April 9, 2020
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Rise and Fall of Kingdoms of Central America | Taino – Caribbean | Documentary English Subtitles


In October 1492,
on a Caribbean beach, the indigenous people spotted
distant white specks on the horizon. They were Spanish ships, travellers
from another world. Christopher Columbus will forever be
lauded for that famous first voyage. But for centuries,
those who welcomed him to the Americas have been ignored. The people on the beach were
called the Taino. And when Columbus met the Taino,
the Old World met the New. History typically caricatures
that moment as when those from the periphery
met those from the centre, when primitives met progress. But when we understand more
about that first fateful encounter, who will go down in history
as primitive? The violent, gold-hungry Spanish? Or the little-known, but highly-developed culture
they colonised? My name is Jago Cooper. I’m a specialist in the archaeology
of the Americas. In this series I will be exploring
the rise and fall of forgotten civilisations, from the crystal clear seas
of the Caribbean, to the New World’s most
impressive pyramids… ..over the smoking volcanoes of
Costa Rica and deep underground in
the caves of central Mexico. I’ll travel in the footsteps of
these peoples to reveal their secrets, to unearth
the astonishing cultures that flourished amongst some of the most
dramatic landscapes in the world. The story of the peoples
of the Caribbean, whose sophistication allowed them
to share a common culture across hundreds
of islands, who developed belief
systems that were both spiritual and functional, and who welcomed Columbus to the
Americas with fateful consequences. This is one of
the most fascinating stories of all. It’s the story of the Taino. Columbus destroyed as he discovered
and it’s only now, by exploring the archipelago’s
archaeology, that we can solve the riddle. How did a
dynamic culture survive, thrive and bloom in this
string of glistening islands? The islands of the Caribbean
archipelago have long been a magnet for people. But the human story begins
long before tourists and cruise ships,
deep in the ancient past. This chain of islands has had many
names over the centuries. It’s been the West Indies,
the Antilles Archipelago and of course, simply,
the Caribbean. I’m starting on the island
of Hispaniola. The western half is Haiti
and where I am in the east, is now the Dominican Republic. For over 15 years, I’ve been working
here excavating the rich, red soils of the Caribbean. It’s a stunning place,
a mix of European, African, Latino and indigenous influences. But what I’ve discovered is that
it’s always been a place of huge ethnic diversity. The modern, multicultural Caribbean
is unwittingly following in the footsteps of the much earlier,
much neglected Taino culture. When the Spanish Conquistadors
claimed these islands 500 years ago, they left some accounts of
the people they encountered. But the testimony of invaders tends
to justify their actions, and can only be trusted so far. To learn the truth, we must
supplement their stories with the evidence archaeology can
painstakingly uncover. The first traces of the Taino
can be found here in the remote southeast corner of the Dominican
Republic, buried deep in the jungle. Joining our expedition is
Fatima Portorreal, a local anthropologist, who has studied the
art of the indigenous population. This dense rainforest is difficult
to penetrate. Uno, dos, tres. But the thorns and fallen trees that
impede progress have helped preserve this secret site for centuries. Critical to the understanding
of any culture is an understanding of how
they saw their place in the world. And at the heart of a worldview is
a belief about your origins. Gracias. To begin to understand the Taino,
you need to understand where they believed they came from. And significantly, they believed
that they came from the heart of these islands. In order to find out more,
we’ve come to these remote and quite inaccessible
caves, two hours on horseback into the heart of the national
park of the Parque del Este. This is known as the cave
of Jose Maria. Amid the stalactites,
stalagmites, guano and exotic insects are clues to
the Taino belief system. Deep in this huge, natural limestone
chamber, are wall paintings, or pictographs, which remained
hidden for hundreds of years. They show how the Taino
told their own story. Some of the pictographs
are recognisably similar to others found in caves
across the Caribbean. But others are unlike anything
I’ve ever seen before. Stunning. Beautiful. Enigmatic. There are more than 1,200
pictographs in this cave alone, and it’s incredible to think
of the Taino clambering down here barefoot, with naked flames and the
most basic of painting materials. Scientific analysis tells us
that the first people arrived on these islands
around 5,000 BC. And these first people must have
arrived from overseas. But the Taino origin myth, written
on the walls around me, emphasises that the Taino were rooted on these
islands and belonged here. What’s important and why this
cave creation myth is so significant is that
people have been living continuously in these
islands for millennia. This isn’t a developed culture that
migrated into the Caribbean, this is culture that was born
here on these islands. So Taino beliefs helped to create
a sense of belonging and community. But what about their more
tangible traits? What did they wear,
what did they look like? To find out, I’m travelling to
a small private museum to meet with Hayley Mickleburgh, who’s been
studying Taino skeletal remains. I asked Hayley just what I’d see if I came face to face with
an ancient Taino islander. They were generally a lot
smaller than we are so let’s say 1.5m,
1.60, a little bit bigger. And we also know that they were
relatively robust. They were quiet muscular.
