Powered by ProofFactor - Social Proof Notifications

The impact of European colonization on the Taino people

Dec 30, 2022 | 0 comments

Dec 30, 2022 | Essays | 0 comments

Taino, a subgroup of the Arawakan Indians, are the native inhabitants of the Caribbean who were the first people in the New World to be encountered by the Europeans. They have settled in today known as Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. They had a flourishing civilization with a deep-rooted culture, not forgetting their deep spiritual beliefs mainly centered on Zemis, Atabey, and Yucah. As such, this section paper will talk about who the Taino people were in more detail and give an overview of their origin. I will then introduce the topics I will further discuss in my paper: Taino’s History, which is their migration and settlement; their cultural activities and religious practices; and how they finally depopulated.
There has existed, and still exists, confusion regarding the history of the Taino people. They have been called the Arawak Indians by many. At the time of European contact, along with one more group in the Caribbean, the Taino were the largest occupants of the Northern and Greater Antilles Islands. The Island Caribs were the other group who mostly lived in the Eastern Caribbean and the Lesser Antilles Islands (Hopper, 2008). Despite some evidence tying the Taino to raiding, they were considered more peaceful and docile than their warlike counterparts, the Carib Indians. Because of the territorial conflicts between the two groups, the Taino, being the weaker ones, had lost to the Caribs a significant part of their region in the northern parts of the smaller Antilles (Palmié, 2013). The Taino were a matrilineal society that lived a peaceful semi-sedentary lifestyle, mainly practicing farming. They were skilled seafarers and had wide-ranging trade systems. After the European entry, the Taino began experiencing diseases, slavery, and European conquest, leading to their virtual extinction.


Though the Taino were the latest addition to the Caribbean Islands, it is imperative to know the migrations into the Island before that. According to Abdur-Rahman (2014), two migratory waves can be accounted for about the migration into the Caribbean Islands. The foremost wave is said to have occurred as early as 4000-5000 BC from the Yucatan Peninsula of Middle America. It is also said that the Caribbean countercurrent helped the Europeans to get to Cuba and continued eastward into Hispaniola. According to Schwantes (2011), the second wave happened around 2500 BC and went through the coastal areas of Venezuela and *Guiana to inhabit the West Indies. On approaching the mid-seventh century Abdur-Rahman (2014), notes that the Taino people had migrated through the Greater Antilles and had developed large and permanent communities. Schwantes (2011) further notes that the second migration wave led to the emergence of the Taino people in the Greater Antilles Islands around AD 200.
On entering the Bahamian Archipelago around 800 AD, the Taino began to increase in population to effectively gain access to productive resources. They were originally seafarers and later became land travelers. Initially, they settled along the coastlines, enabling them to be more sea-focused than the land (Hopper, 2008). They slowly moved into the interior to settle in other areas as time passed. Evidence of this can be drawn from Puerto Rico, where small coastlines were settlement areas, but only for a small number of people. As the population increased, it became impossible for everybody to stay there; hence they moved to the interiors. According to Palmié (2013), the Taino chose which Islands to settle in and paired their communities for subsistence reasons and social organization. The Taino also colonized nearby Islands to maintain systems of matrilineal kinship and marriage (Hopper, 2008). They were keen on choosing their settlement places to maximize access to resources and maintain their social organizations.
The Taino lived in two distinct forms of communal living. First is clustering, an assemblage of small houses around another house. The building in the middle was said to be the king’s. The other kind of settlement was the plaza type, where settlements are located around a plaza. Hopper (2008) further notes that the Taino settlements advanced in three major phases as time went by. The first phase comprised randomly distributed settlements, while the second phase saw settlements frequently spaced in pairs. The third phase involved the gathering of settlements and the expansion of plaza societies. The pairing of settlements was said to have been a result of influence from social relations (Sinelli, 2013). They began transitioning to clusters because of increased population, long-distance trade, and inter-Island raids.

Further, the Taino settlements were arranged into a sequence of groupings or chiefdoms. Every village was structured into a district chiefdom headed by one district chief (Oliver, 2009). Taino’s socio-political organizations evolved not only for subsistence and social and organizational reasons but also for the protection of resources due to conflicts among populations.
Involvement in long-distance trade and exchange networks can also be used to explain the Taino settlement patterns. These barter trips involved males from different communities, and these communities had to be nearer Sinelli (2013) states that for these trips to happen, there had to be a high-ranking person organizing and leading them. According to Abdur-Rahman (2014), many Taino villages were large and permanent and could support a population of up to 2000 persons. Each village had single domestic buildings having 20 to 50 buildings, with relatives cohabitating with each other. It is also evidenced that as settlements developed and socio-political manipulation heightened, houses were developed around added plazas, with the chief’s house at the center to connect all the plazas (Oliver, 2009). Both settlement clusters and plaza communities show a heightened political organization among the Taino people. According to Palmié (2013), the plaza communities were hierarchical, where the commoners held no positions in their family tree, while the elites held the highest positions within their family tree.


