The Taínos (tah-EE-noes), commonly called the Arawak Indians, were the main people who lived in the Caribbean when Columbus arrived in 1492. They are the ones he called “Indians”, thinking he was in Asia.
The Tainos in 1491:
- Population: about 3.5 million, maybe as many as 8 million (England at the time had about 5 million).
- Language: Taino, an Arawak language. Calling them “Arawak Indians” is like calling the English “Germanic Europeans”.
- Lands: La Taína: mostly the islands of the northern Caribbean:
- the Bahamas,
- Turks & Caicos,
- most of Cuba,
- Hispaniola (Haiti, Dominican Republic),
- Puerto Rico,
- Virgin Islands,
- St Kitts & Nevis,
- Antigua and Barbuda,
- maybe Guadeloupe and part of Florida.
- Towns: about 500 to 1000 people. At the centre was a town square where ball games, dances and religious ceremonies were held. Houses were bell-shaped with high pointed roofs. Each house held 10 to 15 families.
- Government: Ruled by caciques, kings, who received tribute and inherited their position. Nearly all were men.
- Society: nobles and commoners. Property passed through the mother’s side. Some men had more than one wife.
- Economy: mostly farming and fishing. Full-time craftsmen.
- grew: cassava (manioc), making it into bread, their main food. Maize, sweet potatoes, pineapple, beans, squash, yams, calabash, tobacco.
- raised: ducks, dogs.
- hunted: birds, lizards, hutias, manatees, fish, turtles.
- gathered: guava, shellfish, nuts, earthworms.
- other: smoked cigars, drank herb tea, sometimes did cohoba (hallucinogen)
- Religion: shamans, spirit world, underworld, nature gods, idols, ghosts, visions. Opiyelguabirán, a dog-shaped god, guarded the underworld. The ocean is what is left of a worldwide flood.
- Sport: batey was huge. It was like volleyball but without a net and you were not allowed to use your hands.
- Technology: Neolithic: towns, pottery, farming, sea travel, gold, no iron, no writing, no calendar. Their culture supported millions while remaining in balance with nature (ecosystemic). La Taina was one of the most densely populated parts of North America. Cassava could produce as many calories per hectare of land as rice or maize, twice as many as wheat.
- Military technology: spears, bows and arrows, pepper gas.
- Enemies: the Carib, who lived in the islands to the south-east, from Grenada to about Guadeloupe.
- Origins: Western linguists think they came from the Amazon by way of the Orinoco River in Venezuela. In 400 BC they began spreading to the islands. By AD 900 they were in Jamaica.
Spanish genocide and disease wiped out 85% of the Tainos. It shocked Europe, even back then. And yet, despite all that – or, rather, because of all that – the Spanish debated whether the Tainos had souls in the Valladolid Debate (1550-1551).
Many Spanish settlers took Taino wives. They brought in African slaves to take the place of dead Taino workers. Today Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic are, genetically and culturally, mostly a mix of Spanish, Taino and West African:
- Puerto Rico: genetically 10% to 15% Taino
- Dominican Republic: Taino ways of fishing, farming, building and healing live on in the countryside.
Contributions to the Western world: smoking, cigars, tobacco, barbecues, maize, cassava, sweet potatoes, hammocks, canoes, rubber balls and probably syphilis.