Taíno Indians of Puerto Rico

Lesson Plan

Social Studies - Elementary School
Hispanic Cultures
Puerto Rico - Taíno Indians

This lesson is intended to provide children with a fuller picture of our pluralistic society by increasing the opportunities for them to learn more about the origins of the Puerto Rican culture and folklore.



When Cristóforo Colombo {Christopher Columbus (Eng.) - Cristóbal Colón (Esp.) } discovered Puerto Rico the tiny island was inhabited by the Taíno Indians. The Taínos were friendly and peaceful Indians who were farmers and fishermen. They called their island paradise Borikén.

Taínos lived in small yucayeques (villages) that were run by a cacique (chief) with the help of the bohique (priest or medicine man). Taínos were divided by a social class structure that included naborias (serfs), who performed hard labor, and nitaínos (noblemen), who were soldiers, leaders, and craftsmen. The cacique and bohique came from the nitaíno class.

The Taínos written language was in the form of petroglyphs or symbols carved in stone. They spoke Arawakan. Cristóforo Colombo wrote in his journal that Taínos had beautiful muscular slender bodies, with copper color skin and wore short haircuts with a long hank at the back of the head, and their forehead was flattened (Mothers carried their babies on their back on a padded board that was secured to the baby's forehead. The board flattened the baby's forehead. Thus Taínos had a flat forehead - something they found attractive). They were clean shaven and hairless. According to Cristóbal Colón the Taíno tongue was "gentle, the sweetest in the world, always with a laugh".

Taínos wore no clothes except for a nagua (a frontal slip) used only by married women. Dressing up meant painting their bodies with bright color paints with intricate designs. Body paints were made from plants. Their jewelry; necklaces, earrings, arm bands and bracelets, was made from seashells, feathers, animal teeth and bones, and stones. Some was layered with gold and precious or semiprecious stones. Men and women, and boys and girls wore body paint and made and wore lots of jewelry. Boys and girls often made their own jewelry.

Yucayeques were built close to a water source. Living in the tropics they enjoyed daily baths, sometimes several in one day, and some being ritual baths. Taínos built their homes around a batey or plaza. The batey was used for areytos (ceremonies), ball games, and dancing. Their round thatch roofs homes were called bohíos. Bohíos were made from, reed, bamboo and tree branches tied together; grass was woven into them and they were packed with mud. In every yucayeque there was one great rectangular house where the cacique (chief) lived called the caney. The bohique also lived in a caney structure. The caneys were built in a central location on the edge of the batey and the bohíos completed the circle around the batey and the rest of the yucayeque.

Bohíos did not have much furniture. Taínos slept on cotton nets that hung from the ceiling called hamacas (hammocks). Hamacas were also used to sit on or to move sick people around in much like a hospital gurney. Taínos sat on dujos. Dujos were short four legged seats with back rests. Most were carved with religious symbols and some were elaborately carved and decorated with gold and semiprecious stones. The cacique's dujo had a taller back rest.

Taínos carved cemís (idols) from wood, stone, and clay. Cemís were said to encompass the spirit of the god Yucahú. Cemís came in all sizes and mostly were three pointers. Nitaínos carved elaborate cemís and some were painted and decorated with gold and precious stones. Children wore amulets.

Areytos were religious ceremonies that sometimes lasted several days. During areytos the bohique taught the history of the Taínos, of their yucayeque, told battle stories, related important historical events and taught religion and tradition. There was a lot of ceremonial music, song, and dance at areytos. A ceremonial game was also played in the ball-game courts. Areytos were held for different reasons maybe the wedding of the cacique, or the birth of his child, or even just when important guests arrived. Children had the most fun at areytos. There was lots of foods and games to play with their friends. They were an important part of the festivities.

Music was an important part of Taíno life. Their drums were hollowed tree trunks that were hit with sticks to produce rhythmic sounds. They made shakers called maracas out of hollowed out gourds. Güiros were a rhythmic instrument made from the marimbo gourd. These musical instruments are a legacy of the Taínos and are still used today. Children learned to play instruments early and helped their parents make the instruments.

Not much hunting went on because there was no large game on the island. But Taínos hunted birds, manatees, snakes, parrots, jutías (small rodents), iguanas and waterfowl. The Taínos would hollow a calabash, cutting "eye holes" into it. They would wear the calabash on their head while submerged in rivers or beaches and thus were able to catch birds by grabbing them by the legs. They would use hats covered with leaves to catch parrots - a delicacy. The women made round break cakes called casave from yucca. The men cooked on a BBQ - and this is where our modern BBQ comes from. Taíno children had fun wearing a calabash hunting hat to catch parrots for snacks.


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