Much of what we now know about pre-European history in the Caribbean is thanks to the writings of settlers and explorers of the islands. These settlers characterized the Taínos on Jamaica as extremely kind and generous.
Despite the Taíno's decline after Spain's arrival on Jamaica, much of the island's culture was influenced by these early inhabitants. Even to this day, the Taíno's culture can be seen in the food and language of Jamaica. Because of this influence, it's important to understand the Taíno culture to see where it has been preserved in Jamaica today.
From the Spanish, we know that the Taínos were short, dark-skinned, and had black hair. Their faces were broad, in part because of the custom of flattening infants' foreheads. The Taínos tied boards to children's heads in an attempt to harden the bones and toughen them against primitive weapons. In fact, even Spanish swords are said to have been blunted and broken on Taíno skulls.
Despite taking such precautions for protection in war, the Taínos were themselves friendly and kind to new visitors. Columbus remarked on the fairness of their trades with the Taínos on Hispaniola. This sense of fairness was influenced by the Taíno attitude toward theft. Thievery was the worst of crimes and was punished quite brutally: the thief was slowly pierced with a pole or pointed stick until he died.
At first, the Taínos believed that the Spanish were gods. Their religious prophecies told of a day when strangers would come wearing clothing and carrying thunder and lightning. The Taínos themselves wore very little clothing; men and unmarried girls were most often naked, though the islanders sometimes wore palm leaves, flowers, and short cotton skirts. The little gold that the Jamaican Taínos had was collected from the rivers. While they enjoyed wearing ornaments and decorations, they saw no special need for the gold and traded it away for beads and other trinkets.
Huts designed by the Taínos looked frail, but could hold up to strong, even hurricane-force winds. The "cacique," or chief, lived in the largest hut. These homes were built with a tall pole located in the center of the hut, with smaller posts encircling this center post. Wild cane was tied together to form the walls, and the roof was made of a grass and palm leaf thatch. Occasionally the cacique's hut would be rectangular instead of circular.
Though today we may consider them something of a luxury, hammocks (known as hamacas) were the main pieces of furniture in a home, alongside wooden stools. This was the time when cotton production was just beginning, and cotton, sometimes brightly dyed, was used for these hammocks. Jamaica traded cotton with Cuba and Hispaniola even after the Spanish occupation.
It's been said that the amount of food the Spanish ate in a day would have sustained an Taíno for a full week. The Taíno ate seafood, particularly fish and shellfish, as well as cassava, maize, and many fruits, but they also caught birds, conies (small rodents they called "utia"), iguanas, yellow snakes, and manatees. Salt and pepper were the main seasonings used in Taíno foods.
The growing of crops was a particularly important endeavor for the Taínos, and the whole community participated in different parts of the task. Maize crops, for example, were planted in grounds that the men cleared with fire. Bags of grain were soaked in water for a day or two before being planted by women walking along, poking holes in the ground and dropping in seeds. Children then guarded the crop from birds.
Cassava and yams were planted in mounds. Roots were scraped and cut into small pieces, then pressed and strained for the poisonous juices. The cassava was made into cakes which kept for months. Both cassava and maize were used in the distillation of potent beverages.
The coney is an interesting part of island life. It is related to the guinea pig and is one of only two native mammals on Jamaica. (The others is the bat.) Conies still survive in remote areas of the island. The Taínos hunted these rodents with the help of a breed of small, barkless dog called "alcos." This type of dog no longer exists, but it was the Taínos' only domesticated animal. Iguana was something of a delicacy to the Taínos, and was stewed carefully over a fire of sweet wood.
Taínos snared birds in a number of ways, each manner dedicated to the capture of a different kind of bird. Parrots, for example, could be noosed, while waterfowl required a more complicated method of entrapment. Hunters floated several dry calabashes downstream until the birds became used to these objects. The hunter would then float himself downstream, covered by a calabash with sight and breathing holes drilled into it. The hunter could then approach and grab several birds, drowning them and carrying them in a sack designed for this purpose.
Fishing was also extremely important, and the Indians used their dugout canoes, turtle bones, and shells to net and capture fish. In Jamaica, the Taíno used the remora ("sucking fish") to catch fish. They tied the remora to the canoe; when it caught a fish, the Taínos pulled it in. This method was so effective that it caught turtles and even manatees.