We also know from muscle attachments on the bones that people
were very physically active, so we know that they had
a strenuous, active lifestyle. They would have worn less clothes
than we’re used to but they would have been fully dressed in the sense
that they wore body ornamentation. For example, what we have here
is a body stamp. This one’s interesting because it
has two different sides, so there’s
two different images on that. I really like it, it’s nice. And what they would have done is
they would have applied the paint to the body stamp and then applied it
to their body in various locations. But one of the most visually
striking things about the Taino is not their nakedness, their body
paint or their short stature. It’s the startling
shape of their skulls. What we have here is four skulls
of people excavated in Hispaniola. One of the things we can see here,
for example, in this individual, is what’s called cranial
modification, and this is something people did to purposefully
change the shape of their head. What happened was when the child was
very young they would use different pressure points
on the skull using wooden planks or bandages or whatever, and they
would wrap them around the skull for about a year to 18 months until the skull had grown naturally
into this shape and you can see it very nicely
in this person that we have here. One of the traditional views
was that modified skulls belonged to the elite class
but we now know from more recent research that up to 80% of skeletal
populations show different types of cranial modification,
so it’s probably not associated with elite but other
types of expression of identity. So how did these
curious-looking people live? Early in their culture they began
as fisherman and hunter-gatherers. But the first major settlements
date from around 600 AD. The Taino’s ancestors began to give
up their hand-to-mouth existence and built villages. Here they interacted on a daily
basis, beginning to share not only resources,
but ideas, values and customs. From these, the distinctive Taino culture began
to emerge around 900 AD. On the palm-fringed east coast
of the Dominican Republic, my friend and colleague, Alice Samson, has been excavating
a newly discovered site. Welcome to the village.
How’re you doing? This is one of the largest Taino
settlements ever found in the Caribbean. And yet, at first,
there doesn’t seem much to see. Looking at the trees, it’s really
hard to see what was actually here. Pre-Columbian, Caribbean
culture is built with organic materials – wood, leaves,
thatch, that kind of thing – so everything basically degrades and
the only thing that is left behind are the durable artefacts like shell
and pottery and things like that. Where would the houses have been? We’re in one right now. You see
this depression here, this would have possibly been
the centre of a house, about six to ten metres in diameter. Six to ten metres? That’s like…
So we’re now standing on the walls. The walls would have been made
of tropical hardwood poles with a thatched roof, a small
doorway, would have housed a multi-generational family,
maybe six to ten people. People would have slung
their hammocks between the poles in the house, they would have slept
there. They also would have received guests to the house, maybe consulted
their ancestors, carried out healing rituals, that kind of thing. These were multi-functional arenas. These barely perceptible little
habitation mounds are not the sort of spectacular archaeological sites
that tourists flock to. But whilst there’s not much to see
on the surface, Alice’s discoveries are providing evidence of a thriving
community early in Taino culture. Well, this particular place
runs for almost a kilometre along the coast,
and maybe 100 to 200 metres inland, so we call them villages. They were towns. If this was a site in medieval
Europe, this would be a city. Whilst the sheer scale
of the settlement is striking, smaller artefacts now being
unearthed provide more evidence of how advanced the Taino were. All the things you see here are
everyday household items, so we have pieces of pottery,
for example, these two pottery faces would have decorated
maybe a bowl or a household vessel. People in pre-Columbian villages
were very house-proud. Their houses were the arena of
aesthetic elaborations. People had beautiful things in
their houses, beautifully-crafted objects,
they didn’t just save these things for special occasions like burials
or ceremonies. What’s that piece there? This is beautiful. This is a little
adorno, so it’s a decorative handle for a pottery vessel
and it’s in the form of a pelican, so people were depicting
on their household utensils things that they saw in the environment
around them. If you look along the coast here, you’ve got pelicans
flying by every few minutes. And this is the quintessential
pre-Columbian household item. A fragment of a ceramic griddle. A ceramic griddle is the ultimate
pre-Columbian cooking vessel. Recent research
done by colleagues in the Caribbean has shown that they
were used for cooking everything on. Living in settled,
larger groups poses challenges. Most importantly,
how to provide food and sustenance for so many people. According to the Spanish chronicles,
the Taino grew corn, sweet potato and cassava. Cassava is extremely nutritious
and hardy. It can be left in the ground
for three years without spoiling. They used rough coral or
even sharks’ teeth to grind the cassava into
