The Taino People of Puerto Rico

The conquistadors who “discovered” Puerto Rico and claimed the land for the Spanish Crown were not the first people to set foot on the island. Long before their arrival, Puerto Rico had been inhabited by indigenous people known as the Taíno. While much knowledge of the Taíno culture was lost during the Spanish Conquest, historical records and archaeological finds have allowed us to build a picture of this race.

Where Did The Taíno People Originate?

 Puerto Rico’s first visitors arrived around 3000BC. These are known as pre-Taíno civilisations, and  artefacts dating back to this time have allowed archaeologists and historians to gather some information about their origins. It was not until the 1950s that studies of red and white pottery found on Puerto Rico proved a connection between the people living on the island and those living on what is now mainland South America. Carved pendants featuring birds, which were found at a site called La Hueca, also showed similarities to designs found in Venezuela and Guiana.

These original settlers would have travelled over the sea from the Orinoco and Amazon delta, and were of the Amerindian Arawak group. The name given to these settlers was Salanoid, and it is thought that they were peaceful hunter-gatherers who made simple stone tools. The Salanoid were succeeded by the Ostonoid people.

It was not until around 900BC that the Taíno people began to arrive on Puerto Rico. It is probable that the similarity between the cultures of the Taíno and earlier settlers of the island allowed a amalgamation of the races.

 Taíno Language

The Taíno language has Arawakan roots, fitting into a language family which has been identified throughout Central America and the Caribbean. Puerto Rican Taíno language is also sometimes described as Island-Arawak. There are some similarities between the language spoken by Taíno groups on other islands , such as Hispaniola, Jamaica, Cuba and Haiti, although each developed its own dialect.

The Taíno language was not a written language, and ideas were communicated through petroglyphs (stone carvings). Song and story-telling were the main form of passing on history and news, and this oral tradition may have been the reason why some Taíno words  remain in use today. Words such as barbacoa, huracan and hamaca all originated with the Taíno, and are widely understood in both English and Spanish. Puerto Rican Spanish also uses many Taíno words for plants, birds and animals, as well as place names.

Apart from the 600 Taíno words which made their way into Puerto Rican Spanish as it is spoken today, the Taíno language was all but lost with the colonisation of the island. The only known recording of the nasal sounding language being spoken with a level of fluency was made in the 1970s, and the subject of the recording was a very elderly woman at the time.

How Was Taíno Society Organised?

The Taíno people who settled in Puerto Rico soon established themselves into a functioning society. The island was divided into a number of zones, each one led by a chieftain, known as a Cacique. When Christopher Columbus happened upon Puerto Rico, the island had a total of 30 Caciques. Caciques could be male or female, and were allowed to marry as many times as they liked. In some cases, marriages were “political”, in a sense that they would help to strengthen bonds between different groups. Taíno people who did not hold a leadership position were also allowed to marry more than once , polygamy being a norm. When a couple was newly married, it was customary for them to live in the same house as the female’s uncle.

Taíno society was divided into three classes. Nitainos were the noblemen, warriors and artisans, while Naborias were labourers. There was no lower class, as the Taíno did not use slave or forced labour. The third class were those people who held a very important position in Taíno society – the Bohikes were shamans or priests, who were believed to consult with the gods.

 It is interesting to note that women were greatly revered in the Taíno society. The Taíno people followed a matrilineal inheritance system, which meant that if a male heir was not available, an inheritance would be passed to the woman’s sister’s children. Labour was divided up between men and women, allowing equality and respect for ability.  Along with making pottery, weaving cotton and caring for children, the Taíno women also planted and harvested crops. Some historians surmise that females were involved with agriculture as the Taíno connected women with fertility.  The role of Taíno men was hunting, fishing, canoe building and protecting their territory.

What Were Taíno Homes Like?

Taíno villages were called Yukayekes, and were always positioned close to a source of fresh water. The yukayekes were built around a central plaza, called a Batey, where games, meetings and religious ceremonies were held. Around the plaza, communal houses were built to shelter as many as fifteen families. The houses were made from wood, each with a conical thatched roof, and were surprisingly sturdy. Many of the Taíno people slept in hammocks, while baskets were hung from the walls and ceilings for storage.

What Did the Taíno People Look Like?

Christopher Columbus was one of the first people to describe the Taíno people’s appearance. He wrote that they were tall and slender people, with bronzed or olive toned skin. Their hair was worn short with a tuft at the back, and as a flattened forehead was considered to be beautiful, mothers tied bands or flat objects to their babies head.

