Reconstruction of a Taíno village in Cuba

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 Dominican Republic and Haiti), 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.



Two schools of thought have emerged regarding the origin of the indigenous people of the West Indies. One group contends that the ancestors of the Taínos came from the center of the Amazon Basin, subsequently moving to the Orinoco valley. From there they reached the West Indies by way of what is now Guyana and Venezuela into Trinidad, proceeding along the Lesser Antilles all the way to Cuba and the Bahamian archipelago. Evidence that supports this theory includes the tracing of the ancestral cultures of these people to the Orinoco Valley and their languages to the Amazon Basin.

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 Guiana’s, Venezuela and the Amazon Basin.

Taíno culture is believed to have developed in the West Indies. The Taino believed they had originated from caves in a sacred mountain of Hispaniola


Culture and lifestyle

Dujo, a wooden chair crafted by Taínos.

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) who 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. The Taínos were very experienced in agriculture and lived 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.

Caguana Ceremonial ball court (batey), outlined with monoliths.

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 Huracán ("hurricane") have been incorporated into the Spanish and English languages.

Food and agriculture

Cassava (yuca) roots, the Taínos’ main crop

Taíno staples included vegetables, fruit, 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 eaten. 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 (Dominican Republic & Haiti), Puerto Rico, and Jamaica, relied more on agriculture. Fields for important root crops, such as the staple yuca, were prepared by heaping up mounds of soil, called conucos, which improved soil drainage and fertility as well as delaying erosion, and allowing for longer storage of crops in the ground. Less important crops such as corn were raised in simple clearings created by slash and burn technique. Typically, Conucos were 3 feet high and 9 feet in circumference and were arranged in rows.[12] The primary root crop was yuca/cassava, a woody shrub cultivated for its edible and starchy tuberous root. It was planted using a coa, a kind of hoe made completely out of wood. Women squeezed the poisonous variety of "cassava" to extract the toxic juices preparatory to grinding the roots into flour for baking bread. Batata (Sweet potato) was the next most important root crop.

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 (canoa) were made in various sizes, which could hold from 2 to 150 people. An average sized canoa 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 coco macaque.


Taíno religion centered on the worship of zemís or cemís. Cemís are gods, spirits, or ancestors. The major Taino gods are Yucahu and Atabey. Yúcahu which means spirit of cassava, was the god of cassava (the Taínos main crop) and the sea. Atabey, mother of Yúcahu, was the goddess of fresh waters and fertility. The minor Taino gods related to growing of cassava, the process of life, creation and death. Baibrama was a minor 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). Juracán is often identified as the god of storms. but juracán only means 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 the 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.

Rock petroglyph overlaid with chalk in the Caguana Indigenous Ceremonial Center in Utuado, Puerto Rico.

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.[18]

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 themselves, either by inducing vomiting with a swallowing stick or by fasting. After serving communal bread, first to the Cemi, then to the cacique, and then to the common people, the village epic would be sung to the accompaniment of maraca and other instruments.

Taino, also employed body modification as an expression of their faith. The higher the piercing or tattoo on the body, the closer to their gods. Men usually wore decorative tattoos and the women usually had piercings.

One Taíno oral tradition explains that the sun and moon come out of caves. Another story tells of people who once lived in caves and only came out at night, because it was believed that the sun would transform them. The Taíno believed themselves 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".

Taíno – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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