Historical Information

The Arrival Game Series focuses on the Taino people, who are recognized as indigenous peoples of the Caribbean Islands. Although the Taino exist today throughout the world, the information presented below pertains to Taino culture up until the time of their first contact with Europeans in the late 15th century.

Who are the Taino?

What was the environment like?

How did the Taino live?

Did the Taino stay in one place?

What was daily life like for the Taino?

Were marriages arranged?

What were Taino burial rites like?

Was there a ceremony when the new kasike was promoted?

What did the Taino eat?

What did the Taino wear?

What weapons did the Taino use?

How did the Taino protect themselves?

What tools did the Taino use?

How did the Taino heal themselves?

Did the Taino have a written language?

What form of government did the Taino have?

Was there contact between the villages?

What form of transportation did the Taino employ?

What forms of art did the Taino develop?

Did the Taino enjoy music?

How did the Taino protect themselves from hurricanes?

Did the Taino worship a God?

For More Information

Who are the Taino?

The Taino (pronounced Tah-EE-no) were the first "American" Indigenous Peoples encountered by Christopher Columbus and other Europeans in the Caribbean Islands in 1492. The Taino are also the first Indigenous Peoples to be referred to as "Indians" (Indios) in the Western Hemisphere. The traditional territories of the Taino extended throughout the Greater Antilles, the Bahamas, and even the Southern tip of Florida. The word "Taino" means "good people" in their ancient language. A major part of their ancestral lineage comes from South America. These ancestors traveled up the islands of the Lesser Antilles and settled eventually in the islands of the Greater Antilles and the Bahamas. Another part of the ancestral Taino lineage comes from Central America and or Mexico. Taino culture was not entirely homogeneous but some of the most elaborate expressions of the culture was found in the Dominican Republic/Haiti and in Puerto Rico. While Taino people could generally communicate in a common language across the islands, there were some dialect differences. Descendants of these peoples still live throughout the Caribbean and beyond.

What was the environment like?

The Caribbean island homelands of the Taino were formed by volcanoes and the movement of tectonic plates. Numerous mountains resulted in rivers which the Taino depended on to sustain life. Caves were also common land structures. The majority of these islands were covered by tropical rain forests. The islands were devoid of large mammals but iguana and other small animals were transported to the islands by floating bogs from the mainlands or by human intervention. Many varieties of birds, reptiles, small mammals, and insects are found on the islands, some unique to certain islands. The Koki, a small tree frog, is very common in Boriken (Puerto Rico) for example and has a very distinctive chirp.

How did the Taino live?

Taino communities varied greatly in size. It was estimated that the iukaieke (villages) could range from a few hundred to a several thousand. Generally, villages were laid out around a central plaza or ball court called a batei (pronounced bah-teh-ee). Festivals, dances, and ball games were held here. On one end of the batei was the chief or kasike's house called a kanei. The kanei was a large rectangular shaped structure with a large reception area in the front and a living area in the back. It was often the largest dwelling place in the village. The villagers lived in round or oval structures called bohio (pronounced bow-hee-oh). The bohio were placed on either side of the kanei around the plaza and varied greatly in size. Multiple families, often related, lived in a single bohio. Hammocks were strung from the center pole to the walls of the bohio like spokes on a wheel with supplies hung in baskets on the walls or in the rafters. The structures were composed of vertically placed palm tree logs and thatched roofs, had earthen floors, and were said to be so well-built, many could resist hurricanes.

Did the Taino stay in one place?

The Taino had permanent and semi-permanent villages. Sometimes, when resources in one area became scarce from over harvesting, the community would be forced to relocate. Fisherman would sometimes leave the village for periods of time and harvest shellfish, fish, etc on another island, then return. Sometimes, when a smaller village population grew to the point that it could no longer support the population, tribal fissure would occur, and a group of males and their families would relocate to an unpopulated area.

What was daily life like for the Taino?

