The Taínos were pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Bahamas, Greater Antilles, and the northern Lesser Antilles. It is believed that the seafaring Taínos were relatives of the Arawakan people of South America. Their language is a member of the Maipurean linguistic family, which ranges from South America across the Caribbean.
At the time of Columbus's arrival in 1492, there were five Taíno kingdoms and territories on Hispaniola (modern day Haiti and Dominican Republic), each led by a principal Cacique (chieftain), to whom tribute was paid. As the hereditary head chief of Taíno tribes, the cacique was paid significant tribute. Caciques enjoyed the privilege of wearing golden pendants called guani, living in square bohíos instead of the round ones the villagers inhabited, and sat on wooden stools when receiving guests. At the time of the Spanish conquest, the largest Taíno population centers may have contained over 3,000 people each. The Taínos were historical neighbors and enemies of the fierce Carib tribes, another group with origins in South America who lived principally in the Lesser Antilles. The relationship between the two groups has been the subject of much study.
For much of the 15th century, the Taíno tribe was being driven to the Northeast in the Caribbean (out of what is now South America) because of raids by fierce Caribs (Many Carib women spoke Taíno because of the large number of female Taíno captives among them).
By the 18th century, Taíno society had been devastated by introduced diseases such as smallpox, as well as other problems like intermarriages and forced assimilation into the plantation economy that Spain imposed in its Caribbean colonies, with its subsequent importation of African slave workers. The first recorded smallpox outbreak in Hispaniola occurred in 1507. It is argued that there was substantial mestizaje as well as several Indian pueblos that survived into the 19th century in Cuba. The Spaniards who first arrived in the Bahamas, Cuba and Hispaniola in 1492, and later in Puerto Rico, did not bring women. They took Taíno women for their wives, which resulted in mestizo children.
The word "Taíno" comes directly from Columbus. The indigenous people he encountered in his first voyage called themselves "Taíno", meaning "good" or "noble", to differentiate themselves from Island-Caribs. This name applied to all the Island Taínos including those in the Lesser Antilles. Locally, the Taínos referred to themselves by the name of their location. For example, those in Puerto Rico called themselves Boricua (which means people from the island of the valiant noble lords) their island was called Borike'n (Great land of the valiant noble lord) and those occupying the Bahamas called themselves Lucayo (small islands).
Some ethnohistorians, such as Daniel Garrison Brinton, called the same culture of people "Island Arawak" from the Arawakan word for cassava flour, a staple of the race. From this, the language and the people were eventually called "Arawak". However, modern scholars consider this a mistake. The people who called themselves Arawak lived only in the Guianas and Trinidad and their language and culture differ from those of the Taíno.
Throughout time these terms have been used interchangeably by writers, travellers, historians, linguists, and anthropologists. Taíno has been used to mean the Greater Antillean tribes only, those plus the Bahamas tribes, those and the Leeward Islands tribes or all those excluding the Puerto Rican tribes and Leeward tribes. Island Taíno has been used to refer to those living in the Windward Islands only, those in the northern Caribbean only or those living in any of the islands. Modern historians, linguists and anthropologists now hold that the term Taíno should refer to all the Taíno/Arawak tribes except for the Caribs. The Caribs are not seen by anthropologists nor historians as being the same people although linguists are still debating whether the Carib language is an Arawakan dialect or creole language — or perhaps a distinct language, with an Arawakan pidgin often used in communication.
Rouse classifies all inhabitants of the Greater Antilles (except the western tip of Cuba), the Bahamian archipelago, and the northern Lesser Antilles as Taínos. The Taínos are subdivided into three main groups: Classic Taíno, from Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, Western Taíno or sub-Taíno, from Jamaica, Cuba (except for the western tip) and the Bahamian archipelago, and Eastern Taíno, from the Virgin Islands to Montserrat.
The alternate theory, known as the circum-Caribbean theory, contends that the ancestors of the Taínos diffused from the Colombian Andes. Julian H. Steward, the theory's originator, suggested a radiation from the Andes to the West Indies and a parallel radiation into Central America and into the Guianas, Venezuela and the Amazon Basin.
