Date: Sat, 6 Mar 1999 01:16:01 -0400
Sender: Taino-L Taino interest forum <TAINO-L@MAELSTROM.STJOHNS.EDU>
Subject: TAINO-L Digest - 3 Mar 1999 to 5 Mar 1999 (#1999-25)
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Date: Fri, 5 Mar 1999 19:25:28 EST
Before Columbus Destroyed almost overnight by Spanish invaders, the culture of the gentle
Taino is finally coming to light
By Michael D. Lemonick, in Archaeology,
Vol. 152, no. 16,
19 October 1998
It took no time at all for the native Americans who first greeted Christopher
Columbus to be all but erased from the face of the earth. For about a thousand
years the peaceful people known as the Taino had thrived in modern-day Cuba,
the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and many other islands in the Lesser and
Greater Antilles. But less than 30 years after Columbus' three ocean-crossing
ships dropped anchor off the island of Hispaniola, the Taino would be
destroyed by Spanish weaponry, forced labor and European diseases. Unlike
their distant cousins, the Inca, Aztecs and Maya, the Taino left no pyramids
or temples--no obvious signs that they had ever existed. Just about all that
remains of their culture is the handful of Taino words that survive in modern
English, including barbecue, canoe, hammock, hurricane and tobacco.
But it is a mistake to assume--as many scholars have until quite
recently--that the absence of abundant artifacts meant the Taino were
necessarily more primitive than the grander civilizations of Central and South
America. They simply used less durable materials: the Taino relied on wood for
building and most craftwork, and much of what they made has disintegrated over
the centuries. However, thanks largely to two remarkable digs undertaken over
the past two years, archaeologists are dramatically enriching their knowledge
of the complex society of the Taino and the sophistication of their artifacts.
The first site, a Taino village on the northern coast of Cuba now known as Los
Buchillones, has been protected from decay in a layer of clay at the bottom of
a shallow lagoon. Last May a Canadian-Cuban team discovered the nearly intact
remains of a Taino dwelling buried in the muck. It has since located the
foundation of as many as 40 structures, most likely a combination of communal
buildings, outbuildings and single-family houses. The site is so extensive,
says David Pendergast of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, that "there's no
doubt that a regional chief would have been based there. It may have been one
of the Taino's major centers."
Meanwhile, deep in the forests of the Dominican Republic, at a site known as
La Aleta, a U.S.-Dominican team has made what may be an even more important
discovery: a 240-ft.-deep Taino cenote, or ceremonial well, where hundreds of
objects thrown in as offerings have been preserved in the oxygen-poor water.
Preliminary explorations of the surrounding forest suggest that the well was
just one component of a ceremonial center that covered at least 10 acres.
Impressive as they are, these two sites are only a fraction of what
archaeologists believe remains to be found. La Aleta, for example, was part of
the chiefdom of Higuey, one of the Taino's richest, most populous and
politically powerful territories. "What other sites were connected with it?"
wonders Indiana University archaeologist Geoffrey Conrad. "What did the
environment look like 500 years ago? I have a list of questions that I'll
never live to see answered." Other scholars will come along to fill in the
gaps, though. And even if it takes another century to understand the Taino
fully, they have already been rescued from the ignoble status of footnotes in
the chapter of history that began with the arrival of Columbus.