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Juan Cruz-Barrios


Taino Society



Taino Society

On the basis of modern radiocarbon dating archeologist have proposed that the first indigenous people to reach Puerto Rico was that of the Igneris or Saladoids, which had settled in Loiza around 120 A.D. This migratory movement occurring during the pre-Columbian period is attributed to the Arawak cultural tradition, originating in the Orinoco basin, via an oceangoing vessel to islands near the Venezuelan mainland, and continuing by navigating some form of canoe carved out of tree trunks. They explored and settled all of the West Indian chain of islands. While little is known of the Igneris’ society, in all likelihood they mostly relied on hunting and fishing for their primary means of sustenance. Some archaeologist believe that by the sixth century A.D. the Igneris had gradually evolved, changing their cultural pattern into what is known as the Ostionoid culture, while other archaeologist believe that the Igneris were conquered and taken over by a newer migration from South America. While the Igneris’ artifacts consisted mostly of artful pottery, Ostenoids were known for their religious ceremonies, tribal amulets and small cemies, idols made out of shell, wood, or stone in admiration to their Gods. Nevertheless, based on archaeological findings, by 1000 A.D. the Ostionoid’s had evolved into a more complex social and material organization. These inhabitants became more associated with the Taino culture when found by the Spaniards upon the discovery of America in 1492.

The socio-political foundation of the Taino society existed in the nucleus of the village, called the yucayeque. The yucayeques were located in the fruitful plains, valleys and hillsides, in close proximity to flowing rivers or the ocean, so as to facilitate agricultural practices, domestic farming chores, and fishing. A yacayeque was comprised of the chief’s residence; the bohios, which were the hut-like common living shelters; the batey, which was a communal plaza (usually in the center or close proximity to the village), dedicated to the deities (Gods and Goddesses), and utilized for ceremonies and a game known as la pelota (ball-like game). The building materials utilized by the Tainos for fabricating their homes consisted of what the natural environment had to offer them: tree trunks, canes, and palm leaf. According to the observations of the first arriving Spaniards to the island of Puerto Rico, they found well built homes constructed out of straw and wood, with walls made out of intertwined canes, covered with a variety of plants and leafs. The villages were laid out in a plaza like pattern, with a long walkway ending toward the river or ocean.

This manner of home construction subsisted in Puerto Rico and was incorporated by the Spaniards in building their urban centers as well as in rural areas, since this type of construction was so well suited for such tropical regions. As time went on, this became the typical habitation of the Puerto Rican countryman. The furniture of these dwellings was quite simple. It was comprised of the hammock, weaved out of maguey fibers or cotton threads, and the dujo or duho, which was a small, low, reclined chair most commonly carved out of wood. It is believed that the caciques (chiefs) and the privileged classes utilized the dujo in their ceremonies. Additionally, the kitchen utensils consisted of ceramic pottery of various sizes to cook the food, as well as plates and cups made out of the higeura tree.

Each yucayaque had its own individual chief or cacique. A chief of one yacayeque could be subordinate to another chief or even negotiate temporary alliances between them for a variety of diverse objectives. However, the evolution of total control or dominance by one chief over the entire island was never established. The cacique was responsible for the defense and security of the yucayeque’s rural community, assigning work chores, the fishing and hunting, and served as judge. The chief was distinguished from the rest of the tribe by his residence, which stood out as the best in the village and by a group of subordinates on hand to service his needs. He also displayed a symbol of power known as the guanine, similar to an amulet made of gold, hanging down from his neck. Some of the geographic locations where the caciques existed, to this day, bear their indigenous names; for example, Humacao, Caguas, Guanica. This explains the continued usage of the term cacique to designate a person who had influence of political importance in a particular town or region.