flour and then bake into bread. Now, as then, cassava bread remains
a staple food in the Caribbean. This is one of the Cassava pancakes
fresh off the oven. It’s delicious. It’s like
lightly-fried garlic bread. This one’s been mixed with a
bit of peanut. It’s fantastic. They bring it in,
they grind up the cassava, pile it up in that little tub,
put it down here on top of the oven and then toast it up and sell it
just out in the shop on the road. Lean times were rare. The subtropical forests of these
islands were a rich larder of vegetables,
small animals and fruit. And, of course, the crystal clear
waters of the Caribbean also provided resources that the
indigenous inhabitants exploited. Being an island,
the Taino had aquaculture as well as agriculture and, just as they did on land,
they showed great skill understanding an ability to harness
the best of their environment. They could capture fish and turtles
in their hundreds, preserve and store them for the
future and, just like island peoples all around the world, the seas
were just as important as the lands. Just as the Taino did
hundreds of years ago, free divers in
the Dominican Republic still collect food from the seabed. And, being characteristically
innovative, they didn’t waste the remains. This a conch. It’s an almost totemic
creature here in the Caribbean. Of course, people eat the flesh
within its shell. But the conch itself was always much
more than just a source of food. After extracting the meat,
the Taino dumped the shells in huge shell middens
along the shore. After all, ancient free divers
didn’t want to plunge to the bottom of the ocean only to
pick up empty shells. But they didn’t throw them all away. The conch was a resource that
allowed people to innovate, to create artefacts, to develop
a shared material culture. They used them to make jewellery,
harpoons, axes and even this, this iconic object
of the Caribbean, the conch trumpet. I’ve borrowed this one from
the Museo de Altos de Chavon and I’ll see if it makes a sound. CONCH REVERBERATES The shells, the abundance of food
and medicinal plants, clusters of beach-side villages,
the lack of evidence of violence. It’s a combination that paints
an idyllic picture. It’s seductive to think of this
happy culture, secluded in these island paradises but that implies
that they’re isolated, curtailed, cut off – that noble savage so popular in romantic Victorian
literature. Nothing
could be further from the truth. It’s important to remember that this
is an archipelago, a string of islands. For Taino culture to have
spread across the Caribbean, sea transportation was essential. They had a word for it – canoa. The Taino were a water-borne
people and when you can travel distances
great and small in a canoe, it shifts your boundaries,
expands your horizons. The canoa for Taino society meant
that they scarcely differentiated between land and water. And far from being a barrier,
these rivers, these seas were a gateway, a super highway
connecting the communities together. So interaction could happen
and culture spread, not just between villages,
but between islands. The inhabitants of the larger
islands – now known as Jamaica, Cuba and
Hispaniola – shared common beliefs and practices,
which we broadly call Taino. And far from separating them, the
Caribbean Sea brought them together. We’ve seen where the Taino believed
they came from, how they looked, what they ate
and how they travelled. But what about how they actually
functioned as a society? I’ve come to the
Museo del Hombre in the capital of Santo Domingo to find out. The Spanish chronicles described
the Taino as being egalitarian, all working in the fields, but the reality is
they did have leaders. Each village had their own chief
and that chief was called a cacique. The caciques were village elders,
part leader, part chief, part priest. And they could be male or female. They ran the village, making
the crucial decisions, distributing food, forming political alliances
and organising daily activities. Interestingly, after death, their importance to the community
continued. Because the caciques’
most vital function was spiritual, they weren’t seen as gods
themselves, but it was believed the caciques could commune
with their spirits in a quite extraordinary way. Evidence of how these Taino deities
manifested themselves is found just a short flight away on the
neighbouring island of Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is the furthest east of
the major islands of the Caribbean. It’s home to some of the finest
surviving Taino sites and artefacts. And these artefacts give us a clearer picture
of the Taino hierarchy. The villages were ruled
by chieftains known as caciques and the caciques were
ruled by gods known as cemis. The Taino believed that
the cemis were spirits found in the environment,
that they were supernatural, and that they guided
and advised the Taino people. They could be forces of nature,
cave paintings or almost any material object that the Taino
believed possessed a spirit. But most commonly, they were represented in these
beautifully-carved stone icons. Some of the most spectacular cemis
where found at one of the earliest ceremonial sites
uncovered in Puerto Rico – Tibes. Throughout the Caribbean,
archaeological sites have produced portable little artefacts
like this and larger, immovable artefacts like this. Let me put some water on it so
you can see. Both of these are cemis.
