Tainos, Caribs, and Others
Culture of the Classic Tainos
Eastern Tainos, Western Tainos, Island-Caribs,
Learning about the Tainos and Others
Tainos, Caribs, and Others
|Columbus among the Indians
The groups of native people incorrectly
labeled “Indians” by Columbus were actually a
diverse mix of different tribes which spanned the islands
of the Greater and Lesser Antilles. The people Columbus encountered
are known as the Tainos. The different groups that lived in
the Bahamas at the time of his arrival were the Eastern, Western,
and Classic Tainos; the Island-Caribs; and a small group called
the Guanahatabeys. According to most recent findings, the
natives were spread out among the large and small islands
of the Caribbean, with the Tainos dominating the landscape.
Culture of the Classic Tainos
The Tainos were an advanced people who
relied on agriculture, hunting, and fishing. Of the three
groups of Taino people—Classic, Eastern, and Western—anthropologists
and historians know most about the lives and social structure
of the Classic Tainos. Information about their daily activities
has been unearthed in parts of present-day Cuba, Haiti, the
Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and the Bahama Islands. The
evidence corresponds with the descriptions written by Columbus
and other European sailors who ventured to the New World.
Through the physical artifacts and written testimony of contemporary
individuals, historians are able to piece together the lives
and histories of the Classic Taino people.
During his journey, Columbus encountered
many large villages along the shores of Cuba, Hispañiola,
and Puerto Rico. Each village was governed by a chief who
oversaw numerous social and political functions. Both men
and women were eligible to become chiefs. A few villages would
be grouped together into loosely organized districts. Each
district was ruled by one of the village chiefs. These district
chiefdoms were then organized into groups of regional chiefdoms,
headed by the most prominent district chief. The structure
of the Taino government is comparable to the current political
system of the United States. The Classic Taino population
was split into two social classes, as defined by the class-conscious
Europeans who studied them—the nobility (nitaíno)
and the commoner (naboria). There was no third class, since
slavery and forced labor were not found in the Taino society.
The layout of each village was similar.
The chief’s house (called a bohío) was situated
in the center of a large plaza, surrounded by all of the houses
(caney) belonging to the other members of the community. Homes
had thatched roofs and dirt floors, with most people sleeping
on hammocks hanging within or just outside of the caney. Food
and other goods were stored in baskets hung around the walls
of the homes. Chiefs and other high-ranking people sat on
throne-like stools, called duho, which had spiritual figures
and signs carved on them.
These figures, called zumis, were seen
throughout the village. Every person in the group had zumis
in their homes and on their bodies. They were used as decoration,
praise to the gods, and symbols of luck and good fortune.
Classic Tainos decorated their bodies to represent different
aspects of their personal lives, their village, or their culture.
Most wore little clothing, as is evident through Columbus’s
journal entries, although women usually were clothed according
to their marital status. Unmarried women wore decorative headbands,
while married women wore short skirts called nagua. Belts,
necklaces, and headdresses distinguished chiefs, nitaínos,
and naborias from one another. Both men and women painted
their skin, especially for special events and ceremonies.
The most common color used was red, which may explain why
“Indians” have been associated with having red
In addition to hunting birds, fishing,
and trapping iguanas, the Classic Tainos ate a wide variety
of plants and vegetables. Their principle crop was cassava.
The plant, which is poisonous if eaten raw, was used to make
bread, soup, juice, stews, and other foods. It was also used
in religious rituals and ceremonies. Along with cassava, the
Classic Tainos grew sweet potato, corn, squash, peppers, and
peanuts. They supplemented these vegetables with meat and
fish to make flavorful dishes. Tobacco, smoked in cigar form
during religious ceremonies and everyday occasions, was very
Food and religion were often interrelated.
One of the two supreme gods depicted in the zumis was Yúcahu,
lord of the cassava and the sea (where the Tainos found fish
and other sources of food). In order to honor and please Yúcahu,
the Tainos would offer food to the zumi. The second major
deity was Atabey, Yúcahu’s mother, the goddess
of fresh water and fertility.
Sport and recreation also played a large
role in the lives of the Taino people. A game called batey
was played on large rectangular courts in the central plaza.
