease. Unfortunately, much of their history is lost with them.

References:

  1. Caribbean Amerindian Centrelink. Guitar, Dr. Lynne. “Taíno Caves”. January 2005.
  2. Hoose, Phillip. We Were There Too! New York. 2001.
  3. Latin American Studies.org. The Taínos.
  4. Lundberg, Emily R. “Background for the Teaching of Caribbean Pre-History”. March 1997
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