The Taínos are generally considered to be part of the Taíno -Arawak Indians who traveled from the Orinoco-Amazon region of South America to Venezuela to the Caribbean Islands. They were not the first indigenous group to arrive in Puerto Rico: the Archaics had arrived from Florida about 2,500 years ago. This earlier group were fishermen and hunters, and lived a nomadic life. Their culture was simple and they did not develop any art forms or farming methods. About 1,700 years ago, the Taínos arrived.They navigated the Caribbean Sea on their
. They went to Jamaica, the Bahamas, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. Although peaceful and non-aggressive, they had to combat the fierce Caribes who attacked the Taíno villages. Ironically, the region became known as the Caribbean, named after these fierce Indians.
The Taínos settled in Puerto Rico and quickly displaced or fused with the earlier indigenous groups. They were farmers and had a more advanced culture than that of the earlier groups. In their Arawak language, Taíno means the good ones.Thus, when Columbus arrived in 1493, they identified themselves as Taíno, the good and gentle people.
Description of people, clothes, and ornaments
What did these people look like and what did they wear? They were short,bronze-colored, with straight black hair. They had no facial hair. They wore very little clothing.The married women wore apron-like skirts which they called
. This word has since evolved into
, a petticoat in Puerto Rico. Because a flattened forehead was a sign of beauty, they often forced their heads into a flat shape by using boards tied to the back and front of babies’ heads. This is not unlike the customs the Mayans had of flattening their heads. This is one indication of similarities in customs between the Mayans and the Taínos. Others include the importance of ball games for social and religious purposes and some similarities in their religion.
For adornment, the Taínos decorated their bodies and face with paints made from plants and minerals. They did this for decoration and for protections against the insects. Also, they used special paints when they fought battles. Other adornments included headdresses made from bird feathers, necklaces and bracelets made from shells and stones, and amulets made of clay, stone, shells, or bone. These amulets were worn around their necks or hung from their foreheads for luck or protection.
The chiefs wore special adornments. Their head ornaments were made from gold or cotton and they wore a large disk or
around their necks. Since only the chiefs or
could wear a
, they were easily recognized as the leaders when they fought the Spanish. When the Spanish realized this, they concentrated on killing the chiefs, thus leaving their enemies demoralized since they were without their spiritual leader.
As a student activity, the class would view illustrations of the Taínos wearing their adornments and would make their own headdresses, amulets, or
. Also, the students could keep a folder of the designs,drawings, and art of the Taínos as they study them in class. Eventually, the students would make their own Taíno designs or illustrations for their original legends.
A Taíno village, daily life, and transportation
Two indications of a developed culture are the organization of its society and the structure of its government. Based on this criteria, the Taínos were very developed. They had a society that was organized into three levels: the nitaínos or nobility, the bohiques or medicine men, and the naborias or farmers. There was no slavery.
Each town or
was led by a
or chief. He was chosen because of his birth in a matrilineal fashion. When a chief died, his sister’s son became the next chief. If there was no familial successor, the chief was chosen among the valiant young leaders. A
was usually recognizable because he wore a feathered headdress, a necklace with a golden medallion called a
, and was carried on a litter whenever he traveled. Also, during ceremonies, he sat on a special ceremonial stool.
Women as well as men could become
. This is of much interest to my students and usually generates much discussion. Some famous
included Luisa and Anacaona. There did exist gender division as to the daily jobs; women did most of the farming and also prepared the fish and the game that the men brought home. However, women could join the men in battle. Men could have more than one wife, but usually only the
was able to afford such an arrangement.
The Taínos were sophisticated in their farming compared to earlier groups, and formed conical mounds or
for their seeds. Their principal crops were yucca, batata, and malanga, which are tapioc, sweet potato, and cassava. Corn was also grown but was not a staple and certainly not as important as in the maize cultures of Mesoamerica.
. In the center of the village was the chief’s house which was more elaborate and rectangular in shape. It was called the
. In front of his house was a flat,open area called a
. This area was used for parties, meetings, religious events, and ball games. The
led his people in war and in peace. During a party or
, he sang the songs which served as the oral tradition for the town. He also decided when to go to war, and made judicial decisions on such matters as grievances and crimes. The island had a principal chief who was the leader of all the chiefs. When Columbus arrived, the supreme chief of the island of Borinquen was Agueybana.
As far as the structure of the village, the farmers lived in small rounded huts called
The Taínos were accomplished seamen and traveled through-out the Caribbean in their hand-crafted
. Some large canoes could carry thirty people. The
owned these larger canoes and were thus responsible for public transportation. The importance of the canoes in the daily lives and in the expansion of the Taínos cannot be overstated. Due to their navigating skills, the Taínos were able to travel from their land of origin, the Orinoco Valley of Venezuela, and island-hop from Venezuela to the Dominican Republic and Haiti, the Bahamas and Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and as far west as Cuba. This expansion did not occur over a short period of time, but it did guarantee a Taíno presence in the Caribbean. Another important consequence of their navigation skills and their canoes is that the Taínos had contact with other indigenous groups of the Americas, including the Mayas of Mexico and Guatemala.
