Cultural History Homepage
Imagine the "Eden" called Borikén. It was ruled by nature. A place that was almost completely a rain forest from shore to shore. A place filled with yagrumos, alelís, ceibas, orchids, wild mushrooms - some over 6 feet wide, over 100 species of palm trees, bamboo, elephant ear leaves of the yautía, giant philodendron, giant ferns, mamey and guava trees. A place where wildlife such as cangrejos, manatees, giant sea turtles, iguanas, cotorras, and carpinteros lived undisturbed by man. Giant fish jumped out of rivers and oceans. Each evening Borikén was cooled by the breezes of the Mar Caribe and serenaded by trillions of coquíes. This was our Isla del Encanto during the reign of the brave Taíno people.
In spite of having been almost completely wiped out within two decades, the Taínos left us their heritage - a legacy. Traces of Taíno physical characteristics are found in Taíno descendants clustered in areas of Borinquen. The names of many towns (Mayagüez, Coamo), foods (mamey), instruments, trees and plants are original Taíno names. We have little detailed knowledge of Taíno culture, religion and daily life. What we know comes from Spanish documents and from recent excavations.
Much has been said of the Taínos lately, but it wasn't until the early 1900's that the study of the Taínos took off. The origin of the Taínos was not proven until 1950 when scientists were able to trace them through their unique white-on-red pottery. Their origins are in the Orinoco and Amazon River basins - what is now Venezuela and Guianas. The Taínos began their migration, in waves, through the Caribbean Islands in approximately 900 BC. Their origins have been traced to the Village of Saladero in Venezuela.
As the years passed, the Arawakans, who landed in the Greater Antilles developed a distinct culture that we now call Taíno. This distinct culture was somewhat different from the original Arawak culture and different from that of their brothers, the fierce Caribs of the Lesser Antilles.
The Taíno written language was in the form of petroglyphs, or symbols that were carved in stone. They spoke Arawakan. Their society was communal. Polygamy was common. The Taínos were farmers and fishermen.
Cristóforo Colombo wrote in his journal that Taínos had beautiful, tall, slender bodies. Their color was dark or olive, and they wore short haircuts with a long hank at the back of the head. They were clean-shaven and hairless. The islands were densely populated. According to Cristóbal Colón, the Taíno tongue was "gentle, the sweetest in the world, always with a laugh."
Borikén's head cacique at the time of the arrival of Colón was Agüeybaná. The island was divided into cacicazgos. Puerto Rico had approximately 20 caciques at the time of Columbus. The Island was divided into provinces, districts, and villages, each with a cacique.
The social structure was as follows: Nitaínos were the noblemen and were the warriors, craftsmen & artesans. Naborias were the laborers and were the lower class. Caciques (chiefs) were inherited positions and came from the Nitaíno class. Bohikes (shamans) were from a lineage of bohikes. The social structure was matrilineal - the lineage was carried by the mother. It is not clear if Nitaínos were born into or earned their social class. The Nitaínos ruled over the naborias. The Naborias were like serfs. Naborias fished, hunted, and worked the conucos, and generally did the hard labor.
The cacique was an inherited position of great privilege, which transcended individual yucayeques. The cacique was polygamous. Some of his wives were from political marriages that would unite yucayeques and form alliances.The cacique also wore a distinctive head covering made from a cotton band with a gold amulet or seal of the tribal chieftains. It was fashioned with blue and red macaw feathers and other parrot feathers of many colors. Caciques also wore a Mao, which was a round white cotton cover with a center hole used to cover the shoulders, chest and back. The Mao was a status symbol and was also used to keep the sun off the shoulders. Caciques participated in the cohoba ceremonies. They also owned the most powerful religious symbols, which were carved from wood or stone. A cacique was carried on a litter by Naborias. Often a cacique's favorite wife or wives were buried alive with him. First they were given a potion to drink that would allow them to sleep through it.
