Deep Look: The Tainos?
Who were the first Haitians? Where did they come from? What kind
of civilization existed at the time Columbus anchored his boat
on the north coast of Haiti, near Cap-Haïtien on December
5,1492. How much do we know and how much is left of that civilization
are some of our discussion points during this first session of
a long look at Haitian History.
The island of Haiti,
which is now shared by two independent republics, Haiti and the
Dominican Republic, witnessed a flourishing civilization before
1492. Columbus called the Tainos who inhabited the island Indians
because he thought he had reached India. Around fifty years after
his coming on the island virtually all Taino population was so
much decimated that their trait is not encountered in Haiti today.
Through archeological evidence, biological and cultural remains,
some answers have been provided to the origins of the Tainos,
their culture and religion.
Some researchers base
their evidence on the Tainos traits that were similar to those
of the Indians of South America to conclude that the Tainos may
have come from the northern part of that region. Archeologists,
through excavation of Tainos remains, conclude that the migration
must have happened some time ago in Pre-History
Tainos lived throughout most of the Caribbean. The immediate neighbors
of the Tainos were the Guanahatabeys who lived at the far northern
end of Cuba and the Island Caribs on the Lesser Antilles. The
Guanahatabeys separated the Tainos from the fully civilized people
of the Middle America, (Irving Rouse 1992). The Tainos occupied
most of the Greater Antilles. They lived particularly on the island
of Haiti and also in Puerto Rico. They called that island Haiti,
Quisqueya or Bohio because of its physical features. Haiti in
Taino means high ground, mountainous land. Columbus renamed the
The Tainos exchanged
cultural, linguistic and biological traits with the Guanahatabeys
and the Island-Caribs. Some ethnohistorians call the Tainos, Arawacks
because they are said to be the descendents of Arawacks from the
North Eastern part of South America. However, they preferred to
be called Tainos, which means men of the good. Most agree that
the Tainos who lived in Haiti or Bohio and the Boriquenos of Puerto
Rico had a more advanced civilization.
According to various
estimates, when the Spaniards conquered the island of Haiti, as
many as 100,000 to 1,000,000 Tainos were living on that land.
That number would be reduced to zero due to genocide committed
by the Spaniards. Nowadays, except for archeological remains and
some artwork, there is practically no clear trace of Taino descent
Society and Culture
inhabitants of Haiti and Puerto Rico were considered to be the
most populous and most advanced culturally among the other inhabitants
of the Caribbean islands. The Tainos were said to be gentle and
peaceful, happy and friendly. It is believed that the Tainos traveled
throughout the other islands eventually replenishing less developed
communities. Most scholars agree that they traveled up and down
the chain of islands. They traveled in groups with children, women
and domestic animals. They had well built canoes of as much as
25 meters able to carry as many as fifty people. The Taino society
was communal in nature. It was a well-organized society divided
between different "caciquats" or kingdom each governed
by a chief or cacique. The cacique played the role of priest,
healer and/or local legislator.
This position of cacique was not limited to men only; women could
fill that position as well. The cacique was paid a tribute to
oversee the village. This was a hierarchical society where other
levels of honor existed. There existed thus a number of sub-caciques
on the island. The sub-caciques did not get paid for their position,
but were responsible for various services to the village and to
the cacique. At the time of the first contact with the Spaniards,
the island of Haiti was divided into five caciquats or provinces.
Tainos hated hard labor and ardous climbs. For those reasons,
they, for the most part stayed away from the mountainous regions
of the island. You will find that the caciquats coincided with
the coastal plains or interior valleys.
The Marien with Guacanagaric as cacique was situated in the north
and north East Coast interior stradling the northern regions of
nowadays Haiti and Dominican Republic.
The Maguana with Caonabo as cacique, occupied the central plains
of the Cibao.
The Magua with Guarionex as cacique, was in the farther North
The Xaragua with Bohechio as cacique, occupied the western plains
of nowadays Haiti.
The Higuey with Cotubanama or Cayacoa, Occupied the Easternmost
villages contained an average of one to two thousand people living
in irregular houses arranged around a plaza. The typical village
of the Taino contained a flat court in the center of the villagewith
houses surrounding it. The regular houses had a circular shaped
figure with poles providing its primary support.They had dirt
floor and roofed dwelling and were covered with woven straw and
palm leaves. These houses were called ajoupas. They received guests
on wooden stools.
