Searching for Cuba’s Pre-Columbian Roots

A newfound quest for identity has led some Cubans to reclaim their Taíno Indian heritage

Taíno sisters
Three Taíno Indian sisters pose during a family pig roast in eastern Cuba, where there’s a small but growing movement to explore the indigenous culture that Columbus encountered in 1492. Maggie Steber

Roberto Ordúñez Fernández first began unearthing artifacts in and around Cuba’s eastern tip more than 40 years ago, at the age of 17. He hasn’t stopped since. Ask anyone in the small city of Baracoa for el arqueólogo and you’ll be directed to his narrow row house near the seafront. Most of what Ordúñez has found was left behind by the Taíno, an Arawak Indian people that Columbus encountered in Baracoa when he first landed there, in November of 1492.

Ordúñez is best known for establishing Baracoa’s Cueva del Paraíso (Cave of Paradise) Archaeological Museum, which opened in 2004. Set in what had been an abandoned Taíno cave at the edge of town, it’s the only Taíno museum on the eastern tip of Cuba. “It was a dream,” says Ordúñez. “When I told people here what I wanted to do, they thought I was crazy.”

Ordúñez himself would admit he’s relentless—but in Cuba, where private initiatives are often hindered or blocked by government bureaucrats, he is also unusually effective. Before founding the museum, he fought to protect land containing archaeological sites just east of Baracoa, and won. He has battled for permission to excavate artifacts that are in imminent danger of being washed out to sea or destroyed by real estate development. And now he is building another Taíno museum on the second floor of his house.

Ordúñez is a solitary fighter, but he’s not alone in his struggles. His quest is part of a small yet growing movement to reclaim Cuba’s indigenous culture, and to persuade Cubans to explore their pre-Columbian Taíno roots.


The Taíno were the most populous of several groups who inhabited Cuba when Columbus sailed into Baracoa harbor. The explorer described them in his journal as a friendly and generous people who lived simply, noting pointedly, “They will make good servants.” He wasted no time in erecting a wooden cross on the shore. Not long after that, he enslaved the Taíno in the name of Spain.

The Taíno began to die out quickly—from smallpox, violence, and overwork at the hands of the Spanish colonizers. But despite claims to the contrary, they didn’t disappear completely. Some fled into the mountains. Others mixed with colonists or Africans fleeing slavery, sometimes maintaining Taíno customs and farming practices.

The colonial authorities refused to recognize the existence of the Taíno as a people, assigning their own last names to the remaining indigenous population. “[They wanted] to eliminate Indian identity so there would be no indigenous title to the land,” says José Barreiro, a member of the Taíno Nation of the Antilles and director of the Office for Latin America at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. But this did not stop some Taíno from asserting their land rights in court, albeit without success. The last indigenous land claim in Cuba was denied in 1850.

Researchers who looked for a surviving Taíno culture during the 20th century failed to recognize what was right before their eyes. “They were looking for people with loincloths and didn’t find any,” Barreiro says. “They didn’t see the nuances.” Taíno in Cuba can’t always be identified by physical traits, adds Barreiro’s research partner, Baracoa historian Alejandro Hartmann—their customs are often the only evidence of Indian heritage. “People still believe in mother earth and father sun,” he says. “They go ask for permission from Taíno gods like Osaín before they harvest something.”

Genetic analysis has recently bolstered the case for the continuing Taíno presence in the Caribbean. A 2003 study in Puerto Rico showed that 61 percent of randomly selected subjects had mitochondrial DNA of indigenous origin. “You can be looking at a very Afro-Cuban or Iberian-looking person, but the DNA tells a different story,” Barreiro says.

After the 1959 Cuban Revolution, the new leadership tried to foster a stronger sense of “Cubanness,” and frowned upon talk of separate racial identities. “The government was drastic about it for years and didn’t want it to come up,” says Barreiro. But the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union caused an identity crisis among Cubans, who suddenly found themselves short on food and basic supplies—and more likely to turn to traditional knowledge for making goods and medicines they needed. Only in recent years have the nuances of Cuban identity, including Taíno roots, become an acceptable topic for discussion in the eyes of the government.

