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Pre-Columbian Hispaniola - Arawak/Taino Indians

Arawak/Taino Indians

Below is an overview of the Arawak/Taino Indians, the original natives of the land today called Haiti (and Dominican Republic). This is not so much an original treatment, but I pulled a lot of material together from about a dozen sources, so it's more like an extended report.

The word genocide is an interesting term. Etymologically it means the killing of an entire gens, a whole people. The word is used a good deal in politically charged language these days with people often charging that some group or other is attempting genocide. Certainly Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich of Germany attempted it on the Jews of Europe, and failed. As far as I know, the only case in history of where complete and total genocide was carried out was here on the island of Hispaniola. The entire GENS, the whole people of the native Americans of the Arawak/Taino people were wiped out. It is a horrible and astonishing story.

The topics I treat are:

Once again, I cordially invite comments. If you find that you do not agree with this report in some point, or you wish to add something that I chose not to include, or you wish to ask me and others for further information, please don't hesitate to write and ask.


On December 6th, 1492 Christopher Columbus landed at Mole St. Nicholas in Haiti's north. Thus began a totally new phase of life on the island of Hispaniola. Most people are aware that Christopher Columbus landed at San Salvador on October 12th, 1492, thus discovering the New World for Spain. Less known is that his second land fall was at Mole St. Nicholas, Haiti on December 1492, or that the first settlement in the New World was La Navidad, on Haiti's north coast. This settlement, which housed sailors from the Santa Maria which sank off Haiti's coast, was founded on December 24th, 1492.

Columbus did not discover a lost or unknown land. There was a flourishing civilization of native Americas. The primary group was the Arawak/Taino Indians. Arawak is the general group to which they belong, and describes especially the common language which this group of native Americans shared. They ranged from Venezuela through the Caribbean and Central America all the way to Florida. However, the particular group of Arawak-speaking people who lived on the island of Hispaniola were the Taino Indians. To keep both names before us, I'll use the term Arawak/Taino to refer to them.


The Arawak/Taino society was basically a very gentle culture. It was characterized by happiness, friendliness and a highly organized hierarchical, paternal society, and a lack of guile. Each society was a small kingdom and the leader was called a cacique. At the time of Columbus there were five different kingdoms on the island of Hispaniola. The Indians practiced polygamy. Most men had 2 or 3 wives, but the caciques had as many as 30. It was a great honor for a woman to be married to a cacique. Not only did she enjoy a materially superior lifestyle, but her children were held in high esteem.


The Arawak/Taino used two primary architectural styles for their homes. The general population lived in circular buildings with poles providing the primary support and these were covered with woven straw and palm leaves. They were somewhat like North American teepees except rather than being covered with skins they needed to reflect the warmth of the climate and simply used straw and palm leaves.

The caciques were singled out for unique housing. Their house were rectangular and even featured a small porch. Despite the difference in shape, and the considerably larger buildings, the same materials were used. When the Africans came beginning in 1507 they introduced mud and wattle as primary building materials. However, there is no record of the Arawak/Tainos having used these materials.

The house of the cacique contained only his own family. However, given the number of wives he might have, this constituted a huge family. The round houses of the common people were also large. Each one had about 10-15 men and their whole families. Thus any Arawak/Taino home might house a hundred people.

The houses did not contain much furniture. People slept in cotton hammocks or simply on mats of banana leaves. They also made wooden chairs with woven seats, couches and built cradles for their children.

In addition to houses the typical Arawak/Taino village contained a flat court in the center of the village which was used for ball games and various festivals, both religious and secular. Houses were around this court. This was a hierarchical society, and while there was only one cacique who was paid a tribute (tax) to oversee the village, there were other levels of sub-caciques, who were not paid, but did hold positions of honor. They were liable for various services to the village and cacique.

Stone making was especially developed among the Arawak/Tainos, but they seem not to have used it at all in building houses. It was primarily used for tools and especially religious artifacts.

The men were generally naked, but the women sometimes wore short skirts. Men and women alike adorned their bodies with paint and shells and other decorations.


The Arawak/Taino diet, like ours, centered around meat or fish as the primary source of protein. There never were many wild animals to hunt on Hispaniola, but there were some small mammals which were hunted and enjoyed. They also ate snakes, various rodents, bats, worms, birds, in general any living things they could find with the exception of humans. They were able to hunt ducks and turtles in the lakes and sea. The costal natives relied heavily on fishing, and tended to eat their fish either raw or only partially cooked. Since they did grow cotton on the island, the natives had fishing nets made of cotton. The natives of the interior relied more on agriculture and de-emphasized meat or fish in their diet.

The Arawak/Taino had a developed system of agriculture which was virtually maintenance free. They raised their crops in a conuco, a large mound which was devised especially for farming. They packed the conuco with leaves to protect from soil erosion and fixed a large variety of crops to assure that something would grow, no matter what weather conditions prevailed.

(As an aside I would like to comment that many people in the pre-Columbian Americas had virtually work free agriculture. This system meant that people living in these materially simple social systems had enormous amounts of free time and often developed elaborate religious rites which took a lot of their time, but also had highly developed systems of games and recreation. There are some nice advantages to very simple living and diet!)

One of the Arawak/Taino's primary crops was cassava. This is a root crop from which a poisonous juice must be squeezed. Then it is baked into a bread like slab. The current method of doing this in Haiti produces a flat bread, sort of like a stale burrito or pizza shell. The Arawak/Taino grew corn (maize), squash, beans, peppers, sweet potatoes, yams and peanuts.

They not only had cotton, but they raised tobacco and enjoyed smoking very much. It was not only a part of their social life, but was used in religious ceremonies too.


The Arawak/Taino had no large animals like horses, oxen or mules to ride or use for work. But they did have river and sea transportation. They used dugout canoes which were cut from a single tree trunk and used with paddles. They could take 70-80 people in a single canoe and even used them for long travels on the sea. These dugouts allowed fishing the few lakes of Hispaniola as well as fishing out a bit off the coast.


The Arawak/Taino themselves were quite peaceful people, but they did have to defend themselves from the Caribs who were cannibals. The Caribs of this area were centered at what is today Puerto Rico, but some did live in northeast Hispaniola, an area that today is the Dominican Republic. The Caribs were war-like cannibals. They often raided the more peaceful Arawak/Tainos, killing off the men, stealing and holding the women for breeding, and fattening the children to eat.

Thus the Arawak/Taino had some weapons which they used in defense. They used the bow and arrow, and had developed some poisons for their arrow tips. They had cotton ropes for defensive purposes and some spears with fish hooks on the end. Since there were hardwoods on the island, they did have a war club made of macana. This was about 1" thick and reminds one very much of the cocomaque stick used in later Haitian days. They did not develop any armor or specifically defensive weapons (shields, etc.).


The Arawak/Taino were polytheists and their gods were called zemi. The zemi controlled various functions of the universe, very much like Greek gods did, or like later Haitian Voodoo lwa. However, they do not seem to have had particular personalities like the Greek and Haitian gods/spirits do.

There were three primary religious practices:

There are many stone carvings of zemi which have survived. Hugh Cave in his HAITI: HIGH ROAD TO ADVENTURE reports that some of the stalagmites of the caves of Dondon were carved into zemi. Some of my students on a study trip visited the caves of Dondon but were unable to find and photograph these carvings. One often sees stone zemi for sale in Haiti, but I have no way of knowing if they are genuine Arawak/Taino archaeological finds, or if they have been remade for tourists!

As a footnote to this section I might add that Rev. Dr. William Hodges in Limbe, Haiti, is perhaps the most important of those who have done archaeological work in Haiti, and he bills himself as a amateur who does it on the side for pleasure. However, his small museum in Limbe is simply fantastic, and worth the trip, which is only about 45 minutes from Cape Haitien by taptap. He also has a wealth of materials which he has printed over the years. Dr. Hodges, a U.S. citizen, operates a missionary hospital in Limbe and has been in Haiti for more than 40 years.