While the most popular form of entertainment may have been dancing, the Taínos had a ball game that was so popular it even merited its own field just outside of a town. The smoking of tobacco also originated with the Taínos.
Areito is the name given to the song and dance of the Taínos. Some dances were done by just women or men, but many included both genders dancing together. These joint dances often occurred on special occasions, like that of a cacique's marriage. Dancers also traditionally drank a great deal of alcohol during these performances.
Large stones surrounded the field for their ball game, called batos. Spectators could sit on these stones, but the cacique had a place of honor on a carved stool. Players were divided into two teams, with almost any number on either side; some are said to have had more than 20 players on occasion.
The game was played with a ball, which would be thrown and hit from side to side by members of each team. Though we know how the game was played, we don't know what the ball was made of. Spanish historians recorded that it was made from an elastic black substance that was created by boiling the roots of certain trees and herbs.
Gameplay rules also stated that should the ball be dropped, a point was given to the team which made the hit. Hits could be made with many parts of the body, including the hips, knees, heads, and shoulders, but not the hands.
Both men and women played this game, sometimes on cooperative teams, sometimes on same-sex teams. The game of batos was so widespread and popular that different villages even played against each another from time to time.
It may not come as much of a surprise that the word "tobacco" is inherited from the Taínos, who called their pipes "tabaco." However, the word for the plant may also be familiar to smoke aficionados: cohiba.
The Spanish, who were unfamiliar with tobacco at the time, at first thought that the Indians were walking around with small firebrands in their mouths. In truth, they were tightly rolled tobacco leaves, much like our cigars. However, the pipe was the Taíno's preferred method of smoking.
Pipes were often used at feasts and celebrations and were made of a Y-shaped tube. These tubes were inserted into the nose so that the smoke could be inhaled deeply. One side-effect of this method was a loss of consciousness, which was quick to come.
The Taínos had a well-developed social structure, with a cacique at the top. On Jamaica, the Taínos divided their territory into provinces, and one cacique had several sub-chiefs to assist him in ruling the province. The cacique himself was permitted several wives, but subjects were permitted only one wife each.
Caciques received the best foods, and they had larger homes than other members of the village. These houses were filled with their family idols. Interestingly, an ill and dying cacique was honored by strangulation to end his suffering. Other sick tribesmen, however, were abandoned in the bush in their hammocks with a bit of cassava and water.
The dead were usually buried in caves, and on occasion the head and certain bones were placed in a pottery bowl. Anthropologists have found such burial remnants to be some of the finest pottery and best-preserved skulls.
Though Columbus was unaware of it, the Taínos had their own distinct religion. At first believing the Spanish were gods, the Taínos treated them with great respect. The late discovery of the Taíno's religious practices means that much of the information came from tribes located on Hispaniola. However these practices are considered typical of Taínos throughout the region.
Their mythology included many gods and a human creation myth, which stated that humans came from two caves. According to the story, one day the guardian forgot to close these caves and the humans escaped, as did the sun. This guardian was turned into stone. Their religion also forbade men to look into the sun and claimed that those who did would be transformed into animals and trees.
The supreme god, called Yocahuna in Jamaica, and goddess of the Taínos were only two of the spirits worshiped by the people of the islands. Other spirits were called zemes. This word could mean both the spirits themselves and the carved images of them. Bones and skulls of the dead, spirits of the dead, and anything believed to have magic powers were also called zemes. Few of these carvings survive, since they were made of wood.
Taíno priests encouraged the people to believe that some such zemes could speak. The Spanish found a speaking tube inside a zeme in a cacique's hut, and the cacique is said to have asked them not to tell his people of his deception.
The zemes were often celebrated in public festivals in which the Taínos dressed in their finest. Men pained themselves in red, yellow, and black and wore feather cloaks and headdresses. Everyone wore shell ornaments. The Taíno made offerings to the zeme for protection against fire and hurricanes, as well.
Priests were also healers, and zemes were said to be the cause of many illnesses. While priests knew herb lore and could provide cures, some cures were more magic than medicine. The Taínos believed in coyaba, a heaven in which there were no droughts, hurricanes, or sickness; those who lived in coyaba spent their time feasting and dancing.
These customs, foods, and activities were intrinsic to Jamaica before the Spanish arrived, and have influenced the way of life on the island since those early times.
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