The Taino believed that they were infused with a life force
making them sacred. These cemis connected the physical
and spiritual worlds together. For the Taino, these simple yet
striking objects and motifs were part icon,
part deity. I asked Antonio Curet to
be my guide to the enigmatic cemis, found here at Tibes. This is a traditional cemi
and you can see the concave shape on the bottom,
but traditionally if they have some carving you have
a face on one side, you have the mountain tree or the yucca and
then you have the legs on the back. And the face,
we have the empty eye sockets, and the empty mouth. The chance is
they had encrustations here made of shell, sometimes in other
objects we find gold or it could be other stones so it
might have been different things. Is the cemi the object or is
the cemi the spirit within it? The cemi is both, it’s both.
The object becomes the cemi and the cemi is almost considered
like an individual with its own identity and it’s the spirit
and the rock. The cemis were the spiritual
link between the Taino people, the Taino chiefs and the Taino
deities. They came in many different forms,
some carried around, consulted,
others worshipped in sacred sites. The Taino believed these objects
had supernatural power. But they also served
a practical purpose. Each cemi had particular allegories,
stories and associations that were known
and re-told among the community. And within an oral culture, parables
that are passed down through the generations are a crucial
way of sharing knowledge. Within the Taino these cemis
actually form a really important way of learning
about their environment, learning about their ancestors, learning
about their own society. In a way, it’s a form of education
that can pass through generations. It’s looking back to move
forward, basically. This is true of many
religions around the world. Jesus behave…told us how to
behave. He’s coming from the supernatural and this
happens with many other religions. It is indicating what is the order
that we should be having here is the same as up there. In villages, at ceremonial centres, the stories of the cemis would have
been recounted, from the cacique to the people of the village,
from one generation to the next. It’s a culture of oral history and the stories of the cemis
were critical to the Taino, because they could help them
understand their environment. Each of the cemis had
an associated parable, and that parable could impart advice
and wisdom and in the Caribbean, the spirits
can be very threatening indeed. HURRICANE HOWLS The word “hurricane” is derived
from the Taino word “hurukan”, which described the violent
wrath of the spirits. Every year the Caribbean is battered
by winds of over 100mph. Crops, canoes and villages can be
destroyed in an instant. To this day, insurance companies
class hurricanes as acts of God. But whilst some Taino spirits
unleashed destruction, others gave direction. The stories associated
with the cemis, and passed down through
the generations, taught the people how to survive. They knew to build houses
that could be easily reconstructed and to seek refuge in the caves. The Taino actually had three cemis
associated with the hurricane – Guatauba, Guabancex and Coatrisque. Each of these cemis has
an associated parable, which explains their role in
the process of the hurricane – Guatauba, the swirling winds,
Guabancex, represented here in this pictograph, which is the destructive force
of the hurricane and Coatrisque, which represents
the post-hurricane flooding. Each Taino would have known these
parables and understood the stories
behind them. So when they saw the swirling skies
of Guatauba they would come here and have refuge in the cave
before the destructive winds of Guabancex would
destroy their lands. The cemis provided a way for very
practical knowledge to be passed from one
generation to the next. But for the Taino, of course, this was inextricable
from their religious beliefs. And when they worshipped their gods, they put on equally elaborate
ceremonies. Hola! Hola! Como estas? Muy bien. I’ve come to the Instituto de
Cultura Puertorriquena in San Juan to see an artefact that
was part throne, part seat, and part-time machine. The duho stool. So this is a duho, which is a seat or a stool for the cacique
or chief within the Taino society. The caciques sat on these stools to