The yucayeques were built close to a source of water with a courtyard in the middle and under tall trees. Yucayeques had four roads that led out from the batey. A tall fence surrounded the village. A road was built leading directly to the water source, with two tall lookout towers at either side. Around the yucayeques were the conucos or farms. Sometimes ball game plazas were built outside the walls.
Yucayeques never went to sleep completely. There were lookout posts to be manned, nocturnal fishing and all night rituals to be conducted. The first order of the day was ritual bathing and prayers. A morning meal of cassave bread dipped in the communal pepper pot was served. Labor was then assigned by the leaders according to gender and group.
Bohíos were round with conical shaped roofs without windows. The caneys, always located in a prominent location, were rectangular structures with windows, built for the caciques and bohiques only. They were large and sometimes housed 15 families. The shelters were built from bejucos and red de caña and had thick walls. Each bohío and caney had storage space made from a flat surface that hung from the roof of the dwelling. The storage space was filled with woven baskets that contained useful items. The floor of the dwelling was made of packed dirt, and was immaculatly clean. A fogón, a burén (griddle) and an olla (a large covered clay pot for cooking) were found along with dujos and hammocks for seating. Tamed parrots and small (now extinct) domesticated dogs were kept.
Taínos cultivated bitter manioc or yuca in conucos (raised gardens). Conucos were tall mounds of loose dirt built for farming. They were 10 to 15 feet wide and as tall as a man. The yucca was planted in the conuco, since it needs aerated soil.
Yuca was the Taíno staple food, and from it flour and casava bread were made. The Taínos primarily used tubers as a source of food. Also harvested were guanábana, yautía, squash, mamey, papaya, pineapple, achiote, sweet potatoes, yams, and corn. Peanuts, lerenes, guava, soursop, pineapples, sea grapes, black-eyed peas, ajíes caballeros, and lima beans grew wild.
Processing of the manioc or yuca was a lengthy process. First the yuca tubers were peeled with a sharpened rock, and then grated and squeezed in a woven sleeve to squeeze out the poisonous juices. The flour was used to make the round and flat casava bread, which was cooked on a griddle propped on stones over a fire. The cooked bread was dried and stored and could be eaten months later. A soup was made using the poisonous juice of the yuca, cooking it until it was no longer poisonous. It cooked into a thick brown liquid that was seasoned with meats, yams, casava bread, sweet potatoes, and lots of pepper. They called this stew a "pepper pot."
Taínos believed that corn grew with the moon so they planted it on hillsides during the new moon. Some corn was picked while young and tender and it was eaten raw. Fully ripened corn was roasted. Corn bread was made by soaking the kernels in water and mashing them to form them into loaves. Loaves were wrapped in leaves and cooked with a little water. Corn bread had to be eaten within a few days or it would spoil. Corn husks were used to wrap food for cooking. Beer was also made from corn.
The men cleared the fields for farming, and they also hunted, fished, built canoas (canoes) and wooden paddles, and protected the yucayeques. Men fished using a net made from plant fibers. They formed harpoons from wood and tipped them with flint from bone or shells. They made fishing lines from plant fiber. Taínos used a suckerfish (remora) to fish by attaching a line to it and letting it swim away from the canoas until it attached itself to a turtle or some large fish. Then they carefully pulled the line in and captured the prey. They would also crush roots and stems of a poisonous shrub and cast it into the rivers. As the fish became stunned by the poison they could be caught by hand; the poison did not affect the fish for eating. The men also harvested conch, oysters, crabs, and other shellfish.
Not much hunting went on because there was no large game. However, the Taínos did hunt for birds, manatees, snakes, parrots, jutías (small rodents), iguanas, and waterfowl. Spears, described by Colón, as being made with a "fish tooth" or stingray spine, were often used as a hunting tool. No stone spears or arrow points have been found in the islands. The Taínos would hollow a calabash, cutting "eye holes" into it. They would wear the calabash on their head while submerged in rivers or in the ocean, and thus were able to catch birds by grabbing them by the legs. They would use hats covered with leaves to catch parrots, which were a delicacy. The men cooked on a barbacoa, in fact, this is where our modern barbecue comes from.
