Tainos, the indigenous people of the Dominican Republic
Long before Columbus’ arrival in the Caribbean, it was populated by indigenous people, the Taíno Indians. Arawak refers to the language and culture that those populations shared. They lived in Venezuela and throughout the Caribbean, Central America, and Florida. The community of Arawak-speaking people who lived on the island of Hispaniola—now the Dominican Republic and Haiti—were the Taíno Indians. Taino means “noble and good”, and their society was gentle, friendly, and highly organized.
The information about the Taino comes from archaeological excavations, as well as the archives of Fray Ramón Pané, who was appointed by Columbus to learn and record the custom of the locals. He lived among them and learned all about their religion and customs. In this post, we explore their history and discover some of the secrets of the mythical Taino culture.
How the Tainos lived
The Taínos were very skilled in agriculture and hunting, and they were also good sailors, fishermen, and navigators. Their land produced yuca, potatoes, yautías, mamey, and guava, among other crops. According to all the information we have about them, they didn’t have a writing system, and they didn’t have a calendar either. They could only count to twenty with their hands and feet.
Their food included both fish and meat, usually small mammals that inhabited the area. They ate snakes, various rodents, bats, worms, birds, anything they could find. Their diet, however, mostly consisted of agricultural products.
They created circular homes and lived in peace in their happy communities under a patriarchal system that permitted polygamy. The stronger and wealthier the man, the more wives he had. It was an honor for women to be married to powerful men.
The Taíno Indians were polytheists, much like the people of ancient Greece, and their beliefs resembled those of the Greek gods of Mount Olympus. According to the myths, gods controlled the universe and were responsible for all that was happening. They had human characteristics and represented the various elements. Unlike the Greek gods, the Taino gods, also called Zemi, didn’t have defined personality traits. The whole community would worship the Zemi, and they would hold festivals to honor them. Their wise people—priests or medicine men—would ask the Zemi to guide them.
The Tainos felt they needed to be on good terms with their gods, since they governed the world and the elements. To that effect, they performed religious ceremonies to worship them and show respect. Their stories and myths were created to explain the origin of the earth’s phenomena, and a lot of their stories involved caves. They believed that the sun and the moon came from caves. According to another myth, people lived in caves and were only allowed to get out during the night. A guard was responsible for guarding them, but when he was late one day, the sun caught him, and he became a stone pillar.
All Taino gods have a fascinating story explaining their origin and their place in people’s lives. Here are some of the Zemi and what they represented in the Taino religion. A lot of those entities were portrayed in their artwork, which is now featured in the Taino Museum in Haiti.
Some of the Zemi
- The god of fertility, Yocahu Vaguada Maorocoti. He was the spirit of the Yucca and of the sea and, according to the myth, was buried in the cassava, the main food of the native Taino, to fertilize the soil.
- Goddess Mother Earth, Itiva Tahuvava. She was the mother of twins representing the four cardinal points or, according to local mythology, the four winds.
- The Witch Doctor or Shaman. He was the wisest character in the Taino tribe, knowing all the plants and medicinal substances responsible for curing diseases. He performed the ritual of cohoba, a ritual and healing ceremony.
- Their god-dog, Opiyel Guobiran, was tied until the time came to release it into the jungle. The position of this god suggests that it is ready to run away to freedom.
- The god of Cohoba, the main god of the Taíno tribe. According to the symbols, on his head was a plate for hallucinogen dust that was used during the religious ceremonies.
- The god of Rain or Cemi Boinayel. According to the myth, tears emerging from the eyes symbolize the water that runs through the field to fertilize the cultivation of Yucca.
- The Sun God and Moon Goddess, who lived in the cave of Mautiatibuel—Lord of the Dawn—where they took turns coming out as the sun rose or hid.
Taino culture today
The people of the Caribbean are proud of their heritage. A lot of the words their ancestors formed are still used today, not only in the Caribbean but also all over the world. In this article, you can learn more about Taino words in the English vocabulary. Their heritage is still present in their customs and cuisine. For example, yuca dishes and bread are very popular, and are found all over the Dominican Republic. When you come to the eXtreme Hotel in Cabarete, you will have the opportunity to discover this exotic country and meet the vibrant and welcoming local community that carries the legacy of the Tainos.
Smithsonian Magazine, “What Became of the Taíno?”, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/what-became-of-the-taino-73824867/
Britannica, “Taino PEOPLE”, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Taino
Welcome to Puerto Rico, “Taino Indian Culture”, https://welcome.topuertorico.org/reference/taino.shtml
Taino Museum, “History”, https://tainomuseum.org/taino/history/