Taino Practices

In this post we will look at the various practices of the Taínos.

Remember from the Migration and Settlement Patterns post we introduced the Taínos, who were believed to have come from Venezuela. There were five major groups: Lucayans, Tainos, Ciboneys, Ciguayos and the Igneris. Taíno culture was the most highly developed by the time Columbus reached Hispaniola in 1492 and their settlements were found on islands throughout the Greater Antilles. Their communities were nestled in valleys and along rivers and coastlines. Taíno creativity was expressed via sculpture, ceramics, jewelry, weaving, dance, music and poetry. Their inventiveness, social hierarchy and political organisation are a reflection of their philosophical development among their own people.

The chief of the Taíno village was called the Cacique. They lived in the largest house of the village called the bohio. The cacique was primarily concerned with peaceful and orderly living among families and with the different groups among the tribes. The cacique and their family wore special ornaments of gold and copper alloy called guanin. The cacique’s were responsible for judging cases and enforcing the law. They also acted as chief priests to the people and was ruler over the entire province. Early Spanish settlers reported that the cacique’s power extended over almost every aspect of Taíno society. There were lesser chiefs called mitaynos.

The cacique’s position was inherited and since matrilineal descent was recognised, a female cacique was a possibility if no suitable male could be found. The nobles and mitaynos of the tribe also inherited their positions. Caciques were polygamous, and formed political alliances by marrying women from other cacicazgos (confederations of communities with populations that ranged from several hundred to thousands).

Lifestyle

Tano’s exploited their natural resources, and developed efficient techniques of agriculture, hunting and fishing.

The Taino society observed a class structure.The common people, Naborias, performed most of their labour involved in the cultivation and gathering of food. The yuca/manioc/cassava is a nutrient tuber, and was a staple food in the Taino diet. The Taíno’s also cultivated fruits, guava, papaya and pineapple as well as beans, squash, chile peppers, tobacco and cotton. Agriculture was supplemented by birds and small forest rodents (hutía), manatees and reptiles (eg. turtles).

The upper class of nobles, Nitaínos, made all objects of wood, stone, gold, shell, bone and pottery. Stone was used to make knives and axes for weapons; wood tended to be fashioned into household items and spears and musical instruments for ceremonies, areytos. As mentioned briefly earlier, the caciques and the nitaínos were distinguished from the commoners by their attire. The members of these higher classes wore garments of the finest woven cotton and beaded belts with geometric designs. On ceremonial days they wore capes made from the colourful plumage of tropical birds, for example parrots and toucans. They also wore worked shell jewelry including necklaces and pectoral ornaments and amulets made from gold, semi precious stones, shell and bone.

Religion

Their belief was metaphysical; they perceived the world and everything in it as a medium for the embodiment of supernatural power. For them, there were spirits associated with the landscape (mountains, caves, rivers, etc.) as well as the souls of animals an people.

The spirits that presided over the universe included a creator or supreme god and many other gods associated with the rain, wind, sea, human fertility and the successful growth of crops. At the beginning of time, these spirits covered the cosmos with invisible layers of geometric designs–symmetrical motifs that covered the faces and bodies of people, animals, communities, the earth, the heavens and the sea. These designs could only be seen by the caciques ad shamans during cohoba ceremonies (ground seeds of the cojóbana tree were inhaled producing a psychedelic effect; it was common to use hallucinatory substances as a medium for connecting with the gods among the ancient Native Americans). Illness, bad crops and natural disasters were caused by destructive spirits that ripped holes in the geometric fabric of the world.

The Taíno believed that they were descended from the primordial union of a male Deminán and a female turtle. Similar stories persist among the Native American societies in Venezuela and Guianas.

The Taíno venerated their ancestors. The dead were usually buried under their houses, but caciques and other high ranking nobles were given special funerary rites. The corpse would first be exposed to the elements, then their skulls and long bones cleaned and preserved in wooden urns or large calabash gourds. These were then hung from the rafters of the houses.

The zemi, is an object which embeds different spiritual powers. It is generally a representative of a deity, the forces embedded in the natural world as well as ancestors. It consists of a wooden frame, covered by crocheted cotton embellished with green and blue beads made of European glass disks of Caribbean shells and seeds. At the base, a full-sized belt covered with Taíno designs encircles the base. The beaded zemi and the belt are proof of the ancient tradition of woven and beaded textiles with geometric motifs that have been found among the Taínos.

Gender Relations

In Taíno society, females occupied a position of economic importance. They tended the fields as was common among most Native American tribes. Matrilineal descent was recognised, so as mentioned earlier, a cacique could be a female if no suitable male heir was found. Taíno females could serve as priests.

Farming and Defence

Taínos practiced conucos farming. They prepared fields by clearning it from weeds, trees and shrubs. They then burned the dried debris, hoed and moulded the field. The women did the planting. Women would soak the seeds in bags around their necks. The women followed the men a sound the field using their digging sticks to open holes and throw a few seeds into each.

Taíno women were adept with the bow and arrow. when the men went out on expeditions it was necessary for them to defend their territories.


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