Taino society was structured into three basic social classes. The first level of course was the cacique and family members, followed by the nitaynos, which were warriors or militants; the lowest level or lower class were integrated in the noborias, which were the free common people obedient to the cacique, involved in agricultural work and could be recruited to go to war. In this social hierarchy you also had the figure of the bohique, who playing the role of priest conducted the religious rituals, served as a medicine man, and conveyed the tribe’s history to the younger generation, and led the ceremonial dances called areytos, which also served to transmit the myths, stories, and traditions of the tribe.

Women played a predominant role in Taino society. This is reflected in the ancient mystical believes, in which the Goddess Atabey was the mother of the principal God, Yacahu or Yacoho. In addition to the reproductive role, this Goddess had economic significance, since her activities were not limited to domestic tasks and child-bearing. Atabey also complemented men’s roles, such as in their agricultural work and artistic activities. However, the most profound belief was that political power was inherited through the maternal line. Upon the death of the incumbent leader, leadership was inherited by a brother or sister, and in the absence of siblings, by the son or daughter of the sister. In addition, women could hold the title of cacica. It is believed that the Tainos practiced polygamy, although some authorities believe this was limited only to the nitaynos.

One of the principal activities of the Tainos was agriculture. They cultivated yuca, from which they acquired their basic nourishment, in the form of casaba; a flat unleavened bread. They also planted corn, sweet potatoes, peppers, peanuts, and lerenes (a paotato like vegetable). They additionally relied on a variety of fruit that nature abundantly had to offer them, such as mamey, guayaba, guanabana, and pineapple. They also harvested cotton and maguey for making treads to produces cloth materials and they utilized different trees for construction, sculpturing and dyes.
The principal agricultural instrument was a primitive hoe. This object was comprised of a strong wooden stick, with a sharp pointed end used to turn over the soil so as to prepare it for sowing. The Tainos arranged the soil in cone shape mounds with a border of nine or twelve feet. From this method the Spaniards derived the word conuco in describing the sowing process. The Indians also developed a system of irrigation and water conservation in small pools in order to have water for occasional periods of draught.

The Tainos agricultural work was complemented by hunting and fishing. They utilized traps and snares to catch wild birds and reptiles. As natives living near the ocean or rivers, they were excellent fishermen. Fishing yielded an abundant and rich catch; in the river they additionally caught sweet water crabs, and in the groves and beaches they found mollusks and crustaceans. They utilized nets and fish hooks made out of turtle shells and fish bones.

The use of salt, pepper, and yucca vinegar as condiments surprised the Europeans. As a part of the process of adapting to the Americas, the Spaniards incorporated the majority of the indigenous cuisine in their daily diet. For example, when the ships were delayed in bringing wheat from the metropolitan area, the Spaniards substituted this product with a derivative of the yucca. There were other native plants which also had an economic impact in the European world. One of these plants was tobacco, which turn into one of the most desired tropical products.

Among the most important socio-religious expressions of the Tainos were the ball-like game la pelota and the areytos. The game served as a social link between indigenous communities, in that the games celebrated competitions between teams from different yucayeques. According to the testimonies of the Spanish chronicles, it is known that in each yucayeque there existed plazas intended for religious ceremonies and the game la pelota. The plaza fields, in the indigenous tounge, were referred to as the batey, a term designated to the plazeta or playing field, which was located right by the native thatched huts called bohios. Actually, the major findings that remain of the gaming plazas are mainly situated in the towns located in the mountainous regions of the island: Utuado, Lares, Adjuntas, Hatillo, Orocovis and Jayuya. One of the important examples of a ceremonial center located in the coast is the one found at Tibes, in Ponce. The most important plazas can be found in the neighborhood of Caguanas de Utuado, where it is believed that the existence of a grand religious center took place there. At this site a grand central plaza, a circular plaza, and another eight rectangular plazas of different sizes were discovered. The central plaza perimeter or sidelines is marked by these huge engraved ancient rocks called petroglifos, with some measuring over six feet tall.