commune with their gods. One perspective that is
interesting is it gives you a slight elevation within a group,
which can be linked to a sense of hierarchy,
a sense of power. And also the iconography
is often representative of the idea of a journey between the realm of
the present, the realm of the past and the realm of the future. Helping them on that journey
is this throne. But just sitting on the duho stool
wasn’t enough for the cacique to be transported to
the realm of the ancestors. There was an elaborate ritual that
he or she had to perform each time. The clue to what was involved
is in another artefact. These rather ornate objects were
used to prepare the caciques to meet their cemis. Before sitting down on their duhos,
they would want to purge themselves – that is,
rid their bodies of impurities. They would do this by putting
these sticks down their throats to make themselves vomit. Sitting on their duho stool
and purged of impurities, the Taino caciques were ready to
meet their spirits. And to do this, they took a powerful
hallucinogenic drug. I’ve come to a sacred Taino spot,
where I’m meeting Martin Veguilla. THEY SPEAK SPANISH Martin is a 21st-century cacique, part of a new Taino movement
for Puerto Ricans keen to reconnect with the traditions, beliefs
and culture of their ancestors. The Taino drug that empowered
the spirits to speak was called cohoba. It was made by drying
the seeds from the cohoba tree and crushing them
into a potent snuff-like powder. Over the years, Martin has pieced
together fragments of oral history to recreate this
sacred ceremony. As a cacique, Martin has
experienced cohoba before, and today,
based on his experiences, he and his companions are
re-enacting the rarely-seen ritual. We’re preparing for the cohoba
ceremony here on the banks of the river. These guys are preparing themselves
with body paints. Cohoba is incredibly painful to
snort and extremely potent, so today they are not taking
the drug but basing their reactions on their cacique’s own experiences
and ancestral precedents. The Taino believe that
if you actually take cohoba, you enter the ancestral
realm of the spirit world. RHYTHMIC DRUMBEAT They have this rhythmic music
and it all helps to create this atmosphere on the journey
of the hallucinogenic trance. This helps in that
process of travelling yourself between the different
dimensions. ISOLATED SCREAMS Taking cohoba results in vivid
visions, altered colours and skewed perceptions of time. ISOLATED SCREAMS Hallucinogens are a big
part of indigenous cultures throughout the Americas
and it’s about the ability to transcend time and place, to be able
to travel back to your ancestors and also to your descendants,
to communicate and create a balance and understanding
between the generations. These frenzied, hallucinogenic
rituals took place on a large scale. Each intoxicated celebration saw
hundreds of Taino joining together, convinced that spirits had come
alive and were dancing among them. The Taino party for mighty cemis and mere mortals took place
in the heart of Puerto Rico at the most significant Taino
site in the Caribbean. This site reveals the Taino
as a culture bursting with ideas and energy. A place where people would
gather from all over the island. The centre of the Taino world.
This is Caguana. Rediscovered in 1915, archaeologists
think that this site played a critical role in the Taino world. There are ten plazas, including
a vast central court surrounded by carved
images of the cemis. Shards of pottery found here suggest
it was in continuous use for nearly 500 years
before the Spanish arrived. This was a critical centre of power
that witnessed spectacular ceremonies to unite the people,
the caciques and the cemi gods. I met up with the man who
first taught me Caribbean archaeology, my former
tutor, Jose Olivier, to discuss the mysterious and bizarre ceremonies
that went on here at Caguana. We are lucky that we have enough
information from contact period, that is about 1508,
when the Spanish arrived here, that spaces like these that
we have over in this area, which are the central part
of the site, are described in a detailed way what
sorts of activities took place here. So this is the place…
This whole area is where the chant and dances took place and what’s really interesting
is how strictly controlled was the choreography.
