The Taino did not have a written alphabet as we would recognize it, but instead used pictographs and symbols to communicate thoughts and concepts, or simply as decoration. The Taino painted and carved symbols onto pottery, shell and bone objects, as well as using them in fabric weaving. The Taino also created petroglyphs (stone carvings) in many locations in Puerto Rico, particularly on large stones near rivers, on cave walls and in other places of significance.
Usually on granite, quartz diorite, granitic porphyry or limestone, the Taino sometimes placed their symbols in locations that were difficult to access, and may have built some kind of scaffolding to work in these spots. Although somewhat naïve and abstract in style to the modern eye, JW Fewkes remarked in his book “Prehistoric Porto Rican Pictographs” that the Taino of Puerto Rico seem to be more advanced that their pre-Arawak counterparts on the mainland.
Taino Symbols in Puerto Rico
Among the numerous different symbols left behind by the Taino people, there are certain images and themes which are repeated in different locations throughout Puerto Rico. These symbols have become popular as decorations on t-shirts and jewellery. Some people also use the Taino symbols as inspiration for tattoos. Defining the meanings of the Taino symbols is something which remains highly speculative. The main reason that is is to hard to break the code of Taino symbolism is because accurate records of meanings were never recorded. The earliest known writing about the Taino symbols was by Fray Ramon Pane in the 15th Century.
Pane was a Spanish priest, and it is likely that his records were somewhat biased due to his own religious beliefs and interpretations. Another reason for the difficulties in “translating” the Taino symbols is that the culture was almost entirely swept away with the arrival of the Europeans to the island and many sacred sites were lost forever. Souvenir taking has also been an issue, with visitors removing artifacts from unprotected sites.
However, over the years, historians and archaeologists have been able to gather further information to help them educated guesses as to what these carved messages might have been intended to mean.
Swaddled Human Figure http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/5c/Tainobaby.svg
There are two schools of thought as to what the Taino were depicting when they carved the swaddled human figure. Early studies (A Preliminary Report on Petroglyphs in Puerto Rico, Monica Flaherty Frasseto) suggested that the figure was intended to be a baby, wrapped in swaddling blankets. Another point of view, which is favored by modern historians, is that the swaddled human figure actually represents a corpse, wrapped in a hammock, as was the custom of the Taino.
Other Human Figures http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tainoboy.svg
Human figures are another type of symbol which the Taino used regularly. Some figures are thought to represent characters from Taino mythology and religion, while others seem to depict humans performing day to day tasks. Key symbols found in Puerto Rico include frog-legged female figures (thought to be Atabey, the mother goddess thus representing fertility) and co-joined twins (which may represent the duality of night and day, and of wet season and dry season). Other symbols include hunters, ball-game players and shamans, who held an important position in Taino society.
The sun is another Taino symbol which has become highly popular and is often used to represent Taino heritage or ancestry. Again, it is probably that sun symbol has a religious significance to the Taino, as well as being connected to the natural cycles of night and day, and life and death. The moon is also represented in Taino petroglyphs.
The coqui is the common name for a type of frog which is native to Puerto Rico. For the Taino, the coqui was probably connected with the coming of rain, and the wet-season, and was just one of many wildlife symbols that they carved and painted.