What Became of the Taíno?- page 2 | People & Places | Smithsonian
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Taíno leader Francisco "Panchito" Ramírez Rojas offers a prayer to the sea near Baracoa on Cuba's eastern coast. (Maggie Steber)

What Became of the Taíno?

The Indians who greeted Columbus were long believed to have died out. But a journalist's search for their descendants turned up surprising results

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My search began in the nooks and crannies of limestone caves underlying the Dominican Republic, where the Taíno believed their world began. “Hispaniola is the heart of Taíno culture and the caves are the heart of the Taíno,” said Domingo Abréu Collado, chief of the speleology division in the Dominican Ministry on Environmental and Natural Resources. He clapped on a hard hat at the entrance to the Pomier Caves, a complex of 55 caverns less than an hour’s drive from the gridlock of Santo Domingo. He led me from the eye-numbing brilliance of tropical noon into a shadowy tunnel, where our headlamps picked out the image of a face carved into stone, its eyes wide in surprise.

“That’s Mácocael,” said Abréu. “This guy was supposed to guard the entrance of the cave at night, but he got curious and left his post for a look around outside. The sun caught him there and turned him to stone.” The sentinel, whose Taíno name means “No Eyelids,” now stands guard for eternity.

More than 1,000 years before the Spaniards arrived, local shamans and other pilgrims visited such caves to glimpse the future, to pray for rain and to draw surreal images on the walls with charcoal: mating dogs, giant birds swooping down on human prey, a bird-headed man copulating with a human, and a pantheon of naturalistically rendered owls, turtles, frogs, fish and other creatures important to the Taíno, who associated particular animals with specific powers of fecundity, healing, magic and death.

Abréu, a lean man with sharp features, paused before a sweaty wall crowded with images. “So many paintings! I think they are concentrated where the points of energy converge,” he said. Abréu’s headlamp fell upon images of stick figures who seemed to be smoking pipes; others bent over bowls to inhale snuff through long tubes. These were the tribal leaders who fasted until their ribs showed, cleansed themselves with vomiting sticks and snorted cohoba powder, a hallucinogen ground from the seeds of the Anadenanthera peregrina, a tree native to the Caribbean.

The cohoba ritual was first described by Friar Ramón Pané, a Hieronymite brother who, on the orders of Columbus himself, lived among the Taíno and chronicled their rich belief system. Pané’s writings—the most direct source we have on ancient Taíno culture—was the basis for Peter Martyr’s 1516 account of cohoba rites: “The intoxicating herb,” Martyr wrote, “is so strong that those who take it lose consciousness; when the stupefying action begins to wane, the arms and legs become loose and the head droops.” Under its influence, users “suddenly begin to rave, and at once they say . . . that the house is moving, turning things upside down, and that men are walking backwards.” Such visions guided leaders in planning war, judging tribal disputes, predicting the agricultural yield and other matters of importance. And the drug seems to have influenced the otherworldly art in Pomier and other caves.

“Country people are still afraid of caves—the ghosts, you see,” said Abréu. His voice was accompanied by the sound of dripping water and the fluttering of bats, which swirled around the ceiling and clicked in the dark.

The bats scattered before us; we trudged up into the daylight and by early the next morning we were rattling through the rain-washed streets of Santo Domingo bound for the northeast in search of living Taíno, in Abréu’s opinion a dubious objective. Formerly an archaeologist for the Museum of the Dominican Man, he was skeptical of finding real Indians but was happy enough to help scout for remnants of their influence. The first signs began to appear around the town of Bayaguana, where the road narrowed and we jounced past plots of yuca, plantains and maize, some of which were planted in the heaped-earth pattern favored by Taíno farmers of old. New fields, cleared by the slash-and-burn methods Indians brought here from South America, smoldered along the way. On the fringes of Los Haitises National Park, we met a woman who had set up shop beside the road to sell casabe, the coarse, flat Taíno bread made from yuca. “None left,” she said. “I sold the last of it yesterday.” We began to see simple, sensibly designed houses with thin walls of palm planks and airy roofs of thatch, like those depicted in Spanish woodcuts from Columbus’ day.

The road ended at Sabana de los Javieles, a village known as a pocket of Taíno settlement since the 1530s, when Enrique, one of the last Taíno caciques of the colonial period, made peace with Spain and led some 600 followers to northeastern Hispaniola. They stayed, married Spaniards and Africans, and left descendants who still retain indigenous traits. In the 1950s, researchers found high percentages of the blood types that are predominant in Indians in blood samples they took here. In the 1970s, dental surveys established that 33 out of 74 villagers retained shovel-shaped incisors, the teeth characteristic of American Indians and Asians. And a recent nationwide genetic study established that 15 percent to 18 percent of Dominicans had Amerindian markers in their mitochondrial DNA, testifying to the continued presence of Taíno genes.

None of this would surprise Ramona Primitiva, a villager whose family has long embraced its indigenous antecedents. “My father used to tell us we came from the Indio,” she said, using another name for the Taíno. “My family has always been here. We didn’t come from somewhere else.” We sat in white plastic chairs at the local store, grateful for the shade of an overhanging roof and happy to have neighbors join the conversation.

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