Taíno culture is believed to have developed in the West Indies.
Taíno society was divided into two classes: naborias (commoners) and nitaínos (nobles). These were governed by chiefs known as caciques (who were either male or female) which were advised by priests/healers known as bohiques. Bohiques were extolled for their healing powers and ability to speak with gods and as a result, they granted Taínos permission to engage in important tasks.
Taínos lived in a matrilineal society. When a male heir was not present the inheritance or succession would go to the eldest child (son or daughter) of the deceased’s sister. Taínos practised a mainly agrarian lifestyle but also fished and hunted. A frequently worn hair style featured bangs in front and longer hair in back. They sometimes wore gold jewelry, paint, and/or shells. Taíno men sometimes wore short skirts. Taíno women wore a similar garment (nagua) after marriage. Some Taíno practiced polygamy. Men, and sometimes women, might have 2 or 3 spouses, and it was noted that some caciques would even marry as many 30 wives.
Taínos lived in metropolises (called yucayeques) which varied in size depending on the location; those in Hispaniola and Puerto Rico being the largest and those in the Bahamas being the smallest. In the center of a typical village was a plaza used for various social activities such as games, festivals, religious rituals, and public ceremonies. These plazas had many shapes including oval, rectangular, or narrow and elongated. Ceremonies where the deeds of the ancestors were celebrated, called areitos, were performed here. Often, the general population lived in large circular buildings (bohio), constructed with wooden poles, woven straw, and palm leaves. These houses would surround the central plaza and could hold 10-15 families. The cacique and his family would live in rectangular buildings (caney) of similar construction, with wooden porches. Taíno home furnishings included cotton hammocks (hamaca), mats made of palms, wooden chairs (dujo) with woven seats, platforms, and cradles for children.
The Taínos played a ceremonial ball game called batey. The game was played between opposing teams consisting of 10 to 30 players per team using a solid rubber ball. Normally, the teams were composed of only men, but occasionally women played the game as well. The Classic Taínos played in the village's center plaza or on especially designed rectangular ball courts also called batey. Batey is believed to have been used for conflict resolution between communities; the most elaborate ball courts are found in chiefdoms' boundaries. Often, chiefs made wagers on the possible outcome of a game.
Taínos spoke a Maipurean language but lacked a written language. Some of the words used by them such as barbacoa ("barbecue"), hamaca ("hammock"), canoa ("canoe"), tabaco ("tobacco"), yuca, and Huracan ("hurricane") Tatuaje(tattoo) have been incorporated into the Spanish and English languages.
The Taíno diet centered around vegetables and fruits, meat, and fish. Large animals were absent from the fauna of the West Indies, but small animals such as hutias, earthworms, lizards, turtles, birds, and other mammals were consumed. Manatees were speared and fish were caught in nets, speared, poisoned, trapped in weirs, or caught with hook and line. Wild parrots were decoyed with domesticated birds and iguanas were extracted from trees and other vegetation. Taínos stored live animals until they were ready to be consumed—fish and turtles were stored in weirs, and hutias and dogs were stored in corrals.
Taíno groups in the more developed islands, such as Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica, relied more on agriculture. For important crops they used a sophisticated procedure in which they "heaped up mounds of soil", called conucos, which improved drainage, delayed erosion, and allowed for a longer storage of crops in the ground; for less important crops such as corn they used the more common and rudimentary slash and burn technique. Conucos were 3 feet high and 9 feet in circumference and were arranged in rows. The primary root crop was cassava, a woody shrub cultivated for its edible starchy tuberous root. It was planted using a coa, an early kind of hoe made completely out of wood. Women squeezed cassava to extract its poisonous juice and ground the roots into flour from which they baked bread. Batata (Sweet potato) was the Taínos' secondary crop; it was consumed as a vegetable.