By any standard, the historical records reveal that Taino people generally led very peaceful, non-violent lives. There was very little crime. The villages were well organized and crops were grown in a very effective mound system called konuko, which required very minimal maintenance. In some communities, the day started very early with villagers going to the nearby river to bathe. Groups would eat breakfast together and then perform their assigned tasks. Most tasks were completed by the afternoon when the sun was at its highest. The Taino would often bathe several times a day. At planting time, certain villagers would assist in forming the crop mounds and planting the crops. In the evenings, they would often gather at the ball court for dances, feasts, and ceremonies. Ceremonies were performed for many life events including marriage, birth, coming of age, harvest and planting, and hurricanes among others. Spirituality was very important to the Taino and it is extremely difficult to separate from their daily life. Many of their activities related directly or indirectly to honoring spirit-beings known as cemi (Seh-mee).

Were marriages arranged?

Marriages were often arranged between the children of the kasike (chieftains) of different villages; even between different island communities. The goal of these marriages was to create alliances, increase security, or to increase/maintain the influence of a kasike and his village. Children were considered old enough to marry shortly after puberty and appropriate coming of age ceremonies.

What were Taino burial rites like?

After the death of a kasike, sometimes the body would be wrapped in cotton cloth, positioned in a fetal position, and placed on the kasike's duho (special chair). The kasike would be buried in a pit sitting on his duho along with weaponry, pottery, and food offerings as well as personal artifacts. Some bodies were placed in caves. After a year or two, some of the bones could be collected, cleaned, and placed in a basket which hung from the roof of the family's bohio. Archeologists refer to this practice as the second burial.

Was there a ceremony when the new kasike was promoted?

A special areito (ceremonial celebration) was arranged for the new kasike. The kasike would be dressed with body paint, jewelry and sometimes would wear an elaborate cape made of parrot feathers. The focus of this ceremony would be the presentation of a round or half moon shaped gold medallion, which was a symbol of authority. The medallion is called a guanin. An areito could last for many days.

What did the Taino eat?

The sea was a major source of food for Taino people. They fished using nets, hooks, spears, cages, and bows and arrows to catch fish. In some communities a "sleeping potion" was made from local plants that would be poured into inland ponds and streams causing the fish to "sleep" and float to the surface. Taino fisherman also followed seabirds to locate large schools of fish. Crabs, shellfish, sea turtles, and manati (manatees) were also harvested. While the Taino did use fishing hooks made from sea-shells and turtle shells, they also used another ingenious fishing method. The Taino also tied lines to remora fish who naturally attached themselves to other fish, turtles, and even sharks. Once the remora attached themselves to something, the Taino simply pulled the catch in.

The Taino were know to practice a sophisticated form of agriculture, and a variety of crops were cultivated. "New life" cemi (spiritual icons) were often planted in the konukos to ensure good crops. Yuka (cassava/manioc) was one of the most important root crops that was grown in mounds called konuko. Yuka could be stored in the ground for 6-7 months. The root was grated and the pulp was squeezed to remove the juice, which was toxic. The resulting powder was mixed with water and baked on flat clay plates called buren, thus making a kind of flat bread, similar to a tortilla but not as flexible. The bread could then eaten with meat and vegetables. Cassava bread remained fresh for extended periods of time, an advantage in a tropical climate. Cassava juice was boiled with other ingredients in a delicious stew called ahiako or "pepper pot". The pepper pot was cooking continuously to provide food for the family as needed. Corn, peanuts, squash, sweet potatoes, beans, tobacco, and peppers were grown around the bohio and on the konuko. Guava, pineapple, papaya and many other fruits were grown or collected by the Taino.

There were no large game animals on the islands but the Taino hunted hutia (large rodents about the size of a cat), iguana, snakes, ducks, and other birds. Hutia were often chased into corals and kept until needed.

Some communities harvested honey, which could be used as an important trade item. The wax from the hives was another trade item.

What did the Taino wear?

Being in a tropical climate, the Taino wore very little clothing. A loin cloth was usually worn to cover the genitals. This cloth was of varying lengths and was worn between the legs and secured with a cord. A kasike was also known to wear a special beaded belt around his or her waist. The length of a woman's skirt depended on her rank and marital status in the community. A high ranking female wore a longer skirt than a other woman. Children did not usually wear clothes. In the higher altitudes where it is cooler, a type of poncho called a mao was used. In some communities, a kasike would wear elaborate plumage capes for important occasions. Bodies were painted with geometric shapes using black and red dye made from plants. The Taino were skilled at making pottery stamps that when dye was applied, could be used to add symbols to the body or cloth. Necklaces, earrings, nose rings, bracelets for wrists and ankles, and belts were also worn, especially for ceremonies. These items could be made of shells, bone, wood, palm leaves, and sometimes gold.