Baracoa harbor
Columbus sailed into Baracoa harbor, erected a cross on the shore, and soon enslaved the Taíno people. Today Baracoa is a center of the movement to reclaim Cuba’s indigenous heritage, which mostly lives on through beliefs and cultural practices passed down through generations. Chip Cooper


When I visited Ordúñez at his Baracoa house, he waved me through the open front door into a living room crammed with bags of cement stacked to the ceiling and a red 1950s Česká motorcycle. In the narrow corridor that remained, he had managed to find room for furniture. I squeezed through and joined him on the sofa, in front of a box fan.

Ordúñez launched into a tutorial on the Taíno, bolting upstairs to gather a basket of artifacts for me to inspect. For over a decade, Ordúñez and his partners have been excavating in the nearby village of Boma, where they found what could be the burial site of Guamá, a Taíno cacique (chief) who resisted the Spanish colonizers for a decade before he was killed.

Ordúñez told me that he learned his field from Antonio Núñez Jiménez, a Cuban revolutionary turned archaeologist who had hidden out with Fidel Castro in the mountains west of Baracoa. As I turned over clay idols in my hands, Ordúñez proposed an excursion to Boma later that week.

On the appointed day, despite heavy rains the night before, Ordúñez and I set off early on his Česká, heading toward the mountains to the east. We soon left the paved road for a rocky dirt path and finally came to a stop where a handful of young children appeared at the top of a hill, shouting the archaeologist’s name. Their numbers grew as we walked up toward the cave where Ordúñez believes his team recovered Guamá’s remains.

The bones have been relocated to the Cueva del Paraíso Museum, in Baracoa, and today there is only a replica grave in their place, with a single chain to discourage people from getting too close. “After we found Guamá here, the kids would come and dig when we were gone,” said Ordúñez, shaking his head. He hopes to conduct more excavations in the area soon, funds permitting.

Enthusiasm has increased among the children in Boma since Ordúñez initiated a community project, including archaeology lessons in the local school. On weekends he teaches kids to perform areítos, a type of Taíno ceremony. Where possible, the performance is based on archaeological findings and early colonial accounts. But generally speaking, he acknowledges, the performance is more fantasy than fact. Ordúñez wants the kids to perform for tourists, to raise money for the new museum and educational programs.

The government used to crack down on such inauthentic displays, but with the increasing demand for indigenous culture from cash-wielding tourists, authorities have become more tolerant. Many Boma residents think the activity is harmless. “The kids would be out wasting their time if they weren’t practicing,” said a woman whose husband is of Taíno descent, and who was reluctant to be named.

Farther east along the coastal road, past the sleepy oceanside village of Bariguá, Ordúñez and I visited two more caves with petroglyphs and drawings in iron oxide. The Cuban military has partially walled off one of the cave openings, with a lookout slot and what appears to be a shelf for a gun.

The drawings inside are scant and simple: faint depictions of people, sea creatures, maybe a lizard. The caves themselves are small and accessible to anyone from the roadside. Some of the images have been irreparably scratched, as if someone has tried to erase them from history.

Regino Rodríguez
Taíno descendant Regino Rodríguez guides tourists through caves where Taíno petroglyphs adorn the walls. Chip Cooper


Back in Baracoa, my search for traces of Taíno culture turned up questionable leads. Fact and lore competed for attention. I heard unreliable information about which crops and foods were actually indigenous. Various sources told me about connections between contemporary Cuban rhythms and Taíno music, although experts like Hartmann say there is no relation at all. Most conversations about ethnic identity showed a marked ambivalence: “I am part Indio,” went a typical comment, “and I learned about the Indios growing up. But I am Cuban.”