An interesting fact is that the pilón was first used by the Taíno Indians. Historians such as Fray Iñigo Abbad and Fernández de Oviedo mention having seen the Indians use giant size vases to mash different things. The ancient pilones were much like the pilones of today - the same shape but quite rustic and waist high. Taínos would place one foot on the base to prevent it from tipping over when hit with the giant macetas. Taínos used large hollowed out tree trunks to form waist-tall pilones. The hole was generally approximately 25 inches in diameter, but frequently varied in size. Some were small hand-held pilones, but they were still larger than the ones we use today. Since the Taínos used them, pilones were found in all the Caribbean Islands. The hole for the pilón was burned out and carved using simple rustic tools. Giant macetas were carved out of trees also. The final product depended on the talents of the carver. Some were very rustic, but most were just plain and practical. Some were well-finished, smooth, and shiny on the outside; some were pieces of art with elaborate carvings. Taínos used the pilón and maceta to mash corn, spices, medicinal herbs and other things. Ingredients to make body paint were also processed in a pilón.
Canoas were carved from a single, giant tree trunk. Spanish documents recorded that it took about two months to "fell" a tree, or to take it down by burning and chipping. Then it took many months to complete the canoa. Some canoas carried over 100 adults, and were used to travel great distances. Smaller canoas were also used. Taínos preferred to stay close to home, so their trade was mostly within the islands.
Women cooked, tended to the needs of the family, tended the farm and harvested the crops. They also made pots, grills, and griddles from river clay by rolling the clay into rope and then layering it to form or shape. The inside was smoothed with stones and the spouts cut out with stones or sticks. The clay pottery was fired in a hole covered with flat stones and a fire built above it. Firing took many hours.
Mothers carried their babies on their backs 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.
Carved dujos made from stone or wood with a raised tail used as a backrest were carved by both men and women. Dujos were short seats with four short legs with feet. Dujos with very tall backrests were ceremonial seats used by caciques and bohiques. Ceremonial dujos were richly decorated using gold laminate and semiprecious stones. They were a symbol of prestige.
Taínos did not mine or dig for gold. Gold nuggets were hand picked from between the gravel in shallow streams and rivers. The gold was used to make earrings and nose jewelry. They also pounded the gold to make foils, which were used to decorate ceremonial masks, belts and other artifacts. Both women and men made beaded bracelets and necklaces using coral, shells, and stones.
Cotton was cultivated and spun into threads for hammocks and naguas. Naguas were frontal aprons worn by married women and the only clothing worn by Taínos. The length of the nagua was determinted by rank: the longer the nagua, the higher the rank. Fibers from the calabash tree were also used to make twine and rope for baskets. They were also used in construction. Stripped fibers from palm branches were used to make cord. Some of this cord was used for hammocks. One hammock used approximately one mile of cord and was finished in thirteen hours.
Areytos were religious ceremonies held in the batey, often involving neighboring yucayeques. Ceremonial dancing was one of the principal activities. Music and feasting accompanied the ritual dance. Dressing up for an Areyto meant donning colorful body paint, parrot feathers, seashell and coral jewelry, gold nugget earrings and nose jewelry. The caciques and bohiques wore capes decorated with feathers. The areytos celebrated different achievements, rituals, and social activities, such as the birth of a cacique's child, marriage ceremonies, death, or a visit by important guests. The maraca and güiro were played as well as large drums. Conch shell trumpets and flutes made from bones or reed were played. Roasted iguana was served along with cassava bread, yams, and perhaps pineapples. Corn beer was a favorite during areytos. Aguinaldos included in the areyto were tribal histories, genealogies, tales of great conquests and battles. Mock battles and ball games were held. Areytos often lasted several days.
Cemís encompassed the spirit of the god Yocahú. The cemís were kept in shrine rooms. Taínos credited cemís with powers that affected weather, crops, health, and childbirth, among other things. The cemís came in all shapes and sizes including the "three-pointer." The artists completed their own renditions of the cemís, and this form of art and religious representation was abundant. The cemís were carved from stone or wood. Many were adorned with semi-precious stones and gold. Most had representations of animals and men with frog-like legs.
