More than 1,500 years ago, the Arawak people of South America began to migrate
northwards, eventually navigating the Orinoco River and exploring what is now
the Caribbean and the Antilles. This migration would continue for hundreds of
years, until there was a presence of Arawaks on most Caribbean islands,
including Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and Hispaniola (the European name for what
is now the Dominican Republic and Haiti).|
Although the tribes descended from the Arawak went under different names like
Lokono, Lucayan, Carib or Ciboney, the Taino, which stood for "the good people"
in Arawak, was the largest indigenous group under the umbrella of Arawak
Indians, and would be the first group of indigenous Indians to make contact with
When Columbus landed in what is now the Dominican Republic, in 1492, there was a
vibrant and flourishing civilization already present on the island of Haiti
(this was the Taino name for what Columbus renamed Hispaniola). Though the Taino
Indians of Quisqueya (the Taino name for the part of the island that is now
Dominican Republic) were a quiet, peaceful and deeply spiritual group, this
society this was one of tremendous resourcefulness and energy.
The Taino had dark golden-brown skin, similar to that of their distant South
American relatives, and were average in stature with dark, flowing, coarse hair,
and large, slightly oblique eyes. Though modern depictions of Taino Indians at
the time of Columbus’s arrival are of savage Indians parading around naked, the
Taino were, in fact, highly skilled at weaving cotton and clothing. Clothing, or
lack thereof, was used as an identifier of class and rank within the society.
Men generally went naked or wore a loincloth, called a nagua. Single women
walked around naked, and married women covered their genitals with aprons made
of cotton or palm fibers, the length of which was a sign of rank. Both sexes
painted their bodies on special occasions, and wore earrings, nose rings and
necklaces, which were sometimes made of gold.
The Taino Indians lived in organized, hierarchically arranged kingdoms.
Communities were divided into three social classes: the naborias, who were the
working class, the nitainos or sub-chiefs and noblemen, which included the
bohiques or priests and medicine men, and the Caciques or chiefs. Each Taino
kingdom was ruled by a Taino Cacique, or chieftain, and at the time of
Columbus’s arrival there were five Taino kingdoms on Quisqueya.
Cacique Guacanagarix’s kingdom was in the province of Marien, which is now known
as Samana. Cacique Caonabo, one of the most famous Taino chieftains, ruled the
province of Ciguayos. Cacique Guarionex, leader of a Taino revolt, ruled the
province of Magua Huhabo. Cacique Behechio held dominion over the province of
Xaragua, which was in the southwestern peninsula, and Cacique Cotubanama or
Cayacoa ruled the province of Higuey.
Though the Taino kingdoms were ruled by Taino chieftains, it is a little-known
fact that Taino societies were matriarchal in nature. The reasoning behind this
fact is that though men wielded a considerable amount of power in the
communities, it was the Taino women who actually chose the Caciques in the
particular kingdoms. In this regard women were important because unlike men, the
Tainos could trace royal lineage through women. It was only after Columbus’s
arrival that the family structure was to change drastically.
Caciques lived in rectangular huts called caneyes, located in the center of the
village, facing the batey. It’s believed that the size of Taino settlements
ranged from single families to groups of 3,000 people.
The chieftains carried boldly carved scepters and daggers of polished stone as
symbols of their authority. Caciques were also polygamous, and formed political
alliances by marrying women from other kingdoms. Spanish records attest to the
Caciques' power over almost every aspect of Taino society. “They controlled the
collection and distribution of food and trade goods; they organized community
festivals known as areytos; and they decided when to go to war. In addition,
caciques functioned as spiritual leaders who contacted the supernatural through
hallucinogenic trances and to ensure the well-being of the community.”
Caciques also acted as the main intermediaries between people and the
supernatural realm. Before ingesting such hallucinogenic mixtures, Caciques and
shamans fasted and purged themselves with vomiting spatulas of wood and bone, in
order to consume the "pure foods" of the spirits. Then, they inhaled their
concoctions from small vessels and trays, using delicately carved snuffers of
wood and bone.