The Taíno

The Taíno were an indigenous people of the Caribbean. At the time of European contact in the late fifteenth century, they were the principal inhabitants of most of Cuba, Hispaniola (the Dominican Republic and Haiti), Jamaica, Puerto Rico, The Bahamas and the northern Lesser Antilles. The Taíno were the first New World peoples to be encountered by Christopher Columbus during his 1492 voyage. They spoke the Taíno language, an Arawakan language.

Groups of people currently identify as Taíno, most notably among the Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Jamaicans, and Dominicans, both on the islands and on United States mainland. Some scholars, such as Jalil Sued Badillo, an ethnohistorian at the University of Puerto Rico, assert that although the official Spanish histories speak of the disappearance of the Taínos as an ethnic identification, many survivors left descendants – usually by intermarrying with other ethnic groups. Recent research revealed a high percentage of mixed or tri-racial ancestry in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

Taíno activists have created two unique writing scripts. The scripts are used to write Spanish, not a retained language from pre-Columbian ancestors.

In February 2018, a DNA study from an ancient tooth determined that the Taínos have living descendants in Puerto Rico, indicating that most Puerto Ricans have a degree of Taíno ancestry.

Frank Moya Pons, a Dominican historian, documented that Spanish colonists intermarried with Taíno women. Over time, some of their mixed descendants intermarried with Africans, creating a tri-racial Creole culture. Census records from the year 1514 reveal that 40% of Spanish men on the island of Hispaniola had Taíno wives. Ethnohistorian Lynne Guitar writes that the Taíno were declared extinct in Spanish documents as early as the sixteenth century; however, individual Taínos continued to appear in wills and legal records for several decades after the arrival of the Spaniards.

Evidence suggests that some Taíno men and African women inter-married and lived in relatively isolated Maroon communities in the interior of the islands, where they developed into a hybrid population of peasants with little or no interference from the Spanish authorities. In the Spanish Colony of Jamaica, known as the Colony of Santiago, Taino men and women fled to the Bastidas Mountains, later called the Blue Mountains by the English, where they intermingled with escaped African slaves, and were the ancestors of the Jamaican Maroons of the east, including those communities led by Juan de Bolas and Juan de Serras. The Maroons of Moore Town claim descent from the Taino and escaped African slaves. Scholars also note that contemporary rural Dominicans retain elements of Taíno culture: linguistic features, agricultural practices, food ways, medicine, fishing practices, technology, architecture, oral history, and religious views. Often these cultural traits are looked down upon by urbanites as backward, however. Sixteen “autosomal” studies of peoples in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean and its diaspora (mostly Puerto Ricans) have shown that between 10–20% of their DNA is indigenous. Some individuals have slightly higher scores and others have lower scores or no indigenous DNA at all. A recent study of a population in eastern Puerto Rico where the majority of persons tested claimed Taíno ancestry and pedigree showed that they had 61% mtDNA (distant maternal ancestry) and 0% y-chromosome DNA (distant paternal ancestry) demonstrating as expected that this is a hybrid creole population.

The ancestors of the Taíno originated in South America, and the Taíno culture as documented developed in the Caribbean. Taíno groups were in conflict with the Island Caribs of the southern Lesser Antilles. At the time of contact, the Taíno were divided into several groups. Western Taíno groups included the Lucayans of the Bahamas, the Ciboney of central Cuba, and the inhabitants of Jamaica. The Classic Taíno lived in Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, while the Eastern Taíno lived in the northern islands of the Lesser Antilles.

At the time of Columbus’s arrival in 1492, there were five Taíno chiefdoms in Hispaniola, each led by a principal Cacique (chief), to whom tribute was paid. The Taíno name for Hispaniola was Ayiti (“land of high mountains”), which is the source of the name Haiti. Cuba was divided into 29 chiefdoms, many of which have given their name to modern cities, including Havana, Batabanó, Camagüey, Baracoa, and Bayamo. Taíno communities ranged from small settlements to larger centers of up to 3,000 people. They may have numbered 2 million at the time of contact, and almost 3 million at the end of the 15th century. Columbus was surprised by the civility of the Taíno people. Columbus stated, “They will give all that they do possess for anything that is given to them, exchanging things even for bits of broken crockery,” he noted upon meeting them in the Bahamas in 1492. “They were very well built, with very handsome bodies and very good faces….They do not carry arms or know them….They should be good servants.”

The Spanish conquered various Taíno chiefdoms during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century. According to The Black Legend and some contemporary scholars such as Andrés Reséndez, warfare and harsh enslavement by the colonists decimated the population. Men were forced to work on colonial plantations and gold mines, as a result, there was no Taíno left to cultivate their own crops and feed their population. Conversely, most scholars believe that European diseases caused the majority of deaths. A smallpox epidemic in Hispaniola in 1518–1519 killed almost 90% of the surviving Taíno. The remaining Taíno were intermarried with Europeans and Africans, and were incorporated into the Spanish colonies. The Taíno were considered extinct at the end of the century. However, since about 1840, there have been attempts to create a quasi-indigenous Taíno identity in rural areas of Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. This trend accelerated among Puerto Rican communities in the mainland United States in the 1960s. At the 2010 U.S. census, 1,098 people in Puerto Rico identified themselves as “Puerto Rican Indian”, 1,410 identified as “Spanish American Indian”, and 9,399 identified as “Taíno”. In total, 35,856 Puerto Ricans considered themselves Native American.

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