I stopped in a tattoo parlor just off the new Taíno-themed pedestrian walkway, in the city center. Five inked-up men were crammed into a space the size of a closet. I asked one with a sleeve of patriotic tattoos if the shop offered any indigenous designs. “Sure,” he said. “Aztec, Mayan—whatever you want.”

Just when I was losing faith that I would find anyone in Baracoa besides Ordúñez and Hartmann who were truly engaged with Taíno heritage, I came across Mildo Matos’s art studio. In his 50s, Matos remembers the Taíno aspects of his childhood in a tiny village on the arid southern coast of Guantánamo Province; his grandmother was Taína. As a boy, he ate casabe, a Taíno bread made from grated yuca (cassava root). His family built huts called bohíos on their land and grew indigenous crops. “I didn’t realize how different we were from other Cuban families until I went away to art school,” said Matos.

As a student, Matos took up oil painting. But for years before the Taíno appeared in his work, he painted other subjects. Now his studio walls are covered with dynamic depictions of Taíno gods, though his style stems more from 20th-century European traditions than from cave drawings or idols. “I use a lot of surrealism, because [like Taíno symbolism] it is also about reinterpreting nature and natural phenomena,” he said.

For Matos, exploring his ethnic identity is an active process of retrieval, reconfiguration, and reinterpretation: “Identity is personal—everyone has to do the work for themselves.” One problem, he added, is the lack of historical and archaeological resources for Cubans who do wish to understand their Taíno heritage. “All of the important artifacts are in Havana,” said Matos—“or the U.S.”

Taíno prayer ceremony
Emotions run high at a Taíno prayer ceremony in a bohío, or country home, near the city of Baracoa. Curanderas, or folk healers, still use traditional herbal remedies here. Maggie Steber


One significant Taíno artifact that is no longer available to people on Cuba’s eastern tip is the Gran Cemí of Patana, a stone idol that American archaeologist Mark Harrington removed from the Patana Caverns in 1915. Harrington was excavating there on behalf of George Gustav Heye, whose collection was transferred decades later to the Smithsonian Institution. The Gran Cemí now resides in storage at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) Cultural Resources Center, in Maryland, awaiting the outcome of repatriation negotiations between the United States and Cuba. “The museum and all parties in Cuba are in conversation,” said Eileen Maxwell, director of public affairs at the NMAI. “We anticipate receiving a formal repatriation request in due course.”

My guide to the Patana Caverns was Alexis Morales Prado, a self-taught archaeologist whose hobby led to a full-time job. Before he founded the local office of the Empresa Nacional para la Protección de la Flora y Fauna—a government agency that oversees the preservation of land and cultural heritage—Morales spent decades as the state prosecutor of Maisí, Cuba’s easternmost municipality. The crime he most prosecuted was the unauthorized slaughter of cows. Now he works to gain protected status for land in Maisí that contains Taíno sites.

I found Morales at his home near the village center. He is tall, with expressive blue eyes and graying hair. Cuban flag patches ornamented one of his shirtsleeves and his khaki vest. A small machete hung in a leather sheath at his waist. “I work in facts, not fantasy,” he said. “Language. What I can see. Some people are nothing more than intellectual jineteros (hustlers).”

According to Morales, many people in Maisí have Taíno blood and follow Taíno customs by virtue of their inherited relationship with the land—but not all of them identify as indigenous. Morales is working on a new museum to house Taíno archaeological finds from the region, set to open at the end of 2016. He also teaches in the local schools, where his students learn how their current way of life is part of a living past. “They still use some of the same hunting and fishing methods. They’ll bring in Taíno mortars they found in their backyards that their families use to prepare food,” Morales marveled. “They use Taíno words.”

Morales teaches children how to distinguish real artifacts they may find—like a mortar with subtle but intentional carvings for different grips—from unadorned rocks. He took me out to the future museum to show me examples, but guards turned us away: no visitors allowed, no explanations given. “They won’t even let me in—and my stuff is in there,” Morales said. But he had another solution: “Let’s stop by my parents’ place.”