Tainos had strong familial
ties and related families lived together. Tainos society was a
polygamous one with the cacique allowed to have more wives than
the other men of the villages. Being married to a cacique was
considered a great honor. The cacique wives and children enjoyed
a superior lifestyle and they all lived in the same house. The
house of the cacique was rectangular and was made with the same
materials as the other houses. Their flat court situated in the
center of the village was used for various festivals both religious
and secular. During those festivals, they played a ball game that
closely resembles modern-day soccer.
young Tainos kids wore nothing; the men covered their genitalia
with cotton cloths. The married women, however, wore short skirts
called nagua; the unmarried ones wore headbands. It was part of
their culture to flatten their forehead by placing a hard object
against it at childbirth. Also the ears and nasal area were pierced;
their waist and necks were decorated. The color red was very often
used in the decorations of their bodies, which is probably why
it is often thought that Tainos had red skin. The Tainos were
well groomed. They liked to bathe often. Later, the Spaniards
enacted a law forbidding this healthy attitude considering it
as harmful to the Indians. The Spaniards believed that frequent
bathing would take one’s soul away.
The Tainos had a good
defense system since they were often in need to defend themselves
against the Island-Caribs. At the time of the conquest, the Tainos
were fighting against the Caribs who had invaded the eastern part
Agriculture and Diet
Tainos ate mostly meat and fish, essentially their primary source
of protein. They also ate birds, small mammals, snake and any
other animals. Their diet also comprised sweet potatoes, beans
and peanuts as well as corn. They brought guava from South America
as well as animals like agouti and opossum. They had cassava and
manioc for staples, which provided flour for them to bake after
having extracted the poisonous juice from those roots. They also
hunted for bats, snakes, various rodents, worms and other mammals.
However, they were not men-eaters!
Taino practiced a system of agriculture that was maintenance free.
They used a shifting method of agriculture to avoid exhausting
the soil. Tainos were skilled farmers. Work was allocated according
to sex. Hence, men were to clean the fields and fished while women
took care of the crop for cultivation, made handicrafts and kept
an eye on their children. The women made objects out of clay,
such as plates and pots.
is known about the Tainos’ religion because Columbus had
appointed father Ramon Pane to study their belief system. (Irving
Rouse, 1992). Tainos had a system of Gods called Zemis. The two
supreme Taino deities were Yucahu, the lord of cassava and the
sea and Atabey, Yucahu’ s mother, the goddess of fresh water
and human fertility. Other zemis included ancestor’s spirits
and spirits believed to be living in trees and rocks. The term
"Zemis" was applied to the deities themselves and also
to any fetishes representing them. They were made from the remains
of ancestors, or some other natural objects. They believed that
powerful spirits inhabited those objects. Those zemis were kept
on tables at their owners’ home. To the Tainos, the zemis
controlled various functions of the universe.
There were three primary religious practices: the religious worship
of the zemis themselves, the services performed by medicine men
seeking advice and healing procedures from the zemis. Religious
agricultural feasts were offered both in thanksgiving and petition
to the zemis. During such feast the Tainos would wear special
dresses and they painted their body. The priest would present
the carved figures of the zemis. During the ceremonies, the cacique
would seat on a wooden stool. During the ceremonies, the singing
was accompanied with rhytmic drum beating. As a sign to remove
all impurities from the bodies, the people would induced vomiting
by "swallowing" a stick. Women would serve bread first
to the zemis then to the cacique followed by the other people
The Tainos believed in afterlife where the good people would be
Little is known of
the Tainos. Had their civilization not been destroyed, we would
have the chance to know more about the specific aspects of their
life like the songs they recited and their literature. At this
point we only have the testimony of the Spaniards, the Tainos
first western contact (who ironically will also be responsible
for their extinction) and the scientific research on their culture
that thus far has not been able to produce much more than theories.
Museum Galleries of artifacts, vases and masks
El Museo:Taino Wing Much
background information and further study material
Images Great Illustrations of every day Taino Life
(courtesy of discoverhaiti)