Taino was a flourishing civilization with a deep-rooted culture. The culture of the Taino people was impressive thing to the observers. They made several developments, including the construction of ceremonial ballparks, the development of a universal language, and the adoption of a complex religious cosmology. A hierarchy of deities living in the sky had a different significance. One of their gods was known as You. He was considered to be the sole creator (Hopper, 2008). They also offered sacrifices in the form of cassava bread, drinks, and tobacco to their zemis, believing they would protect them from diseases, hurricanes, and disasters.
The division in Taino society was made up of two classes; commoners (laborious) and nobles (nations) (Schwantes, 2011). In charge of these classes were the caciques, chiefs who inherited the position from their mother’s noble bloodline. The nobles’ roles were those of a sub-cacique, supervising the commoners’ work (Abdur-Rahman, 2014). The caciques were the village’s chiefs, either male or female.
The Tainos were a self-sufficient community that had developed their universal language. The Tainos spoke a language called the Maipurean language, which included words like barbacoa (barbecue), (hamaca ), hammock, canoa (canoe), and huracan (hurricane), among others. These are some of the words spoken by the Taino currently used in English.
A plaza was used for different social activities like games and festivals in the middle of any Taino village. The plazas took up different shapes-oval, rectangular, or elongated. The plazas are where people perform ceremonies to celebrate their ancestors (Schwantes, 2011). The rest of the population lived in big rounded houses called the *bohio*, made out of wooden poles, woven straw, and palm leaves. The buildings went around the middle plaza and occupied up to 20 families (Palmié, 2013). They furnished their houses with cotton hammocks, palm-made mats, wooden chairs, and woven seats.
The Taino people also played a traditional game called the* batey*. The game consisted of two rival teams, each with 10 to 30 players, who played batey using a solid rubber ball. Usually, the teams were made up of males, but females were occasionally involved (Loubser, 2010). The game was played in the plaza or on specially made rectangular ball courts known as the Batey. This game was believed to be a way of conflict resolution among conflicting communities.
The Taino society was a matrilineal one. If and when there was no male heir, the eldest child of the dead sister would take over the leadership position. It was common for men to walk naked or wear a breechcloth known as the *nagua *(Ostapkowicz, 2012). On the other hand, unmarried women walked naked while married ones covered their genitals with an apron made of cotton or palm fibers. Both males and females got painted on special occasions; wore earrings, necklaces, and nose rings often made of gold (Palmié, 2013). They practiced minimal crafts; a little pottery, basket weaving, and skillful working of stones, marble, and wood. The Taino men and women sometimes practiced polygamy, while the caciques married as many as 30 wives.
Not only were they good at agriculture and hunting, but the Tainos were also the best at fishing, sailing, canoe-making, and navigation. They mainly planted cassavas, garlic, potatoes, guava, yautias, mamey, and anon ( Sinelli,2013). Their staple foods were vegetables, fruits, meat, and fish. The residing Tainos mainly relied on agriculture in the fairly developed Islands like Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and Hispaniola. They planted corn that they did not grind into flour like other mainland habitats; rather, they ate the corn off the cob (Sinelli, 2013). They grew and harvested a lot of things apart from foodstuff, which was an indication of their continuous advancements as a community. They harvested cotton, hemp, and palm, which they used for fishing nets and ropes. They also made dugout canoes in different sizes that could carry up to 150 people.


Taino religion is among the most documented aspects of their civilization. Their religion followed the shamanic traditions their ancestors from South America brought to them. According to the Taino people, spiritual entities existed in the natural world and cultural items (Abdur-Rahman, 2014). The people of Taino believed in the existence of a god they called zemi, represented by a very significant spiritually charged item known as the zemi.
The Taino people placed great importance on a zemi called the *yukah, *who was the God of fertility and the sea and the spirit of cassava. Of second importance among the *zemis* was *Atabey*, the goddess of fresh water, women’s fertility, and childbirth (Ostapkowicz, 2012). Apart from these two, other zemis varied in influence among the Tainos. Stones, wood, shell cotton, and bones of respected people were among the materials used in making the zemis.
Caves were also a very significant aspect of the Taino spirituality. Different Islands of the Taino people had different practices as far as burial was concerned, but commonly the dead were buried in domestic contexts or placed inside caves (Morton, 2015). This was a different practice from before when the Taino used to bury the dead in secluded areas away from the village. According to Morton (2015), this represented a shift from a classless society to a more hierarchical one.
It is also believed that the caves were the dwelling places for the dead, from which they came out at night as bats to feast on the guava fruits. There are also different creation stories involving the caves. In Hispaniola, it was believed that people came from a mountain cave called the Cacibajagua, which translates to the Cave of Jagua (Schwantes, 2011). Furthermore, different caves in Hispaniola were believed to possess names and certain characteristics, like the Iguanaboina, where the sun and moon were believed to have originated (Morton 2015). According to Oliver (2009), the Tainos of Hispaniola believed the Island to have been a living female beast. In addition, caves among the Taino were sites for distinct types of artwork, such as pictographs and petroglyphs.
The Taino’s spiritual leaders and healers were Shamans referred to as *techniques*. The Shaman handled matters of the spirit world by inhaling cohaba smoke. The cohaba smoke was a way through which the shamans would contact the zemis to identify the causes of illnesses and get a cure (Palmié, 2013). Cohaba’s importance can be evidenced by its integration into several creations of various world elements.
The Taino people also had ceremonial courts where ceremonial dances were held to celebrate events like marriages, religious events, and hosting ball games. The courts were of different sizes, with Puerto Rico ones being elaborate and numerous despite their small sizes. They took the shape of a rectangle with edges surrounded by either earthen embankments or standing stones which were usually decorated with carvings of the zemi (Loubser, 2010). The courts hosted ceremonial dances known as areas involving dancing and singing, which acted out history and usually involved praising the current cacique for his accomplishments.
The Taino had unique dress codes for their ceremonies, including paint and feathers. From the knees down to the toes was covered in shells. As the shaman presented the curved figures of the zemi, the people engaged in drum beating as they induced vomiting by swallowing sticks (Loubser, 2010). This was thought to rid one’s body of impurities. The Taino also believed in an afterlife where people would be rewarded for their good deeds. Evidenced from the numerous stone religious artifacts discovered in Haiti show that the zemi took up strange forms such as snakes, toads, alligators, and distinctly distorted human faces (Schwantes, 2011). The Taino also practiced these worship and cleansing ceremonies as an acknowledgment of the power possessed by the zemis and dead caciques in controlling certain natural occurrences (Schwantes, 2011). As such, it is because of these powers that the Taino people came up with different mythologies to describe the occurrences. For instance, they believed that the sun and the moon originated from the caves, where the caciques were buried.


