The Tainos in the D.R.
The Taino culture can be defined between the 800 and 1,500 A.D. Earlier, other groups from the same ethnic roots lived in the Antilles, but the culture’s pinnacle of social development and the most significant evidence left of this culture was found after the arrival of the last group of immigrants from the Orinoco-Amazon basin.
The Tainos left in canoes from Colombia and Venezuela and one by one colonized the Minor Antilles until arriving to Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Santo Domingo and Cuba. When Christopher Columbus arrived, he found this culture on the island, the first culture that gave the conquistadors an idea of the new continent they had discovered for Europe.
Few cultures so important to the development of modern history are so unknown as the Taino civilization. Though the first vision the Europeans had of the American continent was precisely of the inhabitants of the Antilles, the memory of these people did not endure as it should have. Perhaps the fact that these “good men” were exterminated in the course of sixty short years has been the determining factor in forgetting them. Perhaps the fact that their culture was judged in a self-interested and ethnocentric way by the conquistadors added to forgetting these first settlers of the Indies. For the first European travelers to the Indies, with the exception of the noble Friar Bartolomé de Las Casas or Father Montesinos, the Indians were no more than naked savages, full of vice and idolatry and susceptible to enslavement.
Nothing could be further from reality. The aborigines of Hispaniola lived naked, but not because they did not know how to weave or because they did not recognize clothing, but because they simply did not consider it necessary to weigh down their existence with heavy and unhygienic clothing, which suffocated the Europeans in the heat of the tropics. They had their own religion, adorned with myths and fantastical stories, but no more than the stories of the famed Greek mythology. They did not have the competitive and materialistic spirit of the conquistadors, nor did they appreciate the value of gold, and pondered if the mineral was something that could be considered negative. This vice of considering ourselves better than other human groups that were technically less evolved is called ethnocentrism, and in its name, more genocides have been carried out than for any other known cause. The sad reality is that, in addition to their exaggerated ethnocentrism, the colonizers dared to present the Taino culture negatively to the kings of Spain and to European society in general, in order to justify the taking the native people into slavery. In this way, they succeeded in convincing Isabella of Castille to authorize the entrusting of groups of Indians to the colonizers to educate and indoctrinate them in the Catholic faith. The good intentions of the queen, who always considered the natives of Hispaniola as free subjects, were used to subject the Tainos to slavery and, in the end, caused their extermination.
The Taino was educated, had an exquisite artistic sense, proof of it left in impressive works of stone, wood, bone and shell that we still preserve. We have some knowledge of their music and delicate songs, their system of learning and transmission of knowledge on the basis of “areitos”, songs that kept their traditions alive and passed them down from generation to generation. We know of their political organization, ideal for ensuring the survival of their culture. We know from writings of the time of their generosity and simplicity, their hunting and fishing abilities and their cultivation techniques. They knew of astronomy, they had a complex calendar and also a system of communication based on hieroglyphics that remain today in cave paintings. The Taino culture was based on maintaining a perfect harmony between their necessities and the respectful use of natural resources given them by this prodigious land. Truly the more deeply one studies their culture, the more admiration is elicited for the perfect control they exercised over their natural surroundings. In these times, in which humans are realizing the need to respect nature, the culture of the Tainos seems an excellent example of the path to follow in order to maintain the equilibrium of biodiversity on our planet. The humans of this age should all have a bit of “Taino” inside.
Logically, not all of the island’s inhabitants had the same level of culture, but precisely in the area now occupied by the Parque Nacional de Este, the most characteristic and socially advanced group of natives lived on the island, which the Spanish dubbed Hispaniola and which is today known as Santo Domingo. The natives named the eastern part of the island Caicimu, and the area of the Parque Nacional del Este seemed to have belonged to the chiefdom of Arabo.
Despite the lack of understanding the conquistadors had for the Tainos, there was Catalan priest, Friar Ramón Pane, that was commissioned by Christopher Columbus to study and produce a report on the religion and customs of those mistakenly dubbed “Indians”. A document was born, fruit of the long years in which Friar Ramón lived with the natives, which is now lost in its original version, and named “Story of the Antiquities of the Indians”, a very Taino bible, which contained a number of mythological tales.
The most important center for worship that the Tainos have left us can be found in the Parque Nacional del Este, in the cave of José María, where over 1,200 indigenous paintings are preserved. It was precisely in the work of Friar Ramón Pané where scarce references were found on the Taino custom of painting in caverns: “And they also say that the sun and the moon came out of a cave, that a chief named Mautiatihuel is in the country, whose cave is named Iguanaboina, and they greatly esteem it, and have it entirely painted in their custom, without figures, with much foliage and similar things.”
The first settlers of the island arrived around a quarter of a millennium before Christ. They were hunters and lived in caves. Their utensils were made of sharpened stone and we know very little about them. In all probability, they were the first to record images on the rocks at the entrances of the caves. In a much later period, around the fourth century before Christ, the first migration of agricultural people arrived. They came from the basin of the Orinoco and Amazon river; they brought their technique for producing ceramic pieces and were a part of the Arawak ethnicity. Over the centuries, they continued to occupy the Antillean arc island by island until they one day disembarked on the coasts of Santo Domingo. These settlers probably painted in the caves, but did not live in them, as they had wooden houses, bohíos. Later, possibly around 800 A.D., a new migration of Arawak peoples arrived to the island. These people were, together with the descendants of the first agricultural Arawak migration to the island, those that seven centuries later would face the arrival of the Spanish to the Caribbean islands.
The Tainos found by the conquistadors called the island Quisqueya. They had a complex religion in which their principal gods were sun and moon and for them, the caves were sacred places were they held extremely important ceremonies. For example, in the caves, the “cemíes” were stored, powerful figures of stone, ceramic, wood or material through which the gods were invoked. These idols had magical powers for those who presented themselves in search of help when needed. To hold this complex encounter with the gods, they used a potent hallucinogen, cohoba, which, when prepared and inhaled, produced visions of the mythical world and conversations with the deities.