The Tainos

Who were the first Haitians? Where did they come from? What kind of civilization existed at the time Columbus
anchored his boat on the north coast of Haiti, near Cap-Haïtien on December 5,1492. How much do we know
and how much is left of that civilization are some of our discussion points during this first session of a long look at
Haitian History.

The island of Haiti, which is now shared by two independent republics, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, witnessed a
flourishing civilization before 1492. Columbus called the Tainos who inhabited the island Indians because he thought
he had reached India. Around fifty years after his coming on the island virtually all Taino population was so much
decimated that their trait is not encountered in Haiti today. Through archeological evidence, biological and cultural
remains, some answers have been provided to the origins of the Tainos, their culture and religion.

Some researchers base their evidence on the Tainos traits that were similar to those of the Indians of South America to
conclude that the Tainos may have come from the northern part of that region. Archeologists, through excavation of
Tainos remains, conclude that the migration must have happened some time ago in Pre-History

The Tainos lived throughout most of the Caribbean. The immediate neighbors of the Tainos were the Guanahatabeys
who lived at the far northern end of Cuba and the Island Caribs on the Lesser Antilles. The Guanahatabeys separated
the Tainos from the fully civilized people of the Middle America, (Irving Rouse 1992). The Tainos occupied most of
the Greater Antilles. They lived particularly on the island of Haiti and also in Puerto Rico. They called that island Haiti,
Quisqueya or Bohio because of its physical features. Haiti in Taino means high ground, mountainous land. Columbus
renamed the island Hispaniola.

The Tainos exchanged cultural, linguistic and biological traits with the Guanahatabeys and the Island-Caribs. Some
ethnohistorians call the Tainos, Arawacks because they are said to be the descendents of Arawacks from the North
Eastern part of South America. However, they preferred to be called Tainos, which means men of the good. Most agree
that the Tainos who lived in Haiti or Bohio and the Boriquenos
of Puerto Rico had a more advanced civilization.

According to various estimates, when the Spaniards conquered the island of Haiti, as many as 100,000 to
1,000,000 Tainos were living on that land. That number would be reduced to zero due to genocide committed by the
Spaniards. Nowadays, except for archeological remains and some artwork, there is practically no clear trace of Taino
descent in Haiti.

Society and Culture

The inhabitants of Haiti and Puerto Rico were considered to be the most populous and most advanced culturally among
the other inhabitants of the Caribbean islands. The Tainos were said to be gentle and peaceful, happy and friendly. It is
believed that the Tainos traveled throughout the other islands eventually replenishing less developed communities. Most
scholars agree that they traveled up and down the chain of islands. They traveled in groups with children, women and
domestic animals. They had well built canoes of as much as 25 meters able to carry as many as fifty people. The Taino
society was communal in nature. It was a well-organized society divided between different "caciquats" or kingdom each
governed by a chief or cacique. The cacique played the role of priest, healer and/or local legislator.

This position of cacique was not limited to men only; women could fill that position as well. The cacique was paid a tribute
to oversee the village. This was a hierarchical society where other levels of honor existed. There existed thus a number of
sub-caciques on the island. The sub-caciques did not get paid for their position, but were responsible for various
services to the village and to the cacique. At the time of the first contact with the Spaniards, the island of Haiti was
divided into five caciquats or provinces.

Tainos hated hard labor and ardous climbs. For those reasons, they, for the most part stayed away from the mountainous
regions of the island. You will find that the caciquats coincided with the coastal plains or interior valleys.

The Marien with Guacanagaric as cacique was situated in the north and north East Coast interior stradling the northern
regions of nowadays Haiti and Dominican Republic. The Maguana with Caonabo as cacique, occupied the central plains
of the Cibao. The Magua with Guarionex as cacique, was in the farther North East. The Xaragua with Bohechio as cacique,
occupied the western plains of nowadays Haiti. The Higuey with Cotubanama or Cayacoa, Occupied the Easternmost
peninsula Rico

The villages contained an average of one to two thousand people living in irregular houses arranged around a plaza. The
typical village of the Taino contained a flat court in the center of the villagewith houses surrounding it. The regular houses
had a circular shaped figure with poles providing its primary support.They had dirt floor and roofed dwelling and were
covered with woven straw and palm leaves. These houses were called ajoupas. They received guests on wooden stools.