His parents weren’t home, but there was a hungry cat waiting inside with her newborn litter of kittens. Morales rummaged through the fridge to find something to quiet them, then opened a glass display case in the living room. He turned and passed me a large earthen Taíno bowl. I cupped its rounded edges firmly, eyeing the concrete floor and imagining the worst. The bowl was about a thousand years old, Morales said. I was relieved to hand it back to him after he emerged from his parents’ bedroom dragging two plastic storage bins of Taíno artifacts that had been underneath their bed. The bins contained rocks with coral fossils, mortars, graters—probably for yuca—picks, hatchet heads, ceramic fragments, miniature stone and clay idols, all of it in earthy browns and grays, except for a single contemporary artifact: a white plastic hair clip.

Francisco Ramírez Rojas
Taíno cacique Francisco Ramírez Rojas beats a palm frond to drive away bad spirits at a seaside ceremony of thanksgiving. A three-sided idol known as La Muñequina is thought to represent the Taíno belief that spirits of the dead are present among the living. Maggie Steber


Morales and I later drove in a 1959 Land Rover to La Patana, situated at the end of a red-dirt road best traversed on a horse or in a four-wheel drive vehicle. The local school has only eight students. The village was all but deserted when we arrived, so we continued our hike to the Patana Caverns down a precipitous trail of jagged rock.

To remove the Gran Cemí from its cave, Mark Harrington’s team had to cut the idol into five pieces with a two-man lumber saw. The pieces were then packed in cedar boxes and hauled by mules to Maisí, where they were loaded onto a boat headed for Baracoa, and later transferred to a Norwegian freighter making a stop in New York City.

Before its removal, the idol must have been an imposing sight; it had been carved into a four-foot-high stalagmite with an even wider base. Still, Harrington nearly failed to see it. The cave’s mouth opens wide to a high-ceilinged antechamber, tempting anyone who enters to look upward past the idol’s former resting place, toward an enticing passageway that disappears into the darkness. This leads into a rotunda filled with bats, whose presence thwarted all three of Harrington’s attempts to thoroughly explore the deeper space. He noticed the idol only while recovering from his third try.

I did not read Harrington’s account of his Patana expedition until after I had visited the cave, and don’t recall seeing the millions of roaches he witnessed on the floor of the corridor leading into the rotunda. But that’s probably because I was too preoccupied with the thousands of bats that formed a funnel cloud when Morales and I entered their space in the two-tone glow of my smartphone and his flashlight.

In pursuit of the more mysterious chamber, I, like Harrington, had also failed to note the petroglyphs that still remain at the cave’s entrance, and now I too was sweating through my clothes and suffocating in the rotunda’s foul air. By the time I thought to ask Morales what marvels awaited us, I could hardly hear myself over the beating wings and piercing cries. “None,” he shouted back over his shoulder. “I wanted to show you the heat trap!” Frenzied bats clipped my arms and legs. Warm guano clotted in my hair. Head down, I turned and sprinted back to the entrance as fast as I could manage on a soft floor of droppings.

Only when I was back at the cave entrance, alone and breathless, could I finally appreciate the space. Petroglyphs stared out from the walls. The spot where the Gran Cemí used to stand came into focus, a haunting stump of a rock remaining in place of a figure once infused with life. The Taíno may be destined to be defined, at least in part, by their absence.

I remember the first Taíno idol I held, as I sat in Roberto Ordúñez’s living room: a three-sided clay figure called La Muñequina (the little doll). As I turned each of its sides to face me, it became a frog, a skull, and then an owl. For the Taíno, this idol was an indivisible symbol of life, death, and wandering souls—though not necessarily in that order.

It was a Taíno belief that the dead had their own spirits, and that these could pass back into the world as people, animals, even objects. Their presence wasn’t regarded as a haunting, however. It was simply as if those who had died had taken a new shape in order to exist again alongside the living.

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