gateway to the Americas from the Eastern Hemisphere after Columbus' second voyage in 1493. This route continued to be
used by foreign sailors until the invention of steamships. The Caribs were the inspiration for Shakespeare's play "The
Tempest" while Taíno epic stories influenced the writing of "La California" and searches for [the] Amazons and gold.The
first humans who population the Caribbean did so over six thousand years ago. These pre-Taíno people have been called
both Ciboney and Guanahatabey. At the time of the Columbian Encounter of 1492, they may have been the remnants of
elusive bands of hunter-gatherers of western Cuba that the Taíno called Guanahatabeys. The Taíno did not seem able to
speak their language. It has been speculated that this early culture may have originated in Florida as "Glades" or from the
Yucatan peninsular. The sea level between Cuba the Yucatan was lower and islands between these land masses may have
made the crossing easier. According to Father Bartholomew De Las Casas, a Spanish chronicler of the early contact period
and the “Defender of the Indians”, in 1492 the Taíno civilization consisted of six million people.
The mainland ancestors of the Taíno were once river communities who had originated in the Orinoco River Basin in South
America. On the South American mainland these ancestors of the Taíno were called Arawaks. By the time of the birth of
Christ, the Taíno’s ancestors had become seafaring navigators who had ventured north into the Caribbean Sea populating
the chain of islands that arch up like a "y" from Venezuela to the Florida peninsular. In the Caribbean, they became Taíno
when they absorbed the earlier inhabitants and evolved a distinctive culture. In the Caribbean they had established a more
complex civilization the center of which they called Haiti Bohio ("home") or Quisqueya (renamed "Hispaniola" by Columbus).
They brought innovative agricultural practices of earthen mound-planting, mixed interdependent plant varieties (beans,
maize, pumpkins) and irrigation canals where needed. They established large chiefdoms under caciques that controlled
extensive territories, which conducted inter-island trade. The Taíno seemed to have travelled extensively since, in 1519,
Hernando Cortez encountered a Taíno woman in the Yucatan. There are even those who speculate that there are Taíno
cultural traits in the indigenous population of the Canary Islands off the Coast of Africa.
By the time of the arrival of Christopher Columbus, the linguistic cousins of the Taíno, people they called “Caraib”, or
“strong men”, had taken over the southern Caribbean islands. The Caribbean was named for this warrior society that had
now expanded north, conquering the Taíno men and intermarrying with their women. Although there is no concrete
evidence of the Carib practice of hunting humans for food, it was from the Taíno word "carib" that Columbus recorded
"caribales". It is from this 15th century Eurocentric superstition that the word "cannibal" was coined. In his letters to King
Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, Columbus suggested the institution of American slavery to his monarchs. The
Spanish chose to dub any uncooperative "Indio" targeted for enslavement as "caribales". During the Indigenous American
Slave Trade, this philosophical justification was the pretext used "to enslave in order to save" the heathens' souls.
The Taíno territory included the Bahamas, the Greater Antilles (Cuba, Haiti & the Dominican Republic,
Jamaica and Puerto Rico), the Virgin Islands and possibly parts of Florida. Only Cuba, Haiti and Jamaica have retained
their Taíno names. Taíno were first humans to encounter Christopher Columbus and the Spanish in the Americas in 1492
on the Bahamian island of Guanahani (Island of the Iguana). Columbus took some Taínos, their products and animals back
to Spain as proof to his backers that he had found a new route to India. The Spanish called the people “Indios” which is
different from their word “Indu”, used for the people of India. On his return to the Caribbean during the Second Voyage,
surviving Taínos showed Columbus a shorter route to the Americas. This route, used by Europeans until steamships were
invented, brought Columbus and his 19 ships to the Island Carib territories of Martinique, Guadeloupe and Dominica. The
seafaring Taínos also showed Ponce de Leon the way to their outpost on the North American mainland, which they called
Bimini. Ponce de Leon renamed the peninsular “La Florida". The old European myth of a "Fountain of Eternal Youth" was
later associated with La Florida.
The Taínos were the first American people of sustained contact with Europe after 1492. In 1493, the Spanish sent 19 ships
of colonization to Hispaniola. Hispaniola retained this prominent role of inter-hemispheric exchange until after 1519 when
Hernan Cortez made his attacks from Cuba into Mexica (Aztec) territory on the American mainland. Consequently, many
words, ideas, technologies, materials, foodstuffs, medicines and perceptions came from these first years of interaction
between Europe and the Americas. The Spanish borrowed the Taíno title of cacique and applied it to all indigenous chiefs
in the Americas. For 27 years, most of the information and goods taken from the Americas to Europe, Asia and Africa came
from the Caribbean civilizations. These are the reasons why many foodstuffs, medicines, technologies and words from the
Americas, used worldwide today, came via the Caribbean.