The Taino people enjoyed living a free and healthy lifestyle until Columbus’ arrival. The people had minimal community disputes before the Spanish arrival, but this did not result in as many killings of people as it was upon Columbus’ arrival (Sinelli, 2013). The Spanish rule led to the Taino people’s depopulation, which resulted from diseases, Slavery, Violence, Genocides, and many other reasons.
It is widely evidenced that the entry of the Spanish into Hispaniola led to a great decline in the Islanders’ population until the Taino Aborigines became completely extinct. Among the reasons for the Taino depopulation was the immense fatigue from the extensive hard forced labor forced upon them by the colonizers. The Taino people were pacifics who practiced less tedious agricultural activities like fishing and gathering; hence doing the heavy work subjected to them proved tedious. Since Columbus was also on a quest for gold in the land, he had more reason to turn more Tainos into enslaved people. Columbus and his people forced Taino men, women, and children to work for many hours under harsh conditions (Palmié, 2013). Columbus would often ask the Tainos to pay him gold tributes, and those who did not comply were either shipped to Europe as enslaved people or forced to work in labor camps. Most of the Taino people were unhappy living in such conditions, so they fled in large numbers abandoning their homes and lands. As the Spanish colonists continued shipping huge amounts of gold to Spain, more people were aware of the gold in Taino land, which led to more European settlers (Palmié, 2013). Consequently, hard and forced labor became intense for the Tainos as they were forced to work long hours in dirty, dark, and unsafe mining grounds. This increased the number of casualties due to injuries with no hope of treatment or medical care.
It was not only slavery that depopulated the Tainos. The Spanish brought with them epidemics like German misles and chicken pox, which attacked the defenseless immune systems of the Taino people (Stoneking, 2009). The diseases introduced to the Tainos and the larger Indian tribes were devastating experiences since they were not immune to fight certain diseases. Their vulnerability to the introduced viruses had an overwhelming effect on the Taino people, and they slowly began succumbing to them, leading to a very high population decrease (Palmié, 2013). Just as Charles V had started abolishing forced labor and settling the affected Tainos, another tragedy struck; smallpox. The disease spread rapidly through vulnerable Taino regions and into other neighboring Islands (Palmié, 2013). The disease-infested animals brought in by the Spanish colonizers were the major cause of the spread of disease in Taino land. They roamed all over the place, feasting on foods and trampling the major food sources for the Tainos. In addition to the diseases introduced by the Spanish, the Taino people had very low chances of survival.
As though that was not enough, in came the Taino genocide of 1492 to 1518. This was when the Spanish had a significant number of the Tainos wiped out. It is estimated that genocide and disease led to the death of 85 percent of the Taino population (Stoneking, 2009). Columbus had noticed that the Taino people mostly wore gold jewelry and had the spear as their most advanced weapon. He, therefore, concluded that with only fifty of his men, they would be able to subdue the Tainos and make them do their bidding (Palmié, 2013). Columbus brought hell to the people living in Taino land. He did not just kill those who disregarded the Spanish rule; he grilled them, cut them into pieces, hunted them down with hunting dogs, strung them up, and burned them alive in groups of 13. According to Columbus, burning them in groups of 13 was meant to signify Jesus and his twelve disciples.
Women, children, and even babies were not spared either. Babies were thrown against rocks and into the rivers as the perpetrators laughed it out. Taino’s body parts were cut off for entertainment, while their heads were chopped off for practice. Women and children were raped and, as a result, carried syphilis back into Europe (Stoneking, 2009). Thousands of Tainos were massacred, including those who were kind enough to bring them food and gifts. After killing a better part of their population, the Spanish gathered the remaining Tainos to teach them the Christian faith. Food was in low supply, and the babies had to die of starvation while the men tiresomely worked in the mines so they could not sire any more children (Stoneking, 2009). Everyone over 13 was required to give gold or cotton to Columbus; if they failed, their hands were cut off. The situation was so intense that mothers started killing their children and many people committed suicide. Others fled to the mountains to fight the Spanish from up there.


The West Indies had a rich and fascinating history. They enjoyed a healthy and peaceful lifestyle. They lived an organized and orderly life under the guidance of their chiefs. Most importantly, they were united under a common religion in which they worshiped their gods known as the zemis. They had a rich culture with chiefdoms centered around a huge population who coexisted in harmony. This was the case until Columbus’s arrival, which led to the depopulation of the Taino people due to his harsh rule, killing and overworking the indigenous Taino people. As a result, most Tainos succumbed to diseases brought in by the Europeans, and most of them were massacred for fighting Spanish rule. It is, therefore, paramount that the few remaining populations of the Tainos have to be recognized.


Abdur-Rahman, R. (2014). Explorers of the Caribbean: the taíno people and their history-an original resource for social studies in upper elementary grades. 12-50
Hopper, R. (2008). Taino Indians: Settlements of the Caribbean. Volume 38, p. 62 -68
Loubser, J. (2010). The Ball-court Petroglyph Boulders at Jacaná, South-central Puerto Rico. *Cambridge Archaeological Journal*, *20*(3), 323-344.
Morton, S. (2015). The Taino use of caves: a review. *Caribb Connect*, *4*.
Oliver, J. R. (2009). *Caciques and cemí idols: the web spun by Taíno rulers between Hispaniola and Puerto Rico*. University of Alabama Press. 82-143
Ostapkowicz, J., & Newsom, L. (2012). “Gods… Adorned with the Embroiderer’s Needle”: The Materials, Making and Meaning of a Taino Cotton Reliquary. *Latin American Antiquity*, *23*(3), 300-326.
Palmié, S., & Scarano, F. A. (Eds.). (2013). *The Caribbean: A history of the region and its peoples*. University of Chicago Press. 21-53
Schwantes, K. (2011). *Caves, Plazas, and Gods: The Impact of Geomorphology on Taino Utilization of Ceremonial Sites*(Doctoral dissertation, University of Wisconsin–La Crosse). P.7-32
Sinelli, P. T. (2013). *Meillacoid and the origins of Classic Taino society* (pp. 221-31). Oxford: Oxford University Press. 222-263
Stoneking, C. (2009). The Decline of the Tainos, 1492-1542: A Re-Vision. 3-22

Rate this post

Need Support in Studies? 📚 – Enjoy 10% OFF on all papers! Use the code "10FALLHELP"