Contrary to mainland practices, corn was not ground into flour and baked into bread. Instead, it was eaten off the cob. A possible explanation for this is that corn bread becomes moldy faster than cassava bread in the high humidity of the West Indies. Taínos grew squash, beans, peppers, peanuts, and pineapples. Tobacco, calabashes (West Indian pumpkins) and cotton were grown around the houses. Other fruits and vegetables, such as palm nuts, guavas, and Zamia roots, were collected from the wild.
Taínos used cotton, hemp and palm extensively for fishing nets and ropes. Their dugout canoes (Kanoa) were made in various sizes, which could hold from 2 to 150 people. An average sized Kanoa would hold about 15 - 20 people. They used bows and arrows, and sometimes put various poisons on their arrowheads. For warfare, they employed the use of a wooden war club, which they called a macana, that was about one inch thick and was similar to the cocomacaque.
Taíno religion centered on the worship of zemís or cemís. Cemís were either gods, spirits, or ancestors. There were two supreme gods: Yúcahu, which means spirit of cassava, was the god of cassava (the Taínos main crop) and the sea and Atabey, mother of Yúcahu, was the goddess of fresh waters and fertility. Other minor gods existed in Taíno religion; some of them related to the growing of cassava while others were related to the process of life, creation and death. Baibrama was a god worshiped for his assistance in growing cassava and curing people from its poisonous juice. Boinayel and his twin brother Márohu were the gods of rain and fair weather respectively. Guabancex was the goddess of storms (hurricanes). Popular belief names Juracán as the god of storms but juracán was only the word for hurricane in the Taíno language. Guabancex had two assistants: Guataubá, a messenger who created hurricane winds, and Coatrisquie, who created floodwaters. Maquetaurie Guayaba or Maketaori Guayaba was god of Coaybay, the land of the dead. Opiyelguabirán, a dog-shaped god, watched over the dead. Deminán Caracaracol, a male cultural hero from which the Taíno believed to descend, was worshipped as a cemí.
Cemí was also the name of the physical representations of the gods. These representations came in many forms and materials and could be found in a variety of settings. The majority of cemís were crafted from wood but stone, bone, shell, pottery, and cotton were also used. Cemí petroglyphs were carved on rocks in streams, ball courts, and on stalagmites in caves. Cemí pictographs were found on secular objects such as pottery, and on tattoos. Yucahú, the god of cassava, was represented with a three-pointed cemí which could be found in conucos to increase the yield of cassava. Wood and stone cemís have been found in caves in Hispaniola and Jamaica.
Cemís are sometimes represented by toads, turtles, snakes, and various abstract and human-like faces. Some of the carved Cemís include a small table or tray which is believed to be a receptacle for hallucinogenic snuff called cohoba prepared from the beans of a species of Piptadenia tree. These trays have been found with ornately carved snuff tubes.
Before certain ceremonies, Taínos would purify either by inducing vomiting with a swallowing stick or by fasting. After the serving of communal bread, first to the Cemi, then to the cacique, and then to the common people; the village epic would be sung and accompanied by maraca and other instruments. Tainos also used body modification in order to express their faith. The higher the piercing or tattoo on the body signified their closeness to their gods. Men usually wore decorative 'tatuajes' and the women wore mainly piercings.
Taíno oral tradition explains that the sun and moon come out of caves. Another story tells that people once lived in caves and only came out at night, because it was believed that the Sun would transform them. The Taíno believed to be descended from the union of Deminaán Caracaracol and a female turtle. The origin of the oceans is described in the story of a huge flood which occurred when a father murdered his son (who was about to murder the father), and then put his bones into a gourd or calabash. These bones then turned to fish and the gourd broke and all the water of the world came pouring out. Taínos believed that the souls of the dead go to Coaybay, the underworld, and there they rest by day, and when night comes they assume the form of bats and eat the fruit "guayaba".
