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The Taíno are the aboriginal inhabitants of Hispaniola, Puerto Rico and the eastern tip of Cuba, and are a subculture of the Arawak. Many scholars consider the Taíno to be extinct, wiped out by disease and genocide; however, some native groups still identify themselves as Taíno. At the time of Columbus' arrival in 1492, there were five Taíno kingdoms on Hispaniola, each ruled by a cacique (king), to whom tribute was paid. The Taíno were at war with the Carib and appear to have been on good terms with the Ciboney[?].

At the time of the Spanish Conquest, the largest Taíno populations centers contained around 3,000 people.

Table of contents

Culture and Lifestyle

In the typical Arawak/Taíno village (yucayeque) one would find a flat court (batey) in the center which was used for games and various festivals. Houses would surround this court. The Taíno would play a ceremonial ball game played between opposing teams (of 10 to 30 players per team) with a rubber ball; winning this game was thought to bring a good harvest and healthy children.

Taíno society was divided into 4 main classes:

  • 1) naborias (working class)
  • 2) nitaínos (sub-chiefs)
  • 3) bohiques (nobility/priests)
  • 4) caciques (kings)

The general population lived in large circular buildings (bohíos), similar to tepees[?], constructed with wooden poles, woven straw, and palm leaves. These houses would often hold 10-15 families. The caciques and his family would live in rectangular buildings (caneyes) of similar construction, with wooden porches.

Taíno architecture included cotton hammocks (hamaca), mats of banana leaves, wooden chairs with woven seats, couches, cradles for children.

They were an agrarian society that lived by farming and fishing. They often wore their black hair with bangs in front and long in back. They sometimes wore gold jewellery, paint, and/or, shells. Taíno men were usually naked and women sometimes wore short skirts.

The Taíno spoke Arawak and used the words: barbecue, canoe, and tabaco which have been incorporated into the English language.

The Taíno practiced polygamy. Many men had 2 or 3 wives, and the caciques would marry as many as 30.

Food and Agriculture

The Taíno diet was centered around meat and fish. There never were many wild animals to hunt on Hispaniola, but there were some small animals such as rodents, bats, worms, ducks, turtles, and birds. The Taíno usually ate their fish raw or only partially cooked.

Taíno groups in the interior of the islands relied more on agriculture. Their crops were raised in a conuco, a large mound, which was packed with leaves to prevent erosion and then planted with a variety of crops to assure that something would grow, no matter what the weather conditions. This system of agriculture is considered to be maintenance-free agriculture[?], in that it requires very little work.

One of the Taíno's primary crops was cassava, which they ate as a flat bread similar to a burrito or pizza shell. The Taíno also grew maize, squash, beans, peppers, sweet potatoes, yams and peanuts. The Taíno also grew tobacco.


The Taíno used cotton extensively for fishing nets and ropes. Their dugout canoes could hold 70-80 people. They used bows and arrows, and put various poisons on their arrowheads. They used spears for fishing. For warfare, they also had a wooden war club, made of macana[?], that was about one inch thick and was similar to the cocomaque[?].


The Taíno were polytheists and had gods called zemi[?]. Many stone carvings of zemi have survived. Some of the stalagmites of the Caves of Dondon[?] were carved into the figures of zemi. The zemi are represented by toads, turtles, snakes, alligators and various distorted and hideous human faces.

Yocahu was the supreme Creator. The god Jurakán, was perpetually angry and ruled the power of the hurricane (huracanes). Maboyas was a nocturnal deity who destroyed the crops and was feared by all.

People would induce vomiting with a swallowing stick. This was to purge the body of impurities, both a literal physical purging and a symbolic spiritual purging. After the serving of communal bread, first to the zemi, then to the cacique, and then to the common people; the village epic would be sung by a poet accompanied by a maraca.

Taíno mythology explains that the sun and moon come out of caves. Another story tells that people once lived in caves and only came out at night. Another myth tells that once there were no women. Men brought woman from an island where there were only women. The origin of the oceans is described in the myth of a huge flood which occurred when a father murdered his son (who was about to murder the father), and then put his bones into a calabash[?]. These bones then turned to fish and the gourd broke and all the water of the world came pouring out.

Some anthropologists argue that some or all of the Petwo Voodoo[?] rites may have their origins in Taíno religion.

Columbus and the Taíno

There is debate as to how many Taíno inhabited Hispaniola when Columbus landed in 1492. Estimates range from 100,000 to 4,000,000. They were not immune to European diseases, notably smallpox, and many of them were worked to death in the mines and fields. It is generally agreed that by 1507 their numbers had shrunk to 60,000 and by 1531 to 600.

On Columbus' 2nd voyage he began to require tribute from the Taíno. Each adult over 14 years of age, was expected to deliver a certain quantity of gold. In lieu of that, they were ordered to bring 25lbs of cotton. In lieu of that, there was a service requirement which led towards slave labor.

The Revolt of 1511

In 1511, several caciques allied with the Caribs and tried to oust the Spaniards. The revolt was crushed by the forces of Governor Juan Ponce de León[?].

See also: Hatuey, Lucayan

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