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
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.