They traded with us and gave us everything they had, with good will..they took great delight in pleasing us..They are very gentle and without knowledge of what is evil; nor do they murder or steal..Your highness may believe that in all the world there can be no better people ..They love their neighbours as themselves, and they have the sweetest talk in the world, and are gentle and always laughing.At this time, the neighbors of the Taínos were the Guanahatabeys in the western tip of Cuba, and the Island-Caribs in the Lesser Antilles from Guadaloupe to Grenada. The Taínos called the island Guanahaní which Columbus renamed as San Salvador (Spanish for "Holy Savior"). It was Columbus who called the Taíno "Indians", an identification that has grown to encompass all the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere. A group of Taíno people accompanied Columbus on his return voyage back to Spain.
Early population estimates of Hispaniola, probably the most populous island inhabited by Taínos, range from 100,000 to 1,000,000 people. The maximum estimates for Jamaica and Puerto Rico, the most densely populated islands after Hispaniola, are 600,000 people. The Dominican priest Bartolomé de Las Casas wrote (1561) in his multivolume History of the Indies:
There were 60,000 people living on this island [when I arrived in 1508], including the Indians; so that from 1494 to 1508, over three million people had perished from war, slavery and the mines. Who in future generations will believe this?
Researchers today doubt Las Casas's figures for the pre-contact levels of the Taíno population, considering them an exaggeration. For example, Anderson Córdova estimates a maximum of 500,000 people inhabiting the island. The Taíno population estimates range all over, from a few hundred thousand up to 8,000,000. They were not immune to Old World diseases, notably smallpox. Many of them were worked to death in the mines and fields, put to death in harsh put-downs of revolts or committed suicide (throwing themselves out of the cliffs or consuming manioc leaves) to escape their cruel new masters. La Casas wrote that the Spaniards:
"made bets as to who would slit a man in two, or cut off his head at one blow; or they opened up his bowels. They tore the babes from their mothers breast by their feet, and dashed their heads against the rocks...they spitted the bodies of other babes, together with their mothers and all who were before them, on their swords....and by thirteens, in honor and reverance for our Redeemer and the twelve Apostles they put wood underneath and, with fire, they burned the Indians alive"Some academics have suggested that the numbers the population had shrunk to 60,000 and by 1531 to 3,000 in Hispanola. In thirty years, between 80% and 90% of the population died. Because of the increased number of people (Spanish) on the island, there was a higher demand for food from the Taino method of plantation which was being converted to Spanish methods. Because so many Taino were put into slavery, they had little time for community affairs, and the supply of food became so low in 1495 and 1496 that famine occurred and combined with diseases like smallpox to which the Taino had no immunity to. This took a staggering death toll. By 1507 their numbers had shrunk to 60,000. By 1531 the number was down to 600. Scholars now believe that, among the various contributing factors, epidemic disease was the overwhelming cause of the population decline of the American natives.
On Columbus' second voyage, he began to require tribute from the Taínos in Hispaniola. Each adult over 14 years of age was expected to deliver a hawks bell full of gold every three months, or when this was lacking twenty five pounds of spun cotton. If this tribute was not observed, the Taínos had their hands cut off and were left to bleed to death. This also gave way to a service requirement called encomienda. Under this system, Taínos were required to work for a Spanish land owner for most of the year, which left little time to tend to their own community affairs.
In 1511, several caciques in Puerto Rico, such as Agüeybaná, Urayoán, Guarionex, and Orocobix, allied with the Caribs and tried to oust the Spaniards. The revolt was pacified by the forces of Governor Juan Ponce de León. Hatuey, a Taíno chieftain who had fled Hispaniola to Cuba with 400 natives in order to unite the Cuban natives, was burned at the stake on February 2, 1512. In Hispaiola, a Taíno chieftain named Enriquillo mobilized over 3,000 remaining Taíno in a successful rebellion in the 1530s. These Taíno were accorded land and a charter from the royal administration.
Las Casas wrote in his will the following prophecy:
"I believe that because these impious, criminal and ignominious acts, perpetrated unjustly, tyrannously, and barbarously upon them God will visit His wrath and His ire upon Spain for her share, great or small, in the blood stained riches, obtained by theft and usurpation, accompanied by such slaughter and annihilation of these people -- unless she does much penance".