Batey was played with a rubber ball which the players had
to keep in motion, bouncing it from one person to another
within the boundaries of the court. The two teams, each consisting
of ten to thirty players, stood on opposite ends of the court.
They would then serve the ball to the other team, which would
try to keep it bouncing without going out of bounds. The participants
weren’t allowed to use their hands or feet, making the
game a difficult test of athleticism and strategy. Both men
and women played batey, but always separately. Bets and wagers
were often made between teams, players, and spectators.
Villages and districts often fought one
another to avenge murders, resolve disputes, or enforce agreements
between chiefs. The greatest victory for the Classic Taino
people was not in the murder of their enemies but in the capture
of their property. A warrior earned respect and fame from
his village if he succeeded in taking the weapons, shields,
and other battle gear from his opponents while sparing their
lives. This practice ultimately contributed to the destruction
of the Tainos. In battle, the Tainos would allow their Spanish
and Carib adversaries to live, a courtesy their opponents
did not return.
Eastern Tainos, Western Tainos,
Island-Caribs, and Guanahatabeys
While the Classic Tainos were the most
populous group in the Antilles, there were other important
groups also living on the islands.
The Eastern and Western Tainos were very
similar to their Classic neighbors, but had slightly less
advanced societies. The primary difference among the three
Taino groups was their level of hostility. The Western Tainos
were very peaceful and passive. They welcomed Columbus and
his men without caution and were helpful in aiding the Europeans’
recovery from their long voyage. The Classic Tainos were more
warlike, but overall were not a very violent society. Eastern
Tainos, however, tended to be much more hostile. Their close
proximity to the Caribs caused them to be more violent and
aggressive. When Columbus encountered them in the Virgin Islands
on his second voyage, it is not surprising that they attacked
him and his men.
Island-Caribs were thought to be violent,
blood-thirsty savages. Tales of cannibalism and torture at
the hands of these native peoples traveled throughout the
Antilles, reaching Columbus when he arrived on the islands
of San Salvador and Cuba. These tales were never substantiated,
though the basis for them is well-documented. The Caribs were
not cannibals, as the Tainos feared, but they did practice
rituals and ceremonies in which they cut off the limbs of
their enemies and cooked them. They believed that by doing
this they would gain the skill and prowess of the opposing
warrior. It was a sign of respect and admiration for their
The Carib society was less complex than
that of the Tainos. They lacked permanent chiefs and were
constantly at war with each other and their neighbors. Chiefs
were elected for each battle, so no leader lasted longer than
the length of any given war. They often invaded their Eastern
Taino neighbors to raid their villages for wives. Their violent
nature contributed to the horror stories that were spread
from one Taino village to another. While the tales were exaggerated,
the threat from the Caribs was real.
The final group in the Antilles was a small
tribe called the Guanahatabey. They were located on the westernmost
end of Cuba and tended not to mix with the other tribes. The
Guanahatabey spoke a different language than their Taino neighbors,
so different that Columbus’s interpreter could not converse
with them. They were far less advanced than any of the other
groups in the area. For the most part, the Guanahatabeys lived
out in the open or in caves, living off of the sea. Shellfish,
fish, and fowl were the main sources of food. They organized
themselves into small bands instead of villages, never setting
up a complex form of government like the Classic Tainos. Because
of their location they were a very peaceful and passive people,
similar to their Western Taino neighbors. With little to fear
from other tribes, the Guanahatabey were generally free to
live in peaceful solitude.
The enslavement, torture, murder, and
extermination of the native people of the West Indies followed
quickly on the heels of Columbus and his men. It was obvious
from Columbus’s journal that the Tainos were not as
used to battle and warfare as the Spaniards. Columbus notes
that “with 50 men you could subject everyone and make
them do what you wished” and that the natives were “such
cowards and so fearful” that they were, therefore, easy
to rule. This idea was carried back to Europe, setting the
tone for the relationship between the natives and the European
The search for gold was the primary cause
for the mistreatment of the native people. On one of Columbus’s
later voyages he ordered his men to complete certain tasks
to ensure their survival as a colony. His men, however, disliked
such hard labor and refused to act. When Columbus returned
a few months later to find things worse than when he left,
he punished the natives for the failure of his own men. He
blamed them for destroying the settlers’ property, stealing
their food, and instilling fear. In retaliation for these
acts, few—if any—of which had actually occurred,
he had his men round up over 1,500 Taino men, women, and children,
then forced the Tainos into slavery.