This Mayan-Taíno connection provides students in the classroom with a rich source of inquiry. What is the evidence that the Taínos had contact with the Mayan culture? ( Mayan god, Hurakán and Taíno god Huracán, similarities in their ballgames, and similarities in their social structure and social stratification.) Teachers who are not familiar with the theories and archaeological evidence should consult Miguel León-Portilla, Ricardo E. Alegría, and Irving Rouse, listed in the annotated bibliography.The Mayan-Taíno connection provides the classroom teacher with an excellent source for group activities, group problem-solving, comparison and contrast activities including Venn diagrams, and oral debates or persuasive writing assignments.
• The Mayan-Taíno connection should be developed only after the students have studied the religion and the ceremonies of the Taínos, including the
and the ballgames.
The Taínos were polytheistic. They believed in major deities, such as Atabei and Yucahú, and minor deities, including the deities of fair wind, the afterlife, and cassava, as well as their helpers. The Taínos called these deities
. A partial list of the deities includes
the mayor deities and some minor ones:
, the mother of Yucahú, the creative force, the earth mother, the goddess of water, a source of life. Also, the goddess of fertility. Women prayed to her for a safe childbirth. She always existed. Other names: Yermao, Bagua, Maorocoti. Bagua means water and Maorocoti means of the mother, fatherless, of the great womb.
, the supreme being, the creator, the god of the cassava and the sea, which are sources of life. Other names: Bagua, Maorocoti. Yucahú was the guiding spirit for all the Taínos.
, changed his name from Guacar during the creation of the world. The brother of Yucahú and the son of Atabei, created by Atabei from magical elements in the air and therefore without a father. He became jealous of Yucahú when he saw his brother create the race of men, and tried to destroy his brother’s creations. He became known as the god of strong winds, hence the name today of hurricane. He was feared and revered. When the hurricanes blew, the Taínos thought they had displeased Juracán.
, helped with the cassava, the main crop for the Taínos, and helped persons poisoned by the cassava.
, deity of rain, Son of the Gray Serpent.
, Lord of the Land of the Dead
, twin of
, deity of fair weather.
, the dog deity, watched over spirits of the dead
They often made idols of their
out of clay, wood, cotton, or stone. These idols are also called
. Sometimes they buried their
in their fields or mounds called
to ensure good crops. When a person who was a valiant warrior died, his bones might be saved inside a
. When a person or a village needed help or spiritual guidance, the chief consulted a
with the assistance of the witch doctor or
if the problem was medical in nature.
• The art collections in El Museo del Barrio and the Yale Peabody Museum include examples of
One of the most common
is the three-pointed figure of Yucahú. This illustration may be found in the books by Ricardo Alegría and Irving Rouse, as well as in many of the legends and short stories by and about the Taínos. The famous museum of archaeology in Puerto Rico in Jayuya is in the shape of this three-pointed
. There is a photo of this museum, El Museo Cemí de arqueología, in the
Magazine, an ancillary to the Juntos textbook used in the New Haven School system.There is a good possibility that students from Puerto Rico, especially from Jayuya, may be familiar with this
Ceremonies: the areyto and the ball games
The archaeological sites in Puerto Rico confirm that theTaínos had specific places called
where their important events and ceremonies took place. Specifically, the
and ball games occurred in these park-like areas. They were rectangular and often bordered by stones three to four feet high. They were located in front of the chief’s house. Rafael González Mu–iz’ book has photos of the ceremonial centers in Tibes and Caguana.
Areytos: a ceremony to remember the ancestors
has many meanings. Some experts define it as a party, others as a feast,others as a quasi-religious ceremony with musical accompaniment. Ricardo Alegría states an
“is a big party to celebrate important occasions.” 3 Miguel León-Portilla stresses the word itself is a related to a word meaning to remember or to recall. 4 In fact, it was during the
that the chanting and speaking by the
resulted in a remembrance of the Taíno history. Thus, their oral tradition was preserved. Rafael González Mu–iz lists the kinds of
- a very solemn affair, related to their gods and beliefs
declaración de gracias
- to give thanks for a good harvest
- general festivities, with food and music
- retelling the history of the village or the great deed of a chief
- to announce a war or declare a great victory
- to mourn the death of an important person
Whatever the reason for the
, it was a big event for all the people of the village and took many days of preparation and usually included songs and dances. Musical instruments used included the
, a kettle-drum called a
, flutes, a rain stick, and a conch shell called
. The cacique had a central role of announcing, leading the traditional chants, and presiding over the ceremonies. Yale Professor Irving Rouse sums it up by stating the
were “a religious ceremony celebrating the deeds of the ancestors.” 6
As one of the student activities, the class could have a feast or
and cook foods such as yucca, make invitations in Spanish, decorate the room with their Taíno drawings, and display their artwork. They could also bring in musical instruments such as
, which are still common today, or make their own musical instruments.
Ball games and ceremonial parks
In the ceremonial parks or
, the Taínos played their favorite sport, a ball game similar to the Mayan ball game of Mesoamerica. The ball was made from rubber resin. They could hit the ball with the head, elbows, hips, and feet, but not with their hands. They often wore cotton bands on their arms and legs, and painted their bodies. Both men and women played. For the specific rules, teachers should consult the description by Ricardo Alegría in his book, History of the Indians. Unlike the Mayan game, the Taínos did not sacrifice or decapitate the losers.