In past excavations conducted at this impressive site archeologist were unable to determine the use of what they called “stone ornaments” found there. Since the stones were discovered near the plazas, it is speculated that in some way they were related to the ball game.

The areytos played an important function in the life of the Tainos. The areyto, along with the game of la pelota, was celebrated in the batey. It consisted of dancing and singing to musical sounds such as those made by the maracas, guiro, a trumpet made out of seashell, and a drum made from a hollowed trunk. These celebrations occurred on important occasions: victory festivals, to commemorate successful ventures of importance, upon designation of a new cacique, marriages of distinction, and reverence to funerals. The lyrics could have been improvised or in the manner of traditional chants, if they related to past feats. These ceremonies astonished the Spaniards. The chronicler Oviedo, for example, reported the following: “…taking hold of each others hands at times, and also at times crossing each others arms…and one of them would take the lead as guide…and he would take certain steps forward and then backwards in a very arranged manner, and in an instant, the rest would follow, and like this they moved in a circle, singing in a high tone or a low one according to the lead of the guide…and as in that day, the entire group responded with the same steps and words, and order…”

The unearthing of the indigenous works of art which have been found, demonstrate that the Tainos produced ceramics and dominated the carving of rocks and wood. This is observed in a variety of objects such as vessels, cemies, dujos, and personal ornaments which are on display in a number of museums located in Puerto Rico.

One of the principle points of friction between the indigenous natives and the Spaniards were their religious beliefs. As was conveyed beforehand, the conversion of the indigenous populations to Christianity was one of the justifications for the conquest. The Tainos were polytheist and animist, in that they believed in multiple Gods incarnated as spirits in the forces of the natural world around them. They had Gods of water, of the hurricane, and of fire. There were two groups of deity, some naturally good, while others caused all calamities, such as sicknesses, cyclones, and draughts. They believed in the existence of life after death and therefore buried their dead accompanied with their personal belongings and food, because they considered such items prepared them for an anticipated long journey ahead. The worship of passed ancestors was part of this spiritual world.

Their religious beliefs were expressed in the creation of symbolic objects which have endured to this day and also form part of the Taino artistic heritage. The cemies are among other objects which are small idols of stone with grotesque faces, which supposedly protect life and property. The European mentality of that era, thinking they had a superior culture and the only true religion, could not comprehend that with so many Gods, how the Tainos tried to give an explanation as to the world surrounding them. The Spaniards considered these manifestations a divergence of reason. This argument justified much of the abuses committed by the Spanish in their conquest of the indigenous natives of Puerto Rico. With his ethnocentric attitude, the chronicler Oviedo interpreted these abuses as God’s punishment “because of their offences and abominable customs and rituals of these people” and further on affirmed that they had “the understanding of beasts and mal-inclined “. Oviedo believed that the cemies were abominable figures, representatives of the devil.

On the other hand, we have historians and eye witness testimony of the conquest, such as Fray Bartolome Las Casas, who although insisted in the conversion of the indigenous natives to Christianity and his interpretation of the native culture was similar, criticized the methods that the Spaniards used to achieve their objectives. Las Casas believed that divine providence would show the Spaniards the way for the conversion of faith of these people, but they failed at giving the natives adequate treatment. He said that “the natural mildness, simplicity, kindness and humble condition of the natives and need of weapons, along with their nakedness, gave the Spaniards the daring to see them as inferior and to have them to do the rigorous work they performed, treating them cruelly in order to oppress and consume them as they did”. Even when admitting the favorable traits of the Tainos, the missionary feeling always persevered, affirming in a certain way the superiority of the European culture.

In the clash of cultures produced between these two worlds, the Spaniards were dominant because of their level of technological development and their political, military organization. Nevertheless, the process ultimately resulted in a blending of cultures rather than complete separation between the two groups. It is fortunate that although the Spaniards were culturally dominant, characteristic of the indigenous culture always persisted, becoming part of the new culture resulting from this process: the Puerto Rican culture.