What weapons did the Taino use?

Depending on the community, Taino were very skilled in the use of spears, bows and arrows, and clubs called makana. Sometimes, a spear had a dual purpose as weapons and as fishing/hunting tools. A form of pepper spray made from ground peppers was also used as a weapon.

How did the Taino protect themselves?

While there was not ongoing warfare, Taino villages understood the need to be prepared for any encounter. Patrol parties regularly scanned the village borders for outsiders. Raiding parties were not unknown, especially when resources were scarce or young men from an outside community were on a bride capture. Supplies, resources, and people were could be at risk. Men and women both had responsibilities in protecting the village and were trained in weapon use. Guamo or conch shell trumpets were made by cutting off the tip off of the shell and these were often used for communication and alarms.

What tools did the Taino use?

The Taino employed many tools in addition to weapons. Tools were made of stone, wood, bone, and shells. Manaia were "petal" shaped stones attached to wooden handles and were used as hammers, or axes. Spindles called huso were made of wood with a fish bone needle attached to the end were used to make thread from cotton fibers. The fibers were then woven into cloth. A buren is a special, flat tool made of clay used exclusively in the making of cassava bread. The clay disc was placed on stones in a fire and the cassava was baked on the surface. A spatula was used to flip the bread. Digging sticks called koa were used as well as various baskets and nets.

How did the Taino heal themselves?

The Taino used many different herbs to heal themselves. Herbs were sometimes cultivated as well as gathered from the surrounding jungles. As the Taino traveled to different parts of their islands, they would intentionally drop the seeds of herbs and fruits for use on later journeys. Shamans (healers) were present in many larger communities. They were responsible for healing the sick. If a shaman was not available, there were members of the community who were also skilled in the use of herbs and healing remedies.

Did the Taino have a written language?

The Taino did not have a written language but had many symbols which were used to communicate ideas. These are noted especially in cave art, cemis (representations of spirit beings), and on pottery.

What form of government did the Taino have?

There were three distinct social classes of Taino including the kasikes, the nitainos, and the naborias. Taino were not known to keep slaves.

Each village had a kasike or chief who was responsible for overseeing all aspects of village life. The kasike controlled trade and relations between villages, community resources, and received visitors to the village. The kasike was highly respected and most are recorded as being polygamous. Among the Taino, the office of kasike was often passed to a child of the kasike's sister rather than the kasike's own child. The title was usually passed to a male but women chiefs were also known. Taino villages were often linked in regional confederacies, with a widely respected kasike holding the most influence over the entire area. Although early Spanish explorers called these kasike "kings and queens", they were different from European leaders.

The nitaino were considered a type of sub-chiefs who assisted the kasike in village administration. Each was responsible for overseeing a certain aspect of village life such as fishing, gathering, farming, and the building of new bohio.

The naboria were the general populace. They were assigned jobs by the nitaino as needed. There were many jobs performed by the naboria including hunting/gathering, fishing, field preparation, caring for crops, building bohios, child care, and food preparation.

One major difference between Taino and European leaders was that Taino kasike lived among their people and often interacted with them daily. It was not uncommon, for instance, for a Taino kasike to be on a fishing expedition with various community members.

Was there contact between the villages?

Trade was very important to a Taino community. Certain villages were very skilled in the making of cloth, pottery, or carvings. Others oversaw coveted natural resources of an area. Interior villages could, for example, grow large amounts of food whereas coastal villages could, in contrast, provide food from the sea. Trading parties were regularly sent between villages and even to the mainland continent to procure items that were lacking and or to trade valuable resources the village had in excess. Trading practices were not always fair, with the larger villages and stronger kasike having the advantage.

What form of transportation did the Taino employ?

