Taíno culture was the most highly developed in the Caribbean when Columbus reached Hispaniola in 1492. Islands throughout the Greater Antilles were dotted with Taíno communities nestled in valleys and along the rivers and coastlines, some of which were inhabited by thousands of people. The first New World society that Columbus encountered was one of tremendous creativity and energy. The Taíno had an extraordinary repertoire of expressive forms in sculpture, ceramics, jewelry, weaving, dance, music, and poetry. Their inventiveness and dynamism were also reflected in their social hierarchies and political organization.
Our knowledge of the Taíno comes from several sources. Sixteenth-century Spanish chronicles provide incomplete but crucial information about Taíno society. Intensive archaeological excavation of Taíno sites, which began about 1950, have unearthed many types of pottery and artifacts, confirmed Taíno burial customs, and revealed what their ancient communities looked like. Ethnologists have shed further light on Taíno daily life, myths, and ceremonies by gathering comparative data from contemporary societies with similar cultures in Venezuela and the Guianas. The Taíno legacy survives today not only in the ethnic heritage of the Caribbean people, but also in words borrowed from their language, such as barbecue, canoe, hammock, and hurricane; in customs related to ancient traditions of weaving, hunting and fishing, and song and dance; and in a cuisine based on yuca, beans, and barbecued meats and fish. Until recently, the Taíno have been peripheral to the study of pre-Columbian societies. Scholars focused on the high cultures of the mainland, such as the Inka, the Aztec, and the Maya because they were organized into political states. The chiefdoms (cacicazgos) and chiefs (caciques) of the Taíno seemed less worthy of attention.
Archaeologists now realize, however, that by the time of the conquest these chiefdoms had evolved into complex political entities that resembled true states. Art historians recognize that objects made by the Taíno – ceremonial seats (duhos), ball game belts, scepters, sculptures of spirits and ancestors, zemis, pottery, ritual objects used in cohoba ceremonies, and ornaments of semiprecious stones, gold, shell, and bone – had parallels in Mesoamerica and South America. Most important, it has become clear that the Taíno worldview was distinctly pre-Columbian in its conception of the universe and its profound spirituality.
Throughout the ancient Americas, rulers and shamans used hallucinogens to connect with the spirits of the otherworld. Only those in touch with the supernatural realm could heal the sick, predict the future, ensure the fertility of the world, and resolve the larger problems of existence. Natural hallucinogens were regarded by pre-Columbian cultures as sacred and endowed with inherent force. Their preparation and ingestion were associated with elaborate rituals, and they were consumed only by people considered to have sufficient power to communicate with the spirits and ancestors who dwelled in the otherworld.
The most important sacred substance for the Taíno was cohoba, a psychoactive powder ground from the seeds of trees native to South America and the Caribbean. The Taíno sometimes mixed cohoba with tobacco to maximize its effect. Taíno shamans took cohoba to cure illnesses for individual patients and to ensure the well being of the community. Caciques took cohoba to communicate with zemies (spirits and ancestors); they acted as the primary intermediaries between people and the supernatural realm. Before ingesting such hallucinogenic mixtures, caciques and shamans fasted and purged themselves with vomiting spatulas of wood and bone in order to consume the “pure foods” of the spirits. Then, they inhaled their concoctions from small vessels and trays, using delicately carved snuffers of wood and bone.
The Taíno believed it was possible to travel to the supernatural realm during cohoba-induced trances. One of the strongest psychoactive substances used in the pre-Columbian world, cohoba is still taken by shamans in the Amazon Basin of South America. The effects of cohoba make the user see the world in an inverted way: people, animals, and objects appear upside down; movements and gestures are reversed; and perceptions are marked by constantly shifting shapes and kaleidoscopic colors. Everything is the opposite and the inverse of the here and now, intensely colored, and completely mutable. Many Taíno works associated with the cohoba ceremony, especially the vomiting spatulas, are exquisitely carved with fierce animals, upside-down images, and skeletal figures from the otherworld. Thus spatulas are unique in the corpus of pre-Columbian art.
Ceramic figures on duhos illustrate stages of the cohoba ritual, from the initial use of the spatula to the aftermath of stupor, fatigue, and spiritual exhaustion. Once the hallucinogen was inhaled through snuffers, the cacique or shaman would sit on his duho, elbows resting on knees, body hunched forward, lost in the thoughts and images that would result from cohoba’s swift effect. In this position, caciques and shamans communicated with spirits and ancestors. The duhos themselves probably had inherent supernatural power, which “centered” the user in the fifth direction—in the center of the cosmos—a concept important to pre-Columbian societies.
Pre-Columbian cultures perceived the world and everything in it as alive with supernatural power, including features of the landscape – mountains, caves, rivers, trees, and the sea – as well as the souls of animals and people. The earth was a thin interface between the watery depths and the expanse of the heavens – a flat disk floating in the vast cosmos of water and stars. In the center of its surface, an imaginary circular hole, known as the fifth direction, connected the earth to the sacred spaces above and below it. The fifth direction was part of a vertical opening – a supernatural shaft – that went from the bottom of the sea through the earth and into the center of the heavens. Many pre-Columbian societies associated the fifth direction with the ceiba – the World Tree – whose roots grew from the depths of the sea and whose branches supported the heavens. The ceiba is still regarded as sacred in Mesoamerica, South America, and the Caribbean.
The spirits that presided over the cosmos included a creator and many others associated with rain, wind, the sea, human fertility, and the successful growth of crops. At the beginning of time, these spirits blanketed 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 – the cosmic tissues of connectedness that united the universe – could be “seen” only by caciques and shamans during cohoba ceremonies. Illness, bad crops, and natural disasters such as hurricanes were caused by destructive spirits that ripped holes in the geometric fabric of the world.
The Taíno believed they were descended from the primordial union of a male “culture hero” named Deminán and a female turtle. Similar creation stories persist among contemporary societies in Venezuela and the Guianas. Images of turtles and figures with turtle attributes are omnipresent in Taíno art because, in their mythology, the wife of Deminán – Turtle Woman – was the ancestral mother, and the Taíno traced their kinship relations through. Dualism and the unity of opposites are important themes in pre-Columbian art, ideas that were expressively depicted by the Taíno. Deminán himself wears a female turtle carapace on his back and thus represents the union of male/female and father/mother in the same figure. The theme of the duality is further illustrated by beautiful ceramic vessels that combine symbols of life and death and images of male and female fertility.
Like other pre-Columbian cultures, 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. After exposure to the elements, their skulls and long bones were cleaned and preserved in carved wooden urns or large calabash gourds hung from the rafters of houses. Although the souls of the dead resided in the otherworld, they returned to earth at night and were dangerous to the living. Night-flying creatures such as owls and bats were regarded as their messengers. Many objects made by the Taíno bear images of skulls, bats, and owls, reflecting their connection to the realm of the spirits and the ancestors.
Three-pointers (trigonolitos) are enigmatic stone objects that are particularly characteristic of Taíno art. Small three-pointers have been excavated by archaeologists at sites with early dates (400 – 200 B.C.) in South America and in the Caribbean, but these examples pre-date their widespread appearance among the Taíno. Spanish accounts from the time of contact make tantalizing references to trigonolitos, but fail to pinpoint their true significance. Modern scholars have debated whether these triangular stones represent mountains, volcanoes, breasts, phalluses, manioc shoots, or all of these at once. Some three-pointers may depict the yuca spirit; others combine multiple images and suggest the visions that caciques and shamans experienced under the influence of cohoba.
Taylor, D. “Discovering Taino Culture: Exploration and Scholarship”, n.d. http://stage.elmuseo.org/elm_api/22/283.