They would follow exactly what the leader of the dance would do,
which means it was an idealised representation of how society should
work – it should work on step. So at Caguana we’re seeing cemis,
we’re seeing caciques, we’re seeing duhos, we’re seeing
the dances. We’re seeing it all come together as part of a big
central ceremony. That’s what it was. It was a major spectacle,
it was also a spiritual experience. It was, in essence,
the biggest party you can imagine. I can see groups of long
lines of people chanting, dancing, I can see all of this iridescent
feathers moving out, with the resplendent necklaces. It must have been quite
a sight to see. Hundreds of
spectacularly-dressed Taino, in a carefully choreographed dance
with their chiefs, would have reinforced a sense
of togetherness and belonging. But the climax of the ceremony was
when the spirits themselves seemed to come alive and left
their stones to dance among them. I think that these icons that
you see here, were not just merely
decorations for the festival but they’re actually in many ways
participants in this festival. They used the hallucinogenic
drug known as cohoba and that already creates,
animates the images – so these images you can imagine
they begin to get vitality, move around in your eyes and
so they became, at certain moments, part of the whole festivity
that was taking place here. Vomiting, multiple gods and drug-infused hallucinations
might appear peculiar practices. But these ceremonies forged social
cohesion, community, shared values and interdependency. And the Taino flourished. By the 15th century,
some estimates put the Taino population on Hispaniola
alone at around one million people. And from the Bahamas to the
Virgin Islands, there was a mosaic of peoples and places who all shared
the traits of Taino culture. There were differences
from island to island. SHE SPEAKS SPANISH But what’s amazing is that,
in a society that only had the humble canoe for transport,
there was significant ethnic mix. HE SPEAKS SPANISH And we know this thanks to modern
archaeological techniques. Strontium isotope analysis is
basically just looking at the chemical signature
of our bones. These strontium isotope analyses can
tell where we are as children by the chemical signature
of our teeth and it can tell where we are as
adults and where we are when we die by the chemical signature
of some of our long bones. So we can start to reconstruct
exactly where people are born, where they live and where they die. And what is unique about the
Caribbean is just the sheer scale of interaction and movement
of people throughout these islands. What this tells me is that the Taino are a multiethnic
society, that people are coming from all over the region and mixing
their communities together. Caribbean archaeology
constantly surprises. The numerous communities across
the archipelago were united by many of the same beliefs
and ceremonial practices. Yet there were also significant
differences. But the constant movement of people was like a cultural
cross-fertilisation that gave these islands a rich,
multiethnic character. You have to see them as connected
communities, intermingling and enriching one another. For thousands of years,
the people of these islands were interacting, intermarrying
and trading. And all of the archaeological
evidence suggests that far from being isolated, these islands were full of diverse and multiethnic communities
for millennia. The 15th century saw the high point but also the final days
of the cosmopolitan Taino. Despite being marginalised by the
history books, the Taino have left a legacy in the Caribbean, a part of
the world known for its diversity. WAVE CRASHES On the south coast of Puerto Rico, in a sea cave surrounded
by an eclectic array of petroglyphs, I met with my compadre
and fellow archaeologist, Reniel Rodriguez Ramos, to celebrate
the importance of the Taino. But I began by asking whether a culture shaped across
differing islands meant that they could all be
categorised as Taino? For me, this notion of Taino
as a society, as a single entity, is not necessarily appropriate.
I think that the essence of what I call Taino-ness, is a context
of different peoples engaging with one another while
retaining their differences. That’s something that we in
the modern society tend to forget and so that perhaps serves
as an example of how in a multicultural setting we can still find ways to
communicate with one another, to cooperate with one another in order to be successful
as a collective. The Taino people – or perhaps that
should be peoples – spoke different languages
throughout the islands. But remarkably, and significantly, when they encountered one another,
they spoke a common tongue. People talked a single language.
It’s the language they talked to outsiders – the Arawak –
and that’s why when they write, they think everyone
spoke Arawak in the Caribbean, no? It’s the language that you speak to
outsiders, much like English is being used today to engage
with people from other areas. That’s why I think that this
indigenous cultural scape served as a substratum for the Caribbean that
we see at this point in time. Reniel is a brilliant archaeologist
and just as importantly, a proