Taíno Art and Archaeology in Public Museums of Puerto Rico

TAÍNO TREASURES: THE LEGACY OF RICARDO E. ALEGRÍA provides an overview of the extraordinary achievements of these ancient people, and the power of their culture, dominant in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, Jamaica and the Bahamas from about 1200 AD to the arrival of Columbus in 1492. Such was the power of the Taíno that elements of their rich legacy can still be found today throughout the Caribbean.

The exhibition’s fifty art and archaeological objects are on loan from the collections of The University of Puerto Rico’s Museum of History, Anthropology and Art;The Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, Division of Archaeology; and The Museum and Center for Humanistic Studies, University of Turabo.

These museums are direct beneficiaries of the dedicated efforts of Dr. Ricardo E. Alegría, whose lifelong commitment to the preservation of Puerto Rico’s indigenous artistic andcultural history has forged the establishment of public institutions which are responsiblefor the study, preservation, and research of Taíno art and archaeology.

Taíno Art and Archaeology

About 300 B.C., the Arawak Indians living in the Orinoco region (now Guyana and Venezuela), began to migrate north throughout the islands of the Antilles in the Caribbean. They traveled in canoes, carved from tree trunks, large enough to hold up to a hundred people.

By the 11th century, the Arawaks had encountered the cultural influence of the Maya and other major civilizations of Central America. At about this same time, a branch of the Arawaks developed into a distinct Taíno culture, establishing communities in Puerto Rico numbering in the thousands.

The Taíno culture in Puerto Rico reached its fullest development with the construction of large ceremonial plazas, where religious events called "areytos" were held, and where the Indian ball games took place. The balls were made of rubber, a material as yet unknown to the Europeans.

Art pervaded Taíno life and culture; objects of extraordinary beauty and utility were created for worship, warfare, ceremonial and everyday use. Clay stamps were used to apply ornamental designs to the body.

The mastery of stone and wood by the Taínos of Puerto Rico in particular is evident in their sculpture. Their idols (zemis), representations of guardian spirits, were generally made of stone, but also of clay, shell or bone, and are considered among the finest examples of New World sculpture. They were carved by the Taínos using chisels made out of the hardest mountain rock, and polished with sand and porous stone.

Other unique sculptural objects created by the Tainos were the massive stone collars or belts (collares); these large oval stone rings (believed to have been used in the ceremonial ball games) were carved with reliefs of guardian spirits in human and animal form.

A third remarkable artifact is the "dujo," or ceremonial seat, used by chiefs (caciques), shamans, and high officials. These were carved primarily of wood and stone— low benches, with seats and backs made in one piece, resting on four very short legs—and, like the collares, decorated with reliefs of gods and guardian spirits. Some were also embellished with shells and gold-leaf encrustations.

Taíno art also included stone instruments, such as daggers, mortars and axes ,beautifully painted ceramic vessels and bowls, large petroglyphs, and fantastic carvings of manatee bone, conch shell and semi-precious polished stone.

Finally, the Taino excelled at ritual objects—amulets, necklaces, and personal adornments made of a variety of crystal beads—and stones also carved with faces of gods, animals and humans.

The objects in this exhibition also include examples of the pre-Taíno, Saladoid and Igneri cultures (200 B.C.–600 A.D.), closely related to both the early and late Taíno, (300 B.C. to 1500 A.D.) They represent the last days of the flourishing of Taíno art, which ended with the arrival of the Spanish in the New World.

It is important to remember that since the very beginning of Spanish colonization in Puerto Rico the Spanish language has been enriched by hundreds of Taíno terms describing the natural world: hamaca (hammock), sabana (savannah), tabaco (tobacco), cayo (key), huracán (hurricane), and maíz (maize). Through Spanish, these words were then incorporated into French, English and other modern languages.

Dr. Ricardo E. Alegría

Dr. Alegría’s sixty years of leadership have earned him a place as one of the outstanding men of the century. Dr. Alegría is one of the major voices defending cultural values, the Spanish language, and the history of the native peoples of Puerto Rico.

Luis Muñoz Marin, Puerto Rico’s first elected Governor, selected Dr. Alegría to lead the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture and to create a heightened consciousness of Puerto Rico’s cultural history, from its pre-Columbia inhabitants to the present day.

Dr. Alegría’s unique contributions have earned him important recognition, honors and awards: he was awarded the Frankel Prize by the National Endowment for the Humanities (presented to him at a White House ceremony by President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham. Clinton). President Francois Mitterand of France awarded him UNESCO’s Gold Picasso Prize for his work in helping to preserve the City of Old San Juan as an Historic World Heritage Site.

On Dr. Alegría’s seventy-fifth birthday, he received the James Smithson Medal of theSmithsonian Institution honoring his fifty years of extraordinary contributions to Arts and Letter and to World Culture.

Dr. Alegría has curated many exhibitions, including "Exposición de Esculturas de los Indios Taíno," visited by their Royal Highnesses, King Juan Carlos and Queen Sophia of Spain in 1992 and presented at el centro de Estudios Avanzados de Puerto Rico y el Caribe. Recently, Dr. Alegria contributed scholarly catalogue essays to "L’Art Taíno," at the Musee Du Petit Palais, Paris, and to "Taíno, pre-Columbian Art and Culture of the Caribbean," at El Museo del Barrio in New York.

Dr. Alegría’s valuable contributions to the preservation of archaeological and historic sites, and to the scholarship of Caribbean archaeology, has provided our generation with a deeper undertanding of, and a greater pride in, the indigenous cultural past of Puerto Rico’s earliest inhabitants.

Visitors to the exhibition will have an opportunity to experience an intimate and personal view of Taíno civilization through its remarkable artistic legacy. In conjunction with the exhibition, there will be a public symposium honoring Dr. Alegría, related screenings of his films, and an exhibition of his publications in the Lehman College Library and on the Lehman College Art Gallery web site.

Irvine R. MacManus, Jr.

Large Petroglyph

Large Petroglyph, ca. 1200 - 1450 AD
Taíno Culture, Puerto Rico

Stone Collar

Stone Collar, slender type, 1000-1500 A.D.
Taíno Culture, Puerto Rico


Pendant, 1000-1500 A.D.
Taíno Culture, Puerto Rico