The first Caribbean technology adopted on European ships was the Taíno hamaca or “hammock”. In the tropical Americas
the Spanish gave up on their moldy wheat bread. They fed their troops and growing population cazabe bread made from
the yuca or cassava root commandeered from Taíno farms. Bitter yuca from which cazabe was made is a poisonous tuber
that the Taíno processed by squeezing out the toxic juice, baking the flour on a flat griddle. They did not discard the
cassava juice but cooked it down to make a meat tenderizer called cassareep. Other yuca products are tapioca and farina.
Cassava, the best source of starch, has now become the staple food for millions of people in many other parts of the world.
It is now part of many national dishes.
Exotic Caribbean hard woods like the Taíno mahogany entered world markets. The Spanish immediately exploited local dye
woods such as "Brazil" or Log wood. Mangle became "mangrove". The anona, or "pineapple" was a symbol for hospitality
placed above the door of a Carib home. English sea captains subsequently brought Caribbean pineapples for American
hosts and this is also a colonial symbol for hospitality. The Taíno bifurcated snuff pipe, the tabacu, mistakenly became the
name for the their sacred chewing, smoking, snuffing and medicinal weed. Taíno tobacco enriched colonial America when
John Rolf, Pocahontas' second husband brought it to Virginia. This milder form of tobacco helped to finance the American
Revolution. The cigar, first seen by the Spanish in Cuba, is still world famous.
The rubber ball on clay ball courts astonished the Spanish who thought that the ball's bounce was the result of witchcraft.
The most well known Taíno product is mahisi, or maize. The Taíno introduced the Spanish to this ancient Mexican
horticultural invention. The most internationally popular Taíno spices are “chili” peppers and Jamaican allspice. Columbus
took them back to Spain as substitutes for black pepper, cinnamon and cloves from the Far East. After all, his ventures into
the Atlantic was initially to circumvent the Turkish blockade to the spices of India, Ceylon and the Malaccan Islands. The
more flavorful, varied American berries caught on in Europe and spread to world cuisines. The most popular Taíno word is
barbecoa or “barbecue”. The best-known storm is the Taíno huracan or “hurricane”. The Taíno flatland is a sabana from
which the word “savanna” comes. One of the most popular known woods is the Taíno mahogany while mangle or
“mangrove” is the name for the swamp tree. They called their smallest island a cay , cayo or “key”. They called their
beautiful bird a macaw and their big lizard an iguana. Farther De las Casas lamented at the great loss of life among the
Lucayo (Bahamian) Taíno conch divers who the Spanish used as pearl divers. The Caribbean pearl trade enriched
European royalty. An enslaved Caribbean Indian pearl diver found one of the world’s largest and most famous pearls, “The
Orphan”, from off the coast of Venezuela. It now belongs to actress Elizabeth Taylor as a gift from Richard Burton.
In 1492, the Caribbean's indigenous people created an
everlasting impact on the rest of the planet. After that
year, the Spanish and Portuguese became conduits for
the dispersal of many Taíno and Carib products, words
and technologies. Some words like hurricane, canoe,
barbecue, hammock, tobacco, cannibal, cay (or key),
barracuda, maize and savanna entered world
languages. So did foods like corn (Zea mays),
pineapple, peanut, sweet potato, yuca (the source of
tapioca, farina, cassava), chili peppers, allspice,
sarsaparilla and much more, became an integral part of
the planet's diet and caused marked increases in
population growths in Asia, Africa and Europe. Most of
these foodstuffs originated in South and Central
America. Except for Jamaican jerk chicken, many other
local fruits, medicines, and lumber have not yet become
popular overseas. World-famous Jamaican jerk (pork,
chicken, fish) is a Yamaye Taíno method of cooking that
was called barbecoa, the origin word for barbecue.
Jamaica's Maroon societies learned this method of
cooking called "jerk" who passed it on to contemporary
societies. The term "jerk" is from a Maya word for
The area of the Caribbean near to the Carib islands of
Martinique, Guadeloupe and Dominica was the shorter
of Indigenous Arts and Culture
The Taíno Culture
|Batey was the
Taíno name for
the clay surfaced
court on which
they played a
ball-game with a
rubber ball. The
Spanish first saw
balls made from
latex in the
bouncing ability of
substance. On the
mainland this very
was also played in
a large stone
They made water-
ping and toys from
the treated sap of
the rubber (Hevea
|Top left: Yuca/Cassava and
products made from the tuber.
Top right: Jamaican rock iguana.
Right: Ahi or habanero/scotch
Left: Varieties of Mahisi/Maiz/Corn.
A genetically engineered grass
grain from ancient Mexico.
wore a carved
used only hip,
elbow or head
to keep the
Both men and
Copyrighted 2007 by Auld/Powhatan