Pre-Columbian Dominican Republic: Who were the Taino?  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 European settlers.

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
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.

Taino Kingdoms
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.

The Caciques
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.
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