If you have ever paddled a canoe, napped in a hammock, savored a barbecue, smoked tobacco or tracked a hurricane across Cuba, you have paid tribute to the Taíno, the Indians who invented those words long before they welcomed Christopher Columbus to the New World in 1492.
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Their world, which had its origins among the Arawak tribes of the Orinoco Delta, gradually spread from Venezuela across the Antilles in waves of voyaging and settlement begun around 400 B.C. Mingling with people already established in the Caribbean, they developed self-sufficient communities on the island of Hispaniola, in what is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic; in Jamaica and eastern Cuba; in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and the Bahamas. They cultivated yuca, sweet potatoes, maize, beans and other crops as their culture flourished, reaching its peak by the time of European contact.
Some scholars estimate the Taíno population may have reached more than three million on Hispaniola alone as the 15th century drew to a close, with smaller settlements elsewhere in the Caribbean. Whatever the number, the Taíno towns described by Spanish chroniclers were densely settled, well organized and widely dispersed. The Indians were inventive people who learned to strain cyanide from life-giving yuca, developed pepper gas for warfare, devised an extensive pharmacopeia from nature, built oceangoing canoes large enough for more than 100 paddlers and played games with a ball made of rubber, which fascinated Europeans seeing the material for the first time. Although the Taíno never developed a written language, they made exquisite pottery, wove intricate belts from dyed cotton and carved enigmatic images from wood, stone, shell and bone.
The Taíno impressed Columbus with their generosity, which may have contributed to their undoing. “They will give all that they do possess for anything that is given to them, exchanging things even for bits of broken crockery,” he noted upon meeting them in the Bahamas in 1492. “They were very well built, with very handsome bodies and very good faces....They do not carry arms or know them....They should be good servants.”
In short order, Columbus established the first American colony at La Isabela, on the north coast of Hispaniola, in 1494. After a brief period of coexistence, relations between the newcomers and natives deteriorated. Spaniards removed men from villages to work in gold mines and colonial plantations. This kept the Taíno from planting the crops that had fed them for centuries. They began to starve; many thousands fell prey to smallpox, measles and other European diseases for which they had no immunity; some committed suicide to avoid subjugation; hundreds fell in fighting with the Spaniards, while untold numbers fled to remote regions beyond colonial control. In time, many Taíno women married conquistadors, combining the genes of the New World and Old World to create a new mestizo population, which took on Creole characteristics with the arrival of African slaves in the 16th century. By 1514, barely two decades after first contact, an official survey showed that 40 percent of Spanish men had taken Indian wives. The unofficial number is undoubtedly higher.
“Very few Indians were left after 50 years,” said Ricardo Alegría, a Puerto Rican historian and anthropologist I interviewed before his death this past July. He had combed through Spanish archives to track the eclipse of the Taíno. “Their culture was interrupted by disease, marriage with Spanish and Africans, and so forth, but the main reason the Indians were exterminated as a group was sickness,” he told me. He ran through the figures from his native island: “By 1519, a third of the aboriginal population had died because of smallpox. You find documents very soon after that, in the 1530s, in which the question came from Spain to the governor. ‘How many Indians are there? Who are the chiefs?’ The answer was none. They are gone.” Alegría paused before adding: “Some remained probably...but it was not that many.”
Possibly as many as three million souls—some 85 percent of the Taíno population—had vanished by the early 1500s, according to a controversial extrapolation from Spanish records. As the Indian population faded, so did Taíno as a living language. The Indians’ reliance on beneficent icons known as cemís gave way to Christianity, as did their hallucinogen-induced cohoba ceremonies, which were thought to put shamans in touch with the spirit world. Their regional chieftaincies, each headed by a leader known as a cacique, crumbled away. Their well-maintained ball courts reverted to bush.
Given the dramatic collapse of the indigenous society, and the emergence of a population blending Spanish, Indian and African attributes, one might be tempted to declare the Taíno extinct. Yet five centuries after the Indians’ fateful meeting with Columbus, elements of their culture endure—in the genetic heritage of modern Antilleans, in the persistence of Taíno words and in isolated communities where people carry on traditional methods of architecture, farming, fishing and healing.
For more than a year, I searched for these glimpses of Taíno survival, among living descendants in New York City and dusty Caribbean villages, in museums displaying fantastic religious objects created by long-dead artists, in interviews with researchers who still debate the fate of the Taíno.