The Taíno people wore little clothing, but enjoyed decorating their bodies using dyes made from plants and minerals. Not only were these body paints decorative, but could also protect their skin from insect bites. Married women wore an apron type skirt known as a nagua, with those who held a high position in society wearing a longer length of skirt. Unmarried women wore a headband which signified their status. Men, young and old, often went naked, although some wore a short nagua. Both men and women made and wore jewellery, using the natural resources available – fathers, stones and bones. The Cacique had the honour of wearing a special headdress made from gold and a shoulder covering.

 What Did the Taíno People Eat?

The Taíno people were hunter-gatherers who developed advanced agricultural systems, capable of providing food for all the occupants of their villages.

While there is some evidence that the Taíno of Puerto Rico employed the slash and burn method of clearing land which was favoured by the Carib tribes on other islands, their main form of growing crops was in mounds called Conucos.  Conucos were high mounds, often measuring as much as 15ft in width. Growing staple crops such as yuca, sweet potato and manioc in these mounds had a number of advantages, which suggest that the Taíno were far from primitive. Conucos improved drainage and prevented soil erosion, while making it possible to store tubers under ground for long periods of time without them rotting.

Yuca was a vital crop, as it could be made into cassava flour and bread, which could be stored for months after baking. The tuber contains the poison cyanide, however the Taíno developed methods which allowed them to utilise yuca without becoming ill. First the plant was peeled with sharpened stones, then crushed and sieved to remove the highly toxic juices, which were sometimes used on arrow or spear tips. Other important crops included tobacco, which was used for ceremonial purposes, and corn, which the Taíno did not make into bread like other Arawakan Indians, but ate off the cob.

Agricultural crops were supplemented with whatever animals, birds and fish could be caught by the hunters. Local trees and plants also provided fruit in abundance. Puerto Rico had no large, native species during this period, however the Taíno took advantage of whatever was available to them – snakes, parrots, iguanas, insects, a species of mute dog which is now extinct and manatees were all suitable prey.

The main equipment used to hunt and fish would have been a bow and arrow, or a spear. To capture sea-turtles, the Taíno sometimes used a small sucker fish called a remora. They would attach the sucker fish to a line, lower it into the water and wait until it attached itself to the turtles shell, before slowly and carefully hauling it in. The Taíno often captured live prey, which they stored in pools, jars and corrals. This is probably because the Puerto Rican climate caused fresh food to deteriorate quickly – if prey was not slaughtered until needed, it would stay fresh.

What Were the Spiritual Beliefs of the Taíno?

The Taíno people believed that they originated from the mountains of Hispaniola, and their belief system was orientated around ancestor worship and an understanding that trees, plants, animals and the weather conditions were ruled by gods.

The two most important aspects of the Taíno belief system were the male and female creator gods. Atabey, was the mother of all – particularly fresh water and fertility. She had two sons, Yucahu and Guacar. Taíno folklore tells that the two brothers had a disagreement, and envious Yucahu transformed into Juracan, the god of destruction and evil. Yucahu is the good equivalent of Juracan, and was considered to be the male spirit of fertility and the giver of cassava.

It was believed that Yucahu lived in what in now El Yunque Rainforest, and protected the Taíno from the bad-will of his brother. Other lesser gods included Baibramba, who helped yuca plants to grow, and could cure those who were poisoned by its juices. Guabancex was a storm goddess, while the brothers Boinayel and Marohu controlled the weather.

Traditional Taíno stories gave explanations for natural events and how the world came to be. It was said that the oceans were created when a father discovered that his son was planning patricide. The father exiled the son, then killed him, placing his bones inside the fruit of a calabash tree.

These bones turned into fish, which smashed the calabash and filled the seas with water. Hummingbirds were also the centre of a folktale – like Romeo and Juliet, a young couple from two different tribes fell in love. When their families tried to destroy the relationship, they turned into a hummingbird and a red flower, allowing them to be together, in love, for eternity.

As well as worshipping the gods which could help or hinder daily life, the Taíno had great respect for their dead, particularly ancient, powerful Caciques.  To help them to connect with these spirits, the Taíno carved three sided objects which are called zemi or cemi. The cemi would be carved, often with animal symbols, and represented a physical form of the gods and spirits. It was common for the Taino to make offerings of food or tobacco, especially if they felt that they had done something to anger their predecessors.  In some cases, dried remains of dead ancestors hung up inside the houses, or buried underneath them. The Taíno did not believe in hell or heaven, but thought that the dead lived in an underworld called Coaybay, taking the form of bats at night-time and feeding on the fruit of the Guayaba tree.

