Believed to have originally belonged to an Arawak tribe of Venezuela’s Orinoco Delta, the Taíno became a dispersed people around 400 BC as they embarked on a seafaring journey to the neighboring Caribbean islands of Hispaniola, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the Bahamas.
Settling most famously, owing to Columbus’ later arrival in 1492, on Hispaniola (modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic), the Taíno prided themselves on their well-organized, self-sufficient, and religiously centered society. Equally renowned for their beautiful artwork, naturally-produced medicines, and innovative sporting activities
, the Taíno, unsurprisingly, filled the 15th-century Spanish colonialists with admiration. Their unique culture is still highly regarded today, most prominently in the Dominican Republic, with the conservation of former Taíno tribal villages and the celebration of numerous traditional Taíno festivals.
In the Taíno’s pre-Colombian rural society, hierarchy and religion were inextricably linked
. Divided into two classes known as naborias (commoners) and nitaínos (nobles), the Taíno were governed by a cacique or chief, who, with the help of a bohique, a priest or healer, would lead the village in music and dance orientated religious ceremonies and acted as a mouthpiece between spirits and mortals. As for the ideology of the Taíno religion, the Native Americans believed in multiple deities, all referred to as zemis, and in the existence of an afterlife in which, depending on their virtuous or depraved actions on earth and whether they worshipped the Zemi or not, they would spend an eternity in a paradisiacal heaven or an agonizing hell.
Talented craftsmen and artists, the Taíno’s ingenious inventions
were numerous. From carefully sculpted pottery to exquisitely woven belts to religiously inspired carvings, the Taíno surrounded themselves with their skillful, and usually practical, creations. This flair for practicality was equally transferred to their construction of colossal dugout canoes and palm tree, cone-shaped houses. Known as bohios, the dwellings typically housed up to fifteen families and one hundred Taínos could, therefore, live in a single bohio.
Some historians claim that it is thanks to the Taínos favorite active pastime, batey, which was only possible to play through the Native Americans’ ability to produce expertly made equipment, that ball games
still enjoy such widespread popularity today. With 12 players on each side, the aim of the Taíno game was to score as many goals as possible by transporting the batu, a rubber ball, from one side of the rectangular shaped court to the other using only their feet, thighs, legs or shoulders before using their accurate shooting skills to avoid the defending goalie and to hit the stone backrest or goalpost. Although anthropologists have heatedly debated, with inconclusive results, the continuing existence of the Taíno people in the present-day Caribbean, visitors to these island nations, and especially to the Dominican Republic, certainly cannot deny the enduring presence of Taíno culture.
From artifact-filled museums to beautifully-preserved villages to ancient pictograph-covered caves, the Dominican Republic showcases an indisputably fascinating culture which, despite being subjected to the threats of Spanish colonialism, still forms a vital part of the island’s unique national heritage today.