Columbus, in need of a cargo other than
gold and spices to ship to Spain, decided to send the Taino
slaves as a show of the wealth available in the New World.
He loaded the “best men and women” onto ships
and sent them off to Europe, thus beginning the widespread
enslavement of the native peoples.
While a fairly large number of men and
women were enslaved and sent back to Spain, the fate of those
left behind was equally disturbing. With each new island conquered
and tribe taken, the leader of the current Spanish expedition
would gather the captured natives and ask them to swear their
allegiance to Spain and the Pope. This ritual was concluded
with the following warning:
I certify to you that, with the help
of God, we shall powerfully enter into your country and
shall make war against you in all ways and manners that
we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience
of the Church and Their Highnesses. We shall take you and
your wives and your children, and shall make slaves of them,
and as such shall sell and dispose of them as Their Highnesses
may command. And we shall take your goods, and shall do
you all the mischief and damage that we can, as to vassals
who do not obey and refuse to receive their lord and resist
and contradict him.
The natives understood little of this,
since the oath was given in Spanisha language the
natives were never taught. The punishment for failure to agree
with the above declaration was severe. The natives were forced
into slavery. These slaves were then made to do the work of
their captors. From finding gold to building settlements,
the natives were forced into hard labor under terrible conditions.
And if they failed to comply with the orders from the Spanish
guards, they were often beaten, tortured, and killed.
de las Casas, a Spanish missionary who fought for the
rights and protection of the native people, gives accounts
of this mistreatment in his books on the Spanish invasion
of the New World. He describes in vivid detail the punishments
that the natives received at the hands of the soldiers and
guards. The search for gold was so important to the Spanish
leaders that they forced nearly all of the slaves, except
young children, to look for the valuable metal. Those who
found enough to fill their quota were given a token which
they wore as proof of their success. The biggest problem for
the people forced to look for gold was that there was very
little of it on the islands. The vast amounts of gold of which
Columbus spoke when he returned to Spain were nowhere to be
Any attempt by the natives to fight back
was put down immediately and efficiently by the Spanish invaders.
Those who led and participated in a revolt were punished by
death. In order to undermine the authority of chiefs within
the Taino villages, the Spaniards would gather thirteen of
the leaders and, before a gathered crowd of enslaved natives,
burn them alive.
This ruthlessness took its toll on the
Taino population. When Columbus arrived at Hispañiola
in 1492 there were an estimated 8 million people living on
the island. By 1496 the population had been cut nearly in
half; three to four million natives had died in less than
four years. By 1508 the population was less than one hundred
thousand. By 1518 there were fewer than twenty thousand. And
by 1535, the entire native population of Hispañiola
was gone. In just 43 years an entire culture had been eliminated.
In fact, every island in the Antilles experienced similar
purges and rapid decreases in population.
Learning about the Taino and Others
The death and destruction of millions
of people and their cultures has led to a lack of evidence
about their lives. Researchers have been hard-pressed to find
credible and complete relics of the Taino past. The most solid
evidence we have which can provide insight into the lives
and conditions of the Taino people is from the Spanish. Through
Columbus, las Casas, and others historians are able to piece
together an often incomplete picture of life on the islands.
The recent discoveries of long-forgotten villages in the Antilles
have uncovered pieces of pottery, remains of dwellings, zumis,
and batey courts which give researchers a first-hand look
at Taino life. The other way in which the history of these
extinct people can be shared today is through the oral traditions
of present-day native people. Although currently no government
recognizes an official Taino group, people who say they are
of the early Taino are beginning to reclaim their culture.
Through the telling and retelling of stories, fables, legends,
and myths the customs and cultures of the early Taino and
their island brethren live on. It is the legacy of the first
inhabitants of the Americas.