Another way in which the Taíno communed with their gods was in the Cohoba ceremony. Bohikes guided those who felt the urge to discover the other-world through a process which would prepare them to connect with the gods. The participants would sit on carved, ceremonial stools known as dujo. These where high backed and often featured images of serpents. After stimulating vomiting, using a decorated spatula designed specifically for the purpose, a Taíno person taking part in a Cohoba ceremony would feel physically cleansed and ready for their journey. A powder made from crushed seeds from the cohoba tree, sometimes mixed with tobacco, was inhaled through the nostrils. This drug caused hallucinations or visions – objects and movements would appear reversed and the world was seen in an ever changing kaleidoscope of colours.

Areytos, a type of gathering held at the central plaza of each village also had a significant role in Taíno life. The Taíno people loved to sing and dance, and areytos provided the opportunity to do just that. These important events not only celebrated religious occasions, but might pass on historical and folklore tales from one generation to the next, announce a war or victory, mourn the death of a Cacique or celebrate good crop. The singing took a call and response form and was accompanied by music from Taíno instruments. Fray Ramon Pane, who was appointed by Columbus to report on Taíno culture reported the use of maracas, made from the fruit of the higeura tree and filled with pebbles, and the güiro, a hollow gourd decorated with a ribbed pattern, and played with a scraper. Another instrument was the gourd-shaped mayohucan, which was made from very thin wood and could be heard some distance away when played.

 What Tools & Weapons Did The Taíno Use?

Although their technology may seem incredibly primitive in comparison to the tools we have available today, the Taíno were fairly advanced.  The Taíno grew cotton and harvested palm fibres, which were woven together to form strong nets and ropes. Stone tools such as the pestle and mortar and the stone ax would have been used for many daily activities while spears and bows and arrows were the hunter’s tools. Defensive weapons such as shields, and protective armour have never been discovered amongst Taíno artefacts, however a sharpened club called a macana would have been used in battles.

The most significant tool for the Taíno was actually their main form of transport – the canoe. Canoes were made from hollowed out tree trunks and most could carry thirty people, although some could seat as many as one hundred. These canoes would have allowed the Taíno to trade with communities on other islands, which historical experts believe would have occurred regularly.

Did the Taíno People Play Sports?

It seems that the Taíno people were very active and enjoyed playing a variety of games, usually in the central plaza found in their villages. Wrestling, athletics and circle games would have offered a way to pass recreational time, while showing off skill and ability. The best known Taíno game was Batey, a ball game in which two teams of players had to prevent a bouncy rubber ball from touching the ground – without using their hands and feet. Impressive remains of Taíno Batey playing fields can be found in several locations on the island.

 Did the Taíno People Have Any Enemies?

It is often said that the word Taíno meant “good people” in their own language, and while this is difficult to prove, historical records do tend to point to the fact that these were essentially peace loving people. Ponce de Leon, who was Puerto Rico’s first Governor, described them as being “the friendliest people in the world” and evidence suggests that when waging war with other tribes, the Taíno preferred to disarm their enemies, and found killing them to be dishonourable. However, they did find the need to defend themselves and their land from time to time, from an Arawak group known as the Caribs, who inhabited neighbouring islands.

When the Spanish arrived in Puerto Rico, the Taíno had been suffering attacks from the Carib and felt that these well-armed newcomers could become allies. The Spanish were no doubt pleased to be able to send reports back to Europe suggesting that the Carib tribes were fierce cannibals who stole women from the Taíno. One of the purposes of the Spanish colonisation was to bring the message of Catholicism to “heathens”, so reports of violent and unspeakable behaviour by these natives suited their purposes. It is hard to say how much of what is written about the Carib tribes is simply propaganda spread by the Spanish colonisers, and how much is true. The effect of these stories though, was brutal. Queen Isabelle I of Spain gave orders in 1503, which stated that indigenous people could not be harmed or captured unless they were cannibals – which encouraged the colonisers to perpetuate their lurid and grisly tales.

What Was Life Like for The Taíno Before and After the Spanish Conquest?

Long before Christopher Columbus encountered the verdant island of Puerto Rico, the Taíno people had been enjoying her tropical abundance. The island was almost entirely covered in rainforest, with a climate which allowed flora and fauna to thrive. The Taíno people called the island Boriquen (Boriken) which translates roughly as “Land of the Noble Lord”.

