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The Taino ( Arawaks)

The Tainos/Arawaks
Physical Appearance

The Tainos were short to medium height, well-shaped, but slightly built,
except in Hispaniola where they were plump. According to Christopher
Columbus, their skin colour was ‘’olive’’, which is smooth and brown. Their
heads were flattened at the forehead by the use of boards or bandages when
they were babies. The Tainos had broad noses and nostrils probably flared
wide. Their hair was black and straight, but coarse, and was usually worn

Economic Organization

The Tainos fished, hunted and grew just enough food for themselves and
their families. This is known as subsistence living. There was little or no
extra food produced for storing or trading. The forest was cleared by burning
trees and bushes and then planting crops. This method of clearing the forest
is known as the slash-and-burn technique. Manioc or cassava was their
main crop. They also cultivated other crops such as maize or corn, sweet
potato, cotton, groundnuts, and tobacco. Since manioc could be harmful,
they squeezed the juices out of it before making flour. The flour was then
used to make thin, flat cakes or cassava bread.
The Tainos practised farming and gathering along with fishing and hunting.
They caught and ate various types of fish, crabs, lobsters, turtles, shellfish,
and manatees (sea cow). The coral reefs around the islands were filled with
these animals which were easily caught by harpoon, or by hand. Turtles were
caught by tying a remora (sucker-fish) that was caught on a long line to a
canoe. The remora would dive for the turtle and attach itself to the back with
its sucker. The turtle would then be pulled into the canoe by the fishermen.
Hunting on land was more difficult as there were few large animals to put in
a stew. The iguana, agouti and the Indian coney gave the most meat. Birds
such as parrots, doves and wild ducks were also hunted and caught by
slipping a noose over their heads. The method of catching ducks showed a
lot of cunning. First, they floated gourds downstream until the ducks became
used to seeing gourds, and then the hunter himself would drift downstream
with a gourd over his head, breathing through a hole and seeing through
eye-slits. When he came upon a bird he would pull it underwater by its legs
and drown it! There was only one type of domestic animal called alcos (a
small barkless dog). These small dogs were used to help the Tainos hunt.
The Taino food was carefully prepared by stewing, baking, roasting and
barbecuing. Iguana meat was stewed, cassava cakes were baked, and fish
was roasted. Seasoning with salt and pepper was common. There was a
special sauce called cassareep, made of salt, pepper and cassava juice. The
favourite dish of the Tainos was pepperpot, a great stew into which went
meat, vegetables, nuts, and of course pepper. A good pepperpot lasted for
weeks. Its flavour was changed as some meat was added. Intoxicating drinks
were made up of cassava and maize. In addition, there were also a variety of
fruits and vegetables available. These included pineapples, star apples,
mammy apples, hog plums, guavas, and paw-paw. The Tainos, therefore,
enjoyed a varied and well-balanced diet and food was plentiful.

Method of how cassava juice was extracted from cassava
The women grated the cassava on a board covered with small pebbles or
rough coral until it formed a paste. This was put into a wicker tube, one end
of which was hung from a branch, while a weight was attached to the other
end. This caused the tube to contract, and forced the poisonous liquid out
through the wicker. The paste which remained was left to dry and then
pounded into flour using a mortar and pestle. The flour was formed into flat
cakes and baked on a griddle until the cakes were hard and dry. In this way
they could keep for some time.

Social Organization
Taino communities were small, although a few had more than a thousand
houses that could be classed as large villages. The villages were scattered
along the coast and near rivers. They often chose sites on top of hills as a
precaution against surprise attacks. Their houses were not built as permanent
structures since every few years they moved to new areas for farming. Their
houses were strongly built to withstand fierce hurricanes. Some of the
villages were quite large. They were well planned, usually circular in shape,
with a ball court or ceremonial plaza as their central feature. The chief’s hut
was built next to the plaza. Not only was each village well planned, but Taino
settlements were highly organized.
The Tainos had two sorts of houses. The bohio (chief’s house) and the
caneye (family house). In recognition of his status, the chief’s house should
have been rectangular but the Tainos found it difficult to build and so he was
often given a round house. The usual Taino house was round and
constructed in the following way: wooden posts were put in the ground in a
circle and canes were woven between them and tied creepers. The roof was
thatched in a conical shape and a hole left in the top through which smoke
could escape. There were no windows and only one opening for a door.
They had little furniture expect for hammocks made of cotton in which they
slept. There were a few highly polished clay pots for cooking and other food
vessels. Sometimes stools, or even tables were found but these were very
rare. Tools were small and made of stone. They were well shaped and highly
polished. There would always be a small statue of a zemi made of wood,
stone or cotton, or a basket of bones serving as a zemi, and cradles for

Duties of the Taino Men
The Taino men hunted for food and cleared the lands for cultivation. They
also did the fishing. The men also built the houses and were the ones who
went to war during war time. The boys helped the men to build the canoes.

Duties of the Taino Women and Children
The Taino women grew the crops (reaped). They mostly did the cooking,
washing and cleaning. They also wove baskets and hammocks and took care
of the children. The children took part in the reaping of crops, scaring away
of birds and animals. They also caught the water to be used by the
household. The girls helped their mothers weave.

