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Tanos of Puerto Rico, a cultural site

Cultural
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Taínos
by: Ivonne Figueroa
July 1996
Edited by Barbara Yaez, Assistant WebSite Editor

Imagine
the «Eden» called Borikn. 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 yauta,
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 Tano people.

In spite of having
been almost completely wiped out within two decades, the Tanos left us
their heritage — a legacy. Traces of Tano physical characteristics are
found in Tano descendants clustered in areas of Borinquen. The names
of many towns (Mayagez, Coamo), foods (mamey), instruments, trees and
plants are original Tano names. We have little detailed knowledge of
Tano culture, religion and daily life. What we know comes from Spanish
documents and from recent excavations.

Much has been said
of the Tanos lately, but it wasn’t until the early 1900’s that the study
of the Tanos took off. The origin of the Tanos 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 Tanos 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 Tano. 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 Tano 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 Tanos were farmers and fishermen.

Cristforo
Colombo wrote in his journal that Tanos 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 Coln,
the Tano tongue was «gentle, the sweetest in the world, always with a
laugh.»

Borikn’s head cacique
at the time of the arrival of Coln was Ageyban. 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: Nitanos 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 Nitanos were born into or earned their social class. The Nitanos
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.

Bohos 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 caa
and had thick walls. Each boho 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 fogn,
a burn (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.

Tanos 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 Tano
staple food, and from it flour and casava bread were made. The Tanos
primarily used tubers as a source of food. Also harvested were guanábana,
yauta, squash, mamey, papaya, pineapple, achiote, sweet potatoes, yams,
and corn. Peanuts, lerenes, guava, soursop, pineapples, sea grapes, black-eyed
peas, ajes 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.»

Tanos 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.
Tanos 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, jutas (small rodents), iguanas,
and waterfowl. Spears, described by Coln, 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 Tanos 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 piln was first used by the Tano Indians. Historians
such as Fray Iigo Abbad and Fernndez 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. Tanos would place one foot on the base to prevent it
from tipping over when hit with the giant macetas. Tanos 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 Tanos used them, pilones were found in all the Caribbean Islands.
The hole for the piln 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. Tanos used
the piln and maceta to mash corn, spices, medicinal herbs and other things.
Ingredients to make body paint were also processed in a piln.

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. Tanos 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 Tanos 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.

Tanos 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
Tanos. 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 giro 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 Yocah. The cemís were kept in
shrine rooms. Tanos 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.

Tanos
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
boho 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.

Tanos 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 Tanos
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 Tano athletic events.

Part of the Tano
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 Tano artifacts in museums today. Most of
their ceremonial artifacts were hidden from the Spanish in caves.

The Tano legacy of
hospitality is evident in the campesinos in rural areas in Puerto Rico
today.

On September 25, 1493,
Cristóbal Coln sailed rom the port of Cdiz, 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 Borikn. 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 Borikn. The fleet anchored in the Aguada-Aguadilla region.

The end of the Puerto
Rican Tano 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 Tanos. They
commited group suicide as an escape, but it was mainly disease that decimated
the Tanos so quickly. In 1516, only eight years later, there were so
few Tanos 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 Tano population.
In 1542, a Bishop was sent to Puerto Rico to inform the Indians of their
«new» complete freedom.

Caciques
Vocabulary
Related Links

Main references:

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 Guanikyu Torres

Photo of Taíno
child with coconut courtesy of George Collazo, http://www.photosofpuertorico.com

 

TOP

Taino Indian Culture

Taíno Indians, a subgroup of the Arawakan Indians (a group of
American Indians in northeastern South America), inhabited the
Greater Antilles (comprising Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola [Haiti and the
Dominican Republic], and Puerto Rico) in the Caribbean Sea at the
time when Christopher Columbus’ arrived to the New World.

The Taíno culture impressed both the Spanish (who observed it) and
modern sociologists. The Arawakan achievements included construction of
ceremonial ball parks whose boundaries were marked by upright stone
dolmens, development of a universal language, and creation of a
complicated religious cosmology. There was a hierarchy of deities who
inhabited the sky; Yocahu was the supreme Creator. Another god,
Jurakán, was perpetually angry and ruled the power of the
hurricane. Other mythological figures were the gods Zemi and
Maboya. The zemis, a god of both sexes, were represented by icons in the
form of human and animal figures, and collars made of wood, stone, bones, and
human remains. Taíno Indians believed that being in the good graces of
their zemis protected them from disease, hurricanes, or disaster in war. They
therefore served cassava (manioc) bread as well as beverages and tobacco to
their zemis as propitiatory offerings. Maboyas, on the other hand, was a
nocturnal deity who destroyed the crops and was feared by all the natives, to
the extent that elaborate sacrifices were offered to placate him.

Myths and traditions were perpetuated through ceremonial
dances (areytos), drumbeats, oral traditions, and a ceremonial
ball game played between opposing teams (of 10 to 30 players per team)
with a rubber ball; winning this game was thought to bring a good harvest
and strong, healthy children.

Tainos
Photo: Ignacio Rivera

The Taíno Indians lived in theocratic kingdoms and had a
hierarchically arranged chiefs or caciques. The Taínos
were divided in three social classes: the naborias (work class), the
nitaínos or sub-chiefs and noblemen which includes the
bohiques or priests and medicine men and the caciques or chiefs,
each village or yucayeque had one.