The bohique had cemís painted on his body; sometimes he blackened his face with charcoal, and used tobacco, medicinal herbs, chants, the sounding of the maraca, and magic to heal. He taught the children of the elite group subjects such as social protocol, duties, obligations, mythology, and history.
The bohique and cacique inhaled ground "cohoba" seeds, a hallucinogen. Often, tobacco and ground shells were added to the cohoba to enhance its potency. A ritual cleansing, which included carved vomiting sticks, preceded inhaling the hallucinogen. Cohoba was inhaled into the nose with tubes made from a variety of materials such as bones or tubers. The cacique's hallucinations were believed to be communication with the various gods.
Taínos were ancestor worshipers. They believed that the spirits of the dead remained in their bones so they kept skeletons of relatives in baskets in their dwellings. Oftentimes maybe just the heads of important members of the family were kept. They would keep them in the storage area of the bohío that hung from the ceiling. They believed in an afterlife, so great care was given to the deceased; they were buried with offerings and food.
Taínos also played a ceremonial ball game called "batey," which was played using a ball made from rubber plants and reed that bounced. The ball was heavy, so the participants wore some kind of padding on the body for protection. "Batey" consisted of two teams. It was played in a rectangular plaza edged by pillars with petroglyphs. After the game began, the ball could not be touched by the hands. Players kept the ball in the air by hitting it with their heads, shoulders, arms, hips, or legs. In Puerto Rico the Taínos used a game belt made from cotton threads or carved from stone. Some teams were comprised of women only.
Athletic events were held in the batey or plaza, located in the middle of the yucayeque. Wrestling matches, foot races, archery contests, music, and dance were characteristic of Taíno athletic events.
Part of the Taíno legacy to us is their art. Not much of it has survived but there are sculptures, ceramics, jewelry, weaving, scepters, daggers, cemís, dujos, game belts and other Taíno artifacts in museums today. Most of their ceremonial artifacts were hidden from the Spanish in caves.
The Taíno legacy of hospitality is evident in the campesinos in rural areas in Puerto Rico today.
On September 25, 1493, Cristóbal Colón sailed rom the port of Cádiz, Spain on his second voyage to the New World. A stop was made in the Canary Islands. On November 3rd the entourage came upon the island of Guadalupe, where they rescued a handful of Indians from the hands of the "Caribs." The Indians claimed to be from an island further north called Borikén. After discovering the Virgin Islands, they spotted Puerto Rico and the Sierra de Luquillo. To the amazement of the Spaniards, the Indians jumped into the oceans and swam for shore. The fleet of ships continued to sail the east, south and western coast of Borikén. The fleet anchored in the Aguada-Aguadilla region.
The end of the Puerto Rican Taíno simple existence ended over 500 years ago, on November 19th 1493. In 1508 Ponce de León arrived in the Island, with the intentions of settling it. It was not until 1509 that colonization began. Countless atrocities were committed by the Spaniards upon the peaceful Taínos. They commited group suicide as an escape, but it was mainly disease that decimated the Taínos so quickly. In 1516, only eight years later, there were so few Taínos left in the Caribbean that Father Bartolomé de las Casas won a "crown order" to free the Indians.
In 1527, a small pox epidemic in Puerto Rico killed one third of the remaining Taíno population. In 1542, a Bishop was sent to Puerto Rico to inform the Indians of their "new" complete freedom.
1. Taínos, The People Who Welcomed Columbus; by Francine Jacobs
2. Taíno, Pre-Columbian Art and Culture from the Caribbean; published by El Museo del Barrio.
3. The Taínos, Rise and Decline of the People Who Greeted Columbus; by Irvin Rouse
Today the Taíno people of Borinquen are united as a tribal nation.
The Jatibonicu Taíno Tribal Nation of Boriken, PR - led by Cacique Pedro Guanikéyu Torres
Photo of Taíno child with coconut courtesy of George Collazo, http://www.photosofpuertorico.com