Taíno Art

The word Taíno is used to identify the inhabitants of the Greater Antilles (Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico) who first met Christopher Columbus during his first overseas exploration to the New World. Taíno means "good" in the Arawak language.

Towards the end of the 19th century, historians and archaeologists developed an interest to identify this group of other Native Americans. Taíno is not an ethnical term for the Arawak groups (whose ancestors came to the Antilles from South America since pre-historic times). Some archaic groups like the horticultural "Huecan," "Saladoid," and "Barrancoid," arrived to the Antilles from South America before the Taíno period.

The Taíno culture flourished between the 1000-1500 A.D., having its epicenter in the islands of Puerto Rico and La Hispaniola. During that time, this group migrated to the nearby islands of Jamaica, Bahamas, Vieques, Virgin Islands, and lastly, eastern Cuba, half a century before Columbus' arrival. They reached a high level of socio-economic development that influenced most of the Caribbean. The presence of a great number of villages of chiefdoms that ruled over expansive regions, of active commerce between islands and of agricultural techniques (i.e., irrigation systems, cultivation of elevated lands) tells us of a complex society; one whose evolution was cut short by the Spanish Conquest.

They were a hierarchical society: the Taíno head chief was called cacique, followed in power by the shaman or "bohique". Next were the nitainos, composed of high-class members and warriors; and in the lower level of this social pyramid, the naborias—the common citizens and workers. Agriculture was the base of the Taíno economy, but hunting and fishing thrived as well.

Taínos believed in the existence of many deities, immortals who lived in heaven. Standing out among them is Yocahú, the creator of all things, and his mother Atabei or Atabeira. Besides mythical gods, the Taínos paid homage to their ancestors believing that they became protective spirits, also called zemís, upon death. In fact, many of these protective spirits were past chiefs. Zemís, which are made with stone, wood, shell or bone, and vary in size considerably, are perhaps among the best examples of pre-Columbian sculpture of the New World. The principle art manifestation of the Taínos is the rock art or petroglyphs with stylized anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, and abstract motifs. They were made by engraving walls of caves, large rocks in riverbeds, as well as on the monoliths that were arranged as a "fence" for the bateyes, or multi-purpose courts, where they celebrated areytos (rituals) and played a ball game.

Their art reflects highly inspired artisans by the "icons" associated to culture and environment. The pictorial representations embody what that society revered and respected. Stylized depictions of the elements of nature, along with related icons, reflect their belief in magical forces in nature. In many cases, Taíno artifacts correspond to ceremonial paraphernalia. The zemi, or idol, is the iconographic object that represents the power of nature and was highly used in sympathetic magical rituals. Their magic-religious worldview was a factor in the high-volume of artifacts produced. Some artifacts, for example, were believed to make chiefdoms dominate the powers of nature (in the case of objects that represented the elements). With that panorama, anthropomorphic and zoomorphic zemís were made to represent spirits that control different aspects of nature. Zemís were used not only in religious and ceremonial activities—of oracles, and activities like shamanism and funeral practice—but also in music, dance, ball game, pottery, and domestic activities.

Some objects, like the dujos, or ceremonial stools, display the majesty of the artistic treatment of finely polished wood—like the Antillean Guayacán (guaiacum)—and of engraving. Only chiefs and shamans had the privilege of using the dujo. This nourishes the idea of power in a hierarchical society: both characters (cacique and bohique) became the controllers of nature and society. The icon and the power associated to it and its bearer, reflect the dichotomy that artifacts serve as political and religious purposes. During warfare, it was believed that the acquisition by force of the idols that protected certain cacique and his village bestowed more ruling power to the prevailing chief, "upgrading" his level of chiefdom. The more idols, the more power.

Artifacts carved in stone, wood, shell, and bone point to certain aspects in Taíno life, especially about social stratification, or hierarchy. And many modeled clay vases decorated with intricate lineal incisions and dotted motifs reveal much about their abundant artisan production. From the hands of Taíno master crafters come the richest works for ceremonial purposes, with intricate decorative motifs of a unique aesthetic quality. Among the most significant pieces are the three-peaked stones with human (anthropomorphic) and animal (zoomorphic) motifs, anthropomorphic stone daggers, stone masks, amulets massive stone collars, elbow stones, ceramic vases, stone mortars and pestles, bone vomit spatulas for magic ceremonial activities, wooden dujos, and sculptures. The solid stone collars are the most impressive handiwork of the ritual objects of the indigenous Taíno art of Puerto Rico. The great amount of time employed to create each one of them indicates that there was some sort of power ritual involved.

Other objects of special interest are the amulets. They reveal many fundamental aspects of Taíno mythology and craftsmanship. The magic realm is the basis for their aesthetic explanation of reality, because it is by wearing these amulets that represent the gods, the forces of nature, and those intangible forces beyond day to day experiences, that the Taíno try to take control of their environment.

The importance of the Taíno art objects lies in the symbolic part they play in their religion and daily needs. The Taíno "cosmovision," or worldview, comes from an ancient myth about creation of men and women, of the flora and fauna, of day and night and about life after death. Taíno objects were manufactured with this worldview in mind: influences of animistic power, and with specific beliefs and guides that rule their lives. All prime materials—stone, wood, clay, shell and bone—were always given a special treatment, keeping harmony with nature. That extended a distinctive sign for that culture.

Since the 1980's Taíno art exhibition at Seville, Spain, and then in 1992 at Centro de Estudios Avanzados de Puerto Rico y el Caribe (The Center of advanced Studies of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean) in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the international appeal for Taíno art grew exponentially. In a matter of years, the interest for its aesthetics and values, and the study of the meaning behind Taíno objects was no longer within the Antillean frontiers. Institutions like the Museé du Petit Palais in Paris, France; El Museo del Barrio in New York; Instituto Latinoamericano in Rome, Italy; and the Lehman College Art Gallery in New York, presented exhibitions of Taíno art in the 80's, 90's, and, more recently, in 2003. Those exhibits marked the beginning of a Taíno "revival" in the art world, where handcrafters, sculptors, engravers, printmakers, jewelers, and tattoo artists incorporated Taíno motifs in their work. On the other hand, the academic world paid attention as well. Archaeologists, anthropologists, historians, and art historians conduct extensive research and new studies on the complex Taíno culture.

In the past three decades of studies, the Taínos have become a rich model of a culture. Their objects roused a deep interest in themes that relate to their way of life. A closer look to Taíno art is an invitation to discover, know, and appreciate the marvelous heritage from this Antillean culture.

Iván F. Méndez-Bonilla
Curator of Archaeology
Museum of History, Anthropology and Art
University of Puerto Rico

Round Zemi
13. Round Zemí, ca. 1200 - 1450 AD
Taíno Culture, Puerto Rico

Vomit Spatula

35. Vomit Spatula, 1000-1500 AC
Taíno Culture, Puerto Rico


30. Amulet, 1200 - 1500 A.D.
Taíno Culture, Puerto Rico