As our Taíno ancestors practically vanished from our land, their legacy lives on through the objects they left behind —sophisticatedly beautiful artworks made from stone, shell, wood or earthenware.

There are thousands of them to be found in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution; therefore, the Smithsonian Latino Center lead a research project on the indigenous legacy within the Caribbean region, alongside the National Museum of the American Indian, the Museum of Natural History in Santo Domingo and several collaborators located in the American continent and Europe. Jewels of Taíno Art, produced thanks to the support of the Fundación de Culturas Americanas, the Fundación García Arévalo and the Museo Regional Altos de Chavón, provides photo access to a slice of those collections and to the resulting research, giving today’s Antillean dwellers many necessary references to pinpoint the impact of the Taíno world on the history, the economy and the collective imagination of our people. 

THE OBJECTS

Cosmology Frog children

According to the Taíno mythological stories compiled by Fray Ramón Pané in his colonial-era book, Narrative of Indian Antiquities, the female population was lured to the island of Martininó by a chieftain. That’s when the inriri or woodpecker used its beak to sculpt the sexual organs of their new women —and also when the newborn children left behind by the captured turned into frogs, to stop them from crying for their missing mothers.

Los niños rana

Mysticism Man as an animal

These pieces often include animal figures that resemble and act like human beings through representations and designs based on analogies that combine, in a much-stylized manner, their zoomorphic appearance with anthropomorphous aspects. For example, the power of flight is symbolized by birds, while the ability to wander through the underworld is gained by embodying evil and fearsome creatures.

El hombre animal

Folk medicine The behique as a craftsman

Ethnohistorical sources state that ritual objects and the household items that belonged to lords and chieftains were made by experienced craftsmen, especially the behiques or shamans. These men were important figures within the villages, as their knowledge of primitive pharmacopeia allowed them to use magical-medicinal practices to heal the ill and the wounded.

El behique artesano

Attire Worthy of a chieftain

Among the objects used as distinctive symbols by the Taíno chieftains, in addition to good-luck charms and amulets, the most important were the guaníes or pectorals, which were layered with gold leaf to enhance their appearance. Equally notorious were the belts made from braided cotton, embellished with tiny shell beads and precious stones; in the center they usually featured a mask with a particularly spectral expression, made to reference the faces of their ancestors.

Digno de un cacique

Furniture Tropical wood

Our tropical forests provided the Taíno craftsmen with an abundant supply of excellent wood. They used it to produce many devices, from ritual objects to household items. One of the most striking examples of their output is the duho or ceremonial stool, considered one of the most outstanding sculptural representations of aboriginal art worldwide.

La madera tropical

Religious rituals The tools for the cohoba

The behiques would produce the ritual tools for the cohoba ceremony, including inhalers for hallucinogenic substances and vomitive spatulas that would display some suggestive features on their handles or hilts. These Y-shaped inhalers would be made from either wood or from manatee bones, as the ribs of this large aquatic mammal feature the perfect curves for the ritual’s gagging purposes.

Herramientas de la cohoba

Craftsmanship Taíno pottery

Taíno culture produced a large variety and a bountiful number of ceramic containers, with a panoply of shapes and a refined decorative style featuring stripes with incisions and dotted motifs that created sinuous geometric sequences. Other noteworthy elements are their handles, which featured cephalic, anthropomorphic and zoomorphic representations usually molded on each end of the container.

La alfarería taína

Self-awareness Representing oneself

Their ceramic effigy vessels carry a remarkable iconographic value, as they represent mythological characters and animals. They’re modeled throughout with great plastic realism, as is the case of pregnant women with prominent bellies and the emaciated characters with a protruding ribcage and spine, emphasizing the extreme thinness suffered by the behiques when they subjected their bodies to long fasting periods as part of their shamanistic practices.

Peticiones de fertilidad

Agriculture Begging for fertility

The three-point zemís —or tricuspid icons— were linked to rituals pertaining to increased agricultural and human fertility. They are an admirable artistic legacy as a showcase of the dexterity of indigenous sculptors specialized in stone carving. The faces of these protective deities often carried the facial features of the Taíno aboriginals.

Agricultura Peticiones de fertilidad

Leisure Play ball (Taíno-style)

Regarding the intricate monolithic rings and elbow stones linked to their ball game —held in the batey or the village square—, they are an equally valuable showcase of the expertise that Taíno craftsmen reached in their artistic practice.

La pelota taína

Music The soundtrack to an areíto

The Taíno people also produced musical instruments, such as maracas made from single gourds, reed pipes, earthenware whistles, trumpets or horns made from conch shells and large drums made from tree trunks, which were used during their dances or areítos.

La banda sonora del areíto
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THE TEAM

Manuel García Arévalo

Historian, writer and collector

Juan Rodríguez Acosta

Curator and former director of the Museo del Hombre Dominicano

Víctor Siladi

Photographer and art director

Nemanja Branković

Photographer

Massiel Capellán

Graphic designer

Martha Lugo

Editorial director and translator

Josefina Diéguez

Translator