When Ponce de Leon decided to colonise the Puerto Rico in 1508, there were as many as 30,000 Taíno people inhabiting the many villages across the island. The Taíno were at first willing to allow the Spaniards to gather gold, and helped them, believing that these white men were gods. The arrangement soon became unsatisfactory for the Taíno people who were not used to such heavy physical work, and disliked the cruel treatment that the conquistadors meted out. Ponce de Leon’s arrival in Puerto Rico was to spark one of the most horrifying genocides of all time.

Cacique Urayoan was one of the Taíno who saw through the illusion that the colonists super-human. His campaign to break free of Spanish rule started and ended too quickly – the drowning of one Spanish man, Diego Salcedo, was followed by Ponce de Leon’s order to kill numerous tribes-people.

The colonisers used the what was known as Encomienda system to control the Taíno people. The Encomienda had been invented in Hispaniola and was designed to be similar to the Medieval feudal system as seen in Europe. Colonisers were given a village to protect and offer religious instruction to, and in return the Taíno would work for them, providing food, yet not being paid. Most of the colonisers abused their power, mistreating the Taíno, and in many cases working them to death.

The Taíno way of life was crushed, as they were forbidden to speak their own language or engage in their spiritual practices. During Spanish rule in Puerto Rico, thousands of Taíno people were shot to death, while others committed suicide or ran away to hide in the mountains. Yet more died of diseases such as smallpox, measles and mumps, which the Taíno had developed no immunity to.

Some Spanish people were unhappy about the way that the majority of colonisers were treating their Taíno workers and attempted to aid them by appealing to the Spanish Crown. Fray Antonio de Montesinos was one such friend of the Taíno. He was horrified by the abuse he saw carried out in Hispaniola in 1511 , and preached to the conquistadors, suggesting that their behaviour was not Christian. His work was continued by Bartholome de Las Casa, who succeeded in convincing Cardinal Cisneros, who was Regent of Spain at the time, to send representatives to Spain’s overseas colonies. The aim of this was to discover the truth about what was occurring in Puerto Rico and elsewhere.

On July 28 1513, a Complementary Declaration stated that all natives who were clothed properly, Christian and capable should be freed. The remainder received their freedom in July 1520, with the Encomienda being abolished for good in 1544, by King Charles I of Spain and V of Germany. Unfortunately for the Taíno people, this was much too late, in 1530 Governor Miguel Lando had ordered a census which showed only 1000 Taíno living on the island.

 Which Taíno People Played A Significant Role in History?

Records from the time of the Spanish conquest of Puerto Rico describe some important figures of Taíno history.

  •   Agueybana, whose name was Great Sun, was the Cacique of Guayanilla Bay and greeted Ponce de Leon when he arrived in  Puerto Rico.
  •   Dona Ines was Agueybana’s mother. In 1907, she was baptised by Ponce de Leon and given a Spanish name.
  •   Agueybana II was either the brother or nephew of Agueybana. He led the 1511 Taíno Rebellion, in which 350 Spaniards  were killed.
  •   Loquillo was the Spanish name given to Yuquibo. Meaning “Crazy One” Loquillo was known for fighting back against the conquistadors and is remembered with the place name Luquillo.
  •   Yuiza was the only female Taíno in Puerto Rico. She married a Spanish man, who wanted to protect her and her tribe from the conquistadors, but was killed in a Carib raid on her land in 1517.
  •   Many other Caciques are remembered with place names in their honour such as Caguax and Comerias.

Are There Any Taíno People Living In Puerto Rico Today?

The majority of history books claim that the Taíno people became extinct during the Spanish conquest. Although it is correct to say that there are no pure-blood Taíno people alive in Puerto Rico today, a 2005 study into genetics suggested that 61% of Puerto Rican’s carry Taíno bloodlines. This is because Taíno men and women had children with Spanish colonisers, African slaves and other European incomers, which resulted the continuation of their gene-pool.  Many of these people wish to have their cultural heritage recognised, and several groups are working hard to reinvigorate Taíno customs and link communities together. Jatibonicu Taíno Tribal Nation of Boriquen and El Pueblo Gua Ma-Cu A Boriquen are both involved in ongoing campaigns for Taíno human rights and reinstatement of traditional tribal lands and an end to desecration of sacred areas and burial grounds.