One account of the religious agricultural feasts which were offered both in thanksgiving and petition, describes the following features:

There was an afterlife where the good would be rewarded. They would meet up with dead relatives and friends. Since most of the people they would meet in this paradise were women, it is curious to speculate if it was mainly women who were considered good, or if some other reason accounted for this division of the sexes in the afterlife.

There are many stone religious artifacts which have been found in Haiti. The zemi take on strange forms like toads, turtles, snakes, alligators and various distorted and hideous human faces.

The zemi, as well as dead caciques, have certain powers over the natural world and must be dealt with. Thus these various services are ways of acknowledging their power (worship and thanksgiving) and at the same time seeking their aid. Because of these powers there are many Arawak/Tanio stories which account for the origins of some experienced phenomena in myth and or magic. Several myths had to do with caves. The sun and moon, for example, came out of caves. Another story tells that the people lived in caves and only came out at night. One guard was supposed to watch carefully over people to be sure they were well divided in the land. However, one day he was late in returning and the sun caught him and turned him into a stone pillar. (Shades of Lot's wife!)

Another Indian became angry at the sun for its various tricks and decided to leave. He convinced all the women to abandon their men and come with him along with their children. But, the children were deserted, and in their hunger they turned into frogs. The women simply disappeared. This left the men without women. But, they did find some sexless creatures roaming around and eventually captured them. (Actually they used people with a disease like mange since they had rough hands and could hold on to these elusive creatures.) However, they tied these creatures up and put woodpeckers on them. The birds, thinking these were trees started pecking on them and carved out the sex organs of women, thus re-establishing the possibility of survival.

A different myth simply tells that once there were no women. Man brought woman from an island where there were only women.

The origin of the oceans was in a huge flood which occurred when a father murdered his son (who was about to murder the father), and then put his bones in a calabash. The bones turned to fish and then the gourd broke and all the water of the world flowed from the broken gourd.


There is a great debate as to just how many Arawak/Taino inhabited Hispaniola when Columbus landed in 1492. Some of the early Spanish historian/observers claimed there were as many as 3,000,000 to 4,000,000. These numbers seem to be based on very little reliable evidence and are thought to be gross exaggerations. However, since nothing like a census was done, the methods for estimating the numbers are extremely shaky, whether by these early historians or later critics.

One long technical article on the population comes in the with the low estimate of 100,000. Several other modern scholars seem to lean more forcefully in the area of 300,000 to 400,000. Whatever the number, what happened to them is extremely tragic. They were not immune to European diseases, especially smallpox, and the Spanish worked them unmercifully in the mines and fields. By 1507 the Spanish were settled and able to do a more reliable job of counting the Arawak/Tainos. It is generally agreed that by 1507 their numbers had shrunk to 60,000. By 1531 the number was down to 600. Today there are no easily discerned traces of the Arawak/Tanio at all [Publisher's note: This is not at all certain, and evidence to the contrary is offered by the web page of the Taino Inter-Tribal Council.] except for some of the archaeological remains that have been found. Not only on Hispaniola, but also across the Windward Passage in Cuba, complete genocide was practiced on these natives.

Disease was a major cause of their demise. However, on Columbus' 2nd voyage he began to require a tribute from the Arawak/Tainos. They were expected to yield a certain quantity of gold per capita. Failing that each adult of 14 was required to submit 25lbs. of cotton. For those who could not produce the cotton either, there was a service requirement for them to work for the Spanish. This set the stage for a system of assigning the Arawak/Taino to Spanish settlers as effective slave labor. This system contributed significantly to their genocide.

In Sidney Lintz's interesting introduction to James Leyburn's THE HAITIANS, he argues that not only did the Indians die out, but nearly all cultural traces did too. He says this is a very unusual phenomenon. Haiti's culture is almost entirely African and European. There are some anthropologists who believe that some Voodoo rites, and especially the Petwo Voodoo rites, might have their origins in Arawak/Taino religion, but this is speculative.

