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Taino: Voices From the Past

Taino Article

This map shows three important Taino landmarks.

Taino map

La Aleta, East National Park, Dominican Republic. Site of the 1997 discovery of an ancient Taino city next to a ceremonial cenote, or natural well. Divers have found a treasure trove of artifacts, including a ceremonial throne, preserved in the silt at the bottom of the 200-foot-deep well. Historical documents suggest the city may have been destroyed by Spanish traders in 1515.

Puerto Rico. Historians believe the island nation was once ruled by about 20 Taino "caciques," or states, and sheltered dozens of Taino cities. One unearthed by archaeologists boasted seven plazas and is believed to have held thousands of residents, who eventually succumbed to the Spanish soldiers and European diseases that followed Columbus's arrival in the New World in 1492.

Northward Migration. Archaeologists believe the Taino had their origins two thousand years ago on the coast of South America. They slowly island-hopped north through the Caribbean, learning to live off the sea.

Caribbean island

The Taino settled in the Caribbean islands.

Hurricane, canoe, barbecue, hammock. The words roll comfortably off our tongues, but they were probably first spoken by voices from the past: the Taino, the virtually forgotten people who first occupied the Caribbean islands more than 2,000 years ago. Archaeologists believe the Taino, whose story is told in the third installment of SPIRITS OF THE JAGUAR, originally lived on the shores of northeastern South America, near present-day Venezuela.

As their population grew, it became traditional for young people to be evicted from their villages and sent out into wilderness to found new settlements. Eventually, some pioneering groups built log canoes and began settling the islands that could be seen offshore to the east, low on the horizon. Over the centuries, they island-hopped their way north through the Caribbean, eventually following the crescent of islets all the way to the Florida peninsula.

By the 1400s, the Taino had forged a highly organized society divided into dozens of political divisions similar to states. Puerto Rico, for instance, is believed to have been governed by about 20 "caciques," or states, while Hispaniola (the island which includes Haiti and the Dominican Republic) was divided into five caciques. In addition to providing defense against raiding parties from hostile islands, the nobles who led the caciques sponsored artists, shepherded the economy, and organized periodic festivals that brought Taino communities together for games and religious celebrations. The games weren't always just for fun: the Taino version of soccer, for instance, was played with a potentially lethal solid ball made from rubber and cotton. Players wore special protective belts and pads to protect their bodies.

For more than 200 years, from 1200 to the late 1400s, Taino chiefs were lords of millions of island inhabitants. In 1492, however, they were among the first New Worlders to welcome Columbus -- and the meeting marked the beginning of the end for the Taino. Unable to resist either the disease brought by the Europeans or their military might, the Taino culture collapsed and virtually disappeared. For generations, it attracted little notice from historians or archaeologists.

In 1492, the Taino were among the first to welcome Columbus.

In recent years, however, spectacular finds have rekindled interest in the original inhabitants of the Caribbean. In 1997, for instance, archaeologists found the remains of a major Taino city on the eastern most part of the Dominican Republic. The discovery of the city's long-hidden ceremonial plazas and homes "is going to give us more insight into the Taino than has ever been known before," says Indiana University archaeologist Charles Beeker.

Particularly exciting is the treasure trove of artwork and everyday items found, almost perfectly preserved, in a 200-foot-deep cenote, or natural well, next to the ancient city. Everything from wooden axes and pottery to woven baskets and jewelry sits in silt at the bottom of the pool, according to divers. There is even a priceless "duho," the carved wooden throne of a Taino chief. For perhaps 500 years, the throne has sat empty, waiting for its royal owner to return.

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