Tainos had strong familial ties and related families lived together. Tainos society was a polygamous one with the
cacique allowed to have more wives than the other men of the villages. Being married to a cacique was considered a great
honor. The cacique wives and children enjoyed a superior lifestyle and they all lived in the same house. The house of
the cacique was rectangular and was made with the same materials as the other houses. Their flat court situated in the
center of the village was used for various festivals both religious and secular. During those festivals, they played a
ball game that closely resembles modern-day soccer.

The young Tainos kids wore nothing; the men covered their genitalia with cotton cloths. The married women, however,
wore short skirts called nagua; the unmarried ones wore headbands. It was part of their culture to flatten their forehead
by placing a hard object against it at childbirth. Also the ears and nasal area were pierced; their waist and necks were
decorated. The color red was very often used in the decorations of their bodies, which is probably why it is often
thought that Tainos had red skin. The Tainos were well groomed. They liked to bathe often. Later, the Spaniards
enacted a law forbidding this healthy attitude considering it as harmful to the Indians. The Spaniards believed that frequent
bathing would take one’s soul away.

The Tainos had a good defense system since they were often in need to defend themselves against the Island-Caribs. At
the time of the conquest, the Tainos were fighting against the Caribs who had invaded the eastern part of Haiti.

Agriculture and Diet

Tainos ate mostly meat and fish, essentially their primary source of protein. They also ate birds, small mammals,
snake and any other animals. Their diet also comprised sweet potatoes, beans and peanuts as well as corn. They
brought guava from South America as well as animals like agouti and opossum. They had cassava and manioc for
staples, which provided flour for them to bake after having extracted the poisonous juice from those roots. They also
hunted for bats, snakes, various rodents, worms and other mammals. However, they were not men-eaters!

The Taino practiced a system of agriculture that was maintenance free. They used a shifting method of agriculture
to avoid exhausting the soil. Tainos were skilled farmers. Work was allocated according to sex. Hence,
men were to clean the fields and fished while women took care of the crop for cultivation, made handicrafts and kept an
eye on their children. The women made objects out of clay, such as plates and pots.


More is known about the Tainos’ religion because Columbus had appointed father Ramon Pane to study their belief
system. (Irving Rouse, 1992). Tainos had a system of Gods called Zemis. The two supreme Taino deities were
Yucahu, the lord of cassava and the sea and Atabey, Yucahu’ s mother, the goddess of fresh water and human
fertility. Other zemis included ancestor’s spirits and spirits believed to be living in trees and rocks. The term "Zemis"
was applied to the deities themselves and also to any fetishes representing them. They were made from the
remains of ancestors, or some other natural objects. They believed that powerful spirits inhabited those objects. Those
zemis were kept on tables at their owners’ home. To the Tainos, the zemis controlled various functions of the universe.

There were three primary religious practices: the religious worship of the zemis themselves, the services performed
by medicine men seeking advice and healing procedures from the zemis. Religious agricultural feasts were offered
both in thanksgiving and petition to the zemis. During such feast the Tainos would wear special dresses and they
painted their body. The priest would present the carved figures of the zemis. During the ceremonies, the cacique
would seat on a wooden stool. During the ceremonies, the singing was accompanied with rhytmic drum beating.
As a sign to remove all impurities from the bodies, the people would induced vomiting by "swallowing" a stick.
Women would serve bread first to the zemis then to the cacique followed by the other people The Tainos believed
in afterlife where the good people would be rewarded.

Little is known of the Tainos. Had their civilization not been destroyed, we would have the chance to know more about the
specific aspects of their life like the songs they recited and their literature. At this point we only have the testimony of the
Spaniards, the Tainos first western contact (who ironically will also be responsible for their extinction) and the scientific
research on their culture that thus far has not been able to produce much more than theories.