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Pre-Columbian Dominican Republic: Who were the Taino?
Diet, Recreation, & Language
The Taino spoke a language called Island Taino, which is under the umbrella of Arawak languages. Though much of the original Taino language has been lost, certain words have been preserved in our language today. Words like barbacoa (barbecue), hamaca (hammock), canoa (canoe), tabaco (tobacco), yuca (yucca) and juracan (hurricane) have been incorporated into Spanish and other modern languages.

Many Taino words persist in the Dominican vocabulary of today. Names like those of plants, trees and fruits include mani, aji, yuca, mamey, tabonuco and ceiba.

Names of fish, animals and birds have also been preserved in our language such as guaraguao, iguana, carey, jicotea, guabina and manati. In addition, objects and instruments like giro, bohio, batey, coy and casaba have been preserved.

Also slightly preserved are old indigenous carvings and crafts that have given us deeper insights into daily Taino life. Taino crafts consisted of pottery and skillfully woven baskets, and stone, marble and wood carved with great detail. The Taino were also highly skilled in sculpture, ceramics, jewelry and weaving, and expressed themselves through ceremonial dance, music and poetry.

In the center of a typical Taino village (yucayeque) was a flat court (batey) used for various social activities such as games, various festivals and public ceremonies. The Taino played a ceremonial ball game called "Batu" between opposing teams (10 to 30 players per team) using a solid rubber ball. Batu was also used for conflict resolution between communities.

Part of Taino life included finding food. The indigenous Indians were skilled at hunting, sailing, fishing, canoe making, and navigation, which heavily influenced their diet, which consisted of vegetables, meat and fish.

However, due to the fact that there weren’t many wild animals to kill, the Tainos depended heavily on farming, and developed highly successful agricultural systems.

Taino groups in the coastal areas relied on fishing, using large nets to catch fish, while groups in the interior of the islands were more dependent on agriculture. Their crops were raised in a conuco, a large mound, which was packed with leaves to prevent erosion, and then planted with a variety of crops to ensure that something would grow, no matter what the weather conditions. Their main crops were cassava, (which they ate as a flat bread similar to a tortilla) garlic, potatoes, yautias, mamey, guava, corn, squash, beans, peppers, yams, peanuts, as well as tobacco and anon.

Although there weren’t many animals to kill, the Tainos became skilled at killing the animals they could find. The manatee became a staple of their diet, and they also became accustomed to eating small animals such as rodents, bats, earthworms, ducks, lizards, turtles and birds.

After finishing the day’s work, the Tainos would gather to share stories or take part in spiritual and religious ceremonies. The Taino were a deeply spiritual group who prayed to a collection of gods. The Taino respected all forms of life and recognized the importance of giving thanks, as well as honoring ancestors and spiritual beings, called Zemi. An example of a Taino god is "Yucahu" who was the invisible spirit of the sky. Yucahu’s mother was "Atabey", the mother of the gods and spirit of the waters.

"Juracan" was also a powerful god, and he was the evil god of storms. Other minor gods or "zemies" include "Boinayel," god of rain, the messenger "Guatauba", "Deminan Caracaracol," who broke the gourd and caused the flooding of the world and the spreading of the waters, "Opiyelguabiran," a dog-shaped god, and "Maketaori Guayaba," the ruler of the Coaybay, the underworld.

During ceremonies, the Cacique would sit on small wooden stools, a place of honor. There was a ceremonial beating of drums, and people wore special costumes for the ceremonies, which included paint and feathers, covered in shells from their knees downwards.

The shaman (medicine man or priest) would present the carved figures of the zemi for prayer, and Tainos would induce vomiting with a swallowing stick. The purpose of the vomit was to purge the body of impurities, both a physical purging, and a symbolic spiritual purging. This ceremonial purging and other rites were a symbolic changing before the zemi.

Women served bread (a communion rite), first to zemi, then to the Cacique, followed by the rest of the community. The sacred bread was a powerful protector. Finally came an oral history lesson, the singing of the village epic in honor of the Cacique and his ancestors. As the poet recited his poem he was accompanied by a maraca, a piece of hardwood which was beaten with pebbles.

The most important and sacred substance for the Taino was cohoba, a psychoactive powder ground from the seeds of trees native to South America and the Caribbean. The Taino sometimes mixed cohoba with tobacco to maximize its effect. Taino shamans took cohoba to cure illnesses for individual patients and Caciques took cohoba to communicate with zemies, spirits and ancestors.

Throughout the ancient Americas, chieftains and shamans used hallucinogens to connect with the spirits of the other world. Only those in touch with the supernatural realm could heal the sick, predict the future, ensure the fertility of the world and resolve the larger problems of existence. Natural hallucinogens were regarded by pre-Columbian cultures as sacred and endowed with inherent force. Their preparation and ingestion was associated with elaborate rituals, and they were only consumed by people considered to have sufficient power to communicate with the spirits and ancestors who dwelled in the other world. The Taino believed it was possible to travel to the supernatural realm during cohoba-induced trances.

Once the hallucinogen was inhaled, the Cacique or shaman would sit on his duho, elbows resting on knees, body hunched forward, lost in the thoughts and images that would result from cohoba's swift effect. In this position, Caciques and shamans communicated with spirits and ancestors.

At Columbus’s Arrival
At the time of Columbus’s arrival there were an estimated three million Taino Indians inhabiting Haiti/Quiqueya, but this was not to last. In the first 20 years of Spanish presence on Quisqueya, the Taino population dwindled to an estimated 60,000 natives, and in the next 30 years the population would be reduced to almost 5,000 native inhabitants, a decline of almost 98% of the indigenous population.

Some historians argue that for about 100 years before the Spanish invasion, the Tainos were constantly challenged by the fierce, warlike Caribs. The Caribs were adept at using poison-tipped arrows, which they used when they raided Taino settlements for slaves. Historians argue that the strength of the Tainos was gradually weakened by the Carib attacks, and that the Taino were already in decline by the time the Spanish arrived.

Regardless of this fact, the fate of the Taino Indian was sealed on that day in 1492, when they first encountered Christopher Columbus. Though little is left of the once energetic Taino society, except for the cultivated image used to define skin color or identity, it is important to preserve what is left. The Taino presence has dwindled considerably in the Dominican Republic, but it is still part of this country’s vibrant culture and history.
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