The Taino were very skilled in making kanoa (canoes), which were used to travel the river pathways between villages and between islands. Kanoa were made by chiseling out the interior of large tree trunks. The largest canoe was owned by the kasike. It was recorded that some of these canoes could carry more than 150 people, and that they were elaborately carved with geometric designs. The Taino were expert seamen and used the sun and constellations to navigate on long journeys.

What forms of art did the Taino develop?

Pottery was a practical item and varied in its quality and appearance according to its use. Items designed for everyday use could be plain and of lesser quality. Items used for spiritual purposes or by the kasike could be beautifully decorated and of very high quality. The coil method was used in the making of pottery. Snake-like coils of clay would be formed, laid on top of each other, and smoothed and molded into the desired shape for bowls. The coils were laid side by side for flat designs. The decorations were incised into the clay in geometric patterns or in the image of cemi. Some villages were known for the quality of their pottery and it was highly valued as a trade item.

Cotton was grown and its fibers were stretched out and then made into thread with spindles made of wood with a fish bone needle on the end. A spindle or huso was held in each hand as the the cotton was twisted into thread. The thread was then woven into cloth. The Taino had the ability to dye the cotton into many different shades of color, subtle and bright, using various plants. The highest quality cloth was used by the kasike and nitaino. Cotton as well as palm fiber was used to make clothing, fishing nets, and hammocks.

Many items were also carved out of wood and stone, some highly valued. Duho were a type of stool used by kasike. These could be made of either wood or stone and often had gold inlay. The quality of the duho was related to the reputation of the kasike. Many kasike had more than one duho. Stone icons called cemi were representations of spirit beings or ancestors and were highly valued. These were also elaborate carvings made of stone, wood, shell, clay, and even cotton-woven effigies.

Did the Taino enjoy music?

Music, singing, and dancing were important features in a Taino areito (ceremonial celebrations). They employed rattles called maraka, gourd rasps, whistles, flutes, and drums called maiohuakan, which were made of hollowed tree trunks. The drums were made in different sizes to produce different pitches. Children began to learn to play these instruments when they were young. Many of these instruments are still used today.

How did the Taino protect themselves from hurricanes?

Hurricane season in the Caribbean runs from July through November and these storms were a great concern to the Taino. A severe hurricane could destroy entire villages. Ruined crops could mean starvation for the village. The constellations and shadows on certain stones lines some ball courts indicated when hurricane season was beginning. The Taino also observed the birds and animals for indications that a hurricane was imminent. The birds would fly to the safety of other islands before the hurricane hit.

In preparation for a hurricane, supplies and items that could be moved were taken to nearby caves if available. Items too big to be moved would be secured to prevent loss. Although Taino homes were well-built, often villagers would weather the storms in caves if at all possible, sometimes remaining for days at a time. A ceremony would be held before and after the hurricane to honor the storm.

Did the Taino worship a God?

Spirituality was very important to the Taino. In fact, separating it from daily life would be impossible. The Taino also honored cemi (spirits and energies) via representations made of stone, wood, shell, clay, or even woven cotton figures. The cemi were said to have influence over crops, weather, and many other aspects of life. There were many different shapes and designs of cemi and these were prized possessions. The Taino also honored their ancestors and in many cases kept the bones of the deceased in a basket in the roof rafters of their bohio.

Taino shamans, called behike, and or kasike would at times inhale kohoba, a sacred, organic hallucinogenic snuff powder, to induce a state of mind that would facilitate communing with the cemi to get answers to questions or to ask for assistance. Before partaking of the kohoba, the body was purified by inducing vomiting. The kohoba was then inhaled through tubes made of bones or wood.

Areito were socio-religious festivals that included storytelling, dancing, feasting, and music that were performed in honor of the cemi. People of the village would prepare themselves for the festival by painting their bodies with dyes made from plants, feathers, and jewelry. The religious leaders and the kasike would sometimes wear beautiful capes adorned with parrot feathers. Often neighboring villages would be in attendance.

While Taino honored and interacted with the cemi, it was also said that a Great Spirit called Iaia (eeah-eeah) meaning the "spirit of spirit", was inherent in all things. The Taino also recognized and honored a female energy called Atabei who was the Earth and Water Mother. She took various forms and is called by different names in these various manifestations.

For More Information

For more information on Taino people, past or present, contact the United Confederation of Taino People.