Political Organization
The cacique or chief was the head of a Taino society. Cacique was a
hereditary title which was passed from father to son. It was unlikely that a
cacique would have no heirs as he was allowed many wives, although the
Tainos were monogamous by custom. If he died without an heir, the title was
passed to the eldest son of his eldest sister.
(Also included are the duties of the cacique and his privileges)

The cacique was more of a ceremonial leader than a lawmaker. He dealt
with the distribution of land, the ordering of labour on the land, and the
planting and distribution of the crops. He made the decisions of peace and
war and was the leader in war but he made few laws and keeping the law
and order was a matter for the individual. For example, if someone stole
property it was up to the injured party to inflict punishment. His house was
the largest and it was also built for him. His canoe was built by his tribesmen.
He had a special stool called a duho and he was also buried in a marked
grave and some of his wives were also buried with him. He was also given
the best food and it was carried in a litter. His wives could also wear longer
skirts than other women.
As a religious leader, the cacique fixed the day of worship and led the
ceremonies playing a wooden gong. He had his own zemis and they were
felt to be stronger than others and thus he commanded additional respect
and obedience.
While the Cacique did have much power, he had advisors. Nobles called
Mitaynos assisted the chief. These men had to be the eldest men in society
because they knew the Kingdom’s boundaries of the past and recent years.
They remembered the past of their kingdom and other arguments with other
kingdoms. Decisions occurred in a council meeting with the cacique and
higher ranking persons in Taino society such as the nobles. The older noble
men had songs and dances which they taught the young villagers their
history and laws.

Religious beliefs of the Tainos included the belief of the sky-god and earth goddess
and they made zemis to represent the forces controlled by these
gods, like rain, wind, hurricanes and fire, or like fertility in the case of the
earth-goddess’s zemi. They also worshipped their ancestors and made
zemis for them, often out of the bones of these ancestors. The Tainos had a
creation story which said that the first man escaped from a cave with the sun
when the keeper of the cave forgot to close it. They believed in life after
death in coyaba (said to be a peaceful place where they could meet their
ancestors and be free of natural calamities like sickness and hurricanes).
Other religious practices besides making zemis out of bones of their
ancestors include, avoiding eye-contact with the sun (to avoid being turned
into plants and animals) and burning a tribesman with his most valuable
possessions to accompany him in coyaba.

Taino Religious Ceremony
In religious ceremonies, the priests often used tobacco or cohoba (powdered
tobacco) which they inhaled directly into their nostrils to induce
unconsciousness, the best state for communication with the zemis. If the
priest failed to have his prayer answered by the zemi, it was felt that its
power was too strong. For an important religious ceremony, the village would
be summoned by blowing a conch shell and the cacique would lead a
procession of the whole village. The priests would make themselves vomit by
tickling their throats to clear away all impurity before communicating with
the zemis.

Importance of Canoes to the Tainos and How They Were Built
The canoes were vital to the Tainos in their trading between certain islands.
It was their only means of transportation. They used the canoes to fish, raid,
travel and trade. They traded cloth, tools, weapons, furniture, tobacco,
certain fruits, and gold. The Tainos built long canoes that could fit up to 80
people. They did not use metal tools to carve out the canoes from trees.
They would use silk cotton tree that was first ringed and burnt off at the base.
They would then chip the other side then slowly burn out the interior. Then
they would wet the hollowed trunk and insert wooden wedges of different
lengths to widen it in the middle and tape it at the end, to shape the canoe.
The canoe was then buried in damp sand to cure the canoe before being
dried out in the sun.

Village Customs:
 It was customary for the Tainos to flatten their babies’ foreheads. It
was thought that a flat forehead was a mark of beauty and that it
created a stronger skull and made it easier for boys to aim bows up
into tree tops. They flattened the babies’ foreheads by playing their
heads between two boards.
 The Tainos practiced subsistence farming, growing food for mainly
themselves and their families.
 Painting the body in black, white, red and other colour dyes was a
common custom. They painted their faces, eyes, noses, and parts of
their heads. The dye was often obtained from tree bark and certain
 As a sign of rank, married women wore straight strips of cotton cloth
hanging from their waist like a small apron.
 Colourful parrot feathers were worn in their hair.
 Bits of gold and copper hammered together to form a metal called
guanin and jewellery made from this was worn by those of higher
 The wives of the chief wore the longest cotton apron as a sign of their
 The Tainos used conch shells to make tools and musical instruments,
even jewellery.
 The chief wore a coat of feathers, string of beads and semi-precious
stones such as jasper and jade.
Taino men were usually naked except for special occasions, when they might
wear decorative loincloths. They painted their bodies and wore sometimes
wore decorations or jewellery. The chief wore a long apron, a coat of
feathers, and jewellery or ornaments. The women usually wore a piece of
cloth over their loins. The chief’s wives would wear the longest cotton apron
as a sign of their position. Sometimes the Tainos wore colourful feathers in
their hair. They also painted their bodies.

Leisure time Activities
The Tainos had ample leisure time which they occupied with singing and
dancing, called areytos. The men and women usually danced separately,
however, they would come together on special occasions in which the
pleasure of drinking was added. They also had a ball game known as batos,
which was played on a market field (batey), with two teams trying to hit the
ball with any part of their body into their opponent’s goal line, a game
somewhere between volleyball and football.
Smoking was the most well-known Taino pleasure. With the plant called
cohiba, and tobacco referred to the pipe in which the leaves were smoked,
the Tainos liked it for peace, contentment and helping them meditate. They
made cigars, chewed tobacco and, most enjoyed of all, smoked it in pipes.
The Tainos also made craft. They made pottery, basketry, weaving, feather
craft, and jewellery. Painting their bodies was also a leisure time activity
along with a custom.

Contribution of Tainos to the Caribbean and the wider world
The Tainos made a few contributions to the world, including the fruits and
crops they grew like cassava, sweet potato, pineapples, and groundnuts
which are used worldwide and has become part of the Caribbean diet. Taino
words such as ‘’hurricane’’, ‘’barbecue’’, ‘’buccaneer’’, and ‘’canoe’’ have all
become part of the English Language and are frequently used. Barbecuing
has become popular throughout the world and this was a Taino practice.
Pepperpot is a dish still prepared by Caribbean people today.