At the time Juan Ponce de León took possession of the Island,
there were about twenty villages or yucayeques, Cacique
Agüeybana, was chief of the Taínos. He lived at Guánica,
the largest Indian village in the island, on the Guayanilla River. The rank of
each cacique apparently was established along democratic lines; his importance
in the tribe being determined by the size of his clan, rather than its
war-making strength. There was no aristocracy of lineage, nor were their
titles other than those given to individuals to distinguish their services to
the clan.
Both men and women were eligible to serve as chiefs. Individuals traced their
descent through their mothers, and goods, class status and the office of chief
were also inherited matrilineally.

Polygamy was practiced. Men, and sometimes women, might have several spouses. A few caciques had as many as 30 wives, in most
instances they were the only ones who could afford it.

Their complexion were bronze-colored, average stature, dark,
flowing, coarse hair, and large and slightly oblique dark eyes. Men
generally went naked or wore a breech cloth, called nagua, single women wore headbands and walked
around naked and married women an apron to cover their genitals, made of cotton or
palm fibers. The length of which was a sign of rank. Both sexes painted
themselves on special occasions; they wore earrings, nose rings, and necklaces,
which were sometimes made of gold. Taíno crafts were few; some pottery
and baskets were made, and stone, marble and wood were worked skillfully.

Skilled at agriculture and hunting, Taínos were also
good sailors, fishermen, canoe makers, and navigators. Their main crops were
cassava, garlic, potatoes, yautías, mamey,
guava, and anón. They had no calendar or writing system,
and could count only up to twenty, using their hands and feet. Their personal
possessions consisted of dujo or dujo wooden stools with four legs and carved backs,
hammocks made of cotton cloth or string for sleeping, clay and wooden bowls for
mixing and serving food, calabashes or gourds for drinking water and bailing out
boats, and their most prized possessions, large dugout canoes,
for transportation, fishing, and water sports.

Tainos
Ignacio Rivera

Caciques lived in larger and rectangular huts, called caneyes, located in the
center of the village facing the batey. The naborias lived in round
huts, called bohios. The construction of both types of building was
the same: wooden frames, topped by straw, with dirt floors, no partitions between families and scant
interior furnishing.
Buildings were strong enough to resist
hurricanes. Its believed that Taíno settlements ranged from single
families to groups of 3,000 people. Several related families lived together in the same house.

About 100 years before the Spanish invasion, the Taínos were
challenged by an invading South American tribe — the Caribs
. Fierce, warlike, sadistic, and adept at
using poison-tipped arrows, they raided Taíno settlements for slaves
(especially females) and bodies for the completion of their rites of
cannibalism. Some ethnologists argue that the preeminence of the
Taínos, shaken by the attacks of the Caribs, was already jeopardized by
the time of the Spanish occupation. In fact, it was Caribs who fought the most
effectively against the Europeans, their behavior probably led the
Europeans to unfairly attribute warlike tendencies to all of the island’s
tribes. A dynamic tension between the Taínos and the Caribs certainly
existed when the Christopher Columbus landed on Puerto Rico.

When the Spanish settlers first came in 1508, since there is no reliable
documentation, anthropologists estimate their numbers to have been between
20,000 and 50,000, but maltreatment, disease, flight, and unsuccessful
rebellion had diminished their number to 4,000 by 1515; in 1544 a bishop
counted only 60, but these too were soon lost.

At their arrival the Spaniards expected the Taíno Indians to
acknowledge the sovereignty of the king of Spain by payment of gold tribute,
to work and supply provisions of food and to observe Christian ways. The
Taínos rebelled most notably in 1511, when several caciques (Indian
leaders) conspired to oust the Spaniards. They were joined in this uprising by
their traditional enemies, the Caribs. Their weapons, however, were no match
against Spanish horses and firearms and the revolt was soon ended brutally by
the Spanish forces of Governor Juan Ponce de León.

In order to understand Puerto Rico’s prehistoric era, it is
important to know that the Taínos, far more than the Caribs,
contributed greatly to the everyday life and language that evolved during
the Spanish occupation. Taíno place names are still used for such
towns as Utuado,
Mayagüez,
Caguas,
and
Humacao, among others.

Many Taíno implements and techniques were copied directly by
the Europeans, including the bohío (straw hut) and the
hamaca (hammock), the musical instrument known as the
maracas, and the method of making cassava bread. Many Taino words
persist in the Puerto Rican vocabulary of today. Names of plants, trees
and fruits includes: maní, leren, ají, yuca, mamey, pajuil,
pitajaya, cupey, tabonuco and ceiba. Names of fish, animals and birds
includes: mucaro, guaraguao, iguana, cobo, carey, jicotea, guabina,
manati, buruquena and juey. As well as other objects and instruments:
güiro, bohío, batey, caney, hamaca, nasa, petate, coy, barbacoa,
batea, cabuya, casabe and canoa. Other words were passed not only into
Spanish, but also into English, such as huracan (hurricane) and hamaca
(hammock). Also, many Taíno superstitions and legends were adopted and
adapted by the Spanish and still influence the Puerto Rican imagination.

Books

  • The Tainos: Rise and Decline of the People Who Greeted Columbus
  • The
    Indigenous People of the Caribbean
  • In Defense of the Indians : The Defense of the Most
    Reverend Lord, Don Fray Bartolome de las Casas, of
    the Order of Preachers, Late Bishop of Chiapas
  • The
    Tainos: Rise & Decline of the People Who Greeted Columbus

Other Resources

  • Genographic Project DNA Results Reveal Details of Puerto Rican History
  • Arawaks
  • Cacicazgos del Siglo 16 (Source:
    http://taino.com/PR/tainos/mapacaciques.

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