Regardless, it does seem that the Arawak/Tainos disappeared without a trace. Michel Laguerre does caution that despite the early date of the demise of the Arawak/Taino, numbers of them did last long enough to have worked alongside the African slaves who were being brought to Haiti in increasing numbers. Laguerre suggests that there would probably have been some inter-mating and thus it is highly unlikely that Indian blood completely died out in Haiti, even though their cultural heritage did disappear without a trace.


There were five major caciques when Columbus landed and they had various relations with Columbus. These caciques, their provinces and relations with the Spanish were:

  1. cacique Guacanagaric
    The province of Marien (Bainoa)

    This province was on the north east coast + interior, in the area of the bay of Samana in the Dominican Republic.

    He wanted Columbus to protect him from the marauding Caribs who often came into this area, and he became a friendly advisor to Columbus and a lifelong friend of the Spanish invaders. His own village was about 2 miles SE of Cap Haitien.

  2. cacique Caonabo
    The province of Ciguayos (Cayabo or Maguana)

    After the Spanish settlers at La Navidad perpetrated many horrors on local natives, Caonabo led a band which crossed into the province of Maden and killed all the sailors.

    Caonabo then became the rallying point for resistance to the Spanish. Under a pretext of making peace, Columbus lured Caonabo into a trap. The Spaniard Ojeda gave Caonabo a gift of polished iron chains and handcuffs. Mistaking them for ornaments, Caonabo allowed himself to be chained and taken away. Columbus then sent him off to Spain.

    Caonabo's brother, Manicatoex, then led an uprising. The Spanish, with their superior firepower crushed the natives and the defeated Arawak/Taino were forced to agree to pay tribute to the Spanish.

    There seems to be some unclarity among scholars about these natives. Some claim that these Indians were not from the Arawak/Taino group, but some other tribe. lt does seem that an earlier group, the Ciboney, did live in this area. But, it's not clear if at the time of Caonabo these were Arawak/ Taino or not.

  3. cacique Guarionex
    The province of Magua (Huhabo)

    This was a densely populated area. This was good inland agricultural land. In 1494 Guarionex was made to submit, then was imprisoned. The Spanish raped his wife in front of him, then executed him. They suspected him of being involved in the attack which Caonabo led on La Navidad.

    A brief digression on La Navidad. Columbus landed at Mole St. Nicholas on Dec. 6, 1492, his second land fall in the New World. On Dec. 24, 1492 he was sailing away and on Christmas Eve the Santa Maria ran aground and sank off the north coast of Haiti, just near Cap Haitien. The Pinta was lost and the Nina could not accommodate all the sailors. Thus Columbus, with the help of Arawak/Taino, salvaged a good deal of the Santa Maria and built a small fort called La Navidad (The Nativity) and left a group of sailors there.)

    On his return on the second voyage all the sailors were discovered to have been killed. It seems that they began to violate native women and property and the natives rose up against them.

  4. cacique Behechio
    The province of Xaragua

    This was in the southwest peninsula. They grew lots of cotton here and also in the cul de sac, north of where Port-au-Prince lies today.

    Behechio's sister was Anacaona, widow of Caonabo. After the Spanish killed Caonabo and Behechio, she succeeded her husband in Xaragua and was much loved by her people. However, the Spanish were threatened by this popularity and the power that went with it. Ovando, a successor to Columbus, went to her village under the pretext of collecting the Spanish tribute. Despite Anacaona's instructions to the people to be fully cooperative and hospitable, and despite her own friendly welcome, the Spanish began a slaughter, burned the village and took Anacaona prisoner. She was hanged at Santo Domingo.

  5. cacique Cotubanama or Cayacoa
    The province of Higuey (Caizcimu)

    There were rumors of there being gold in Higuey. De Las Casas reported that infinite was the number of people l saw burned alive in order that the people tell where the nonexistent gold was. (I'll do a separate piece on De Las Casas, a most interesting fellow.)

    After the death of Anacaona, Cotubanama too was considered dangerous. The Spanish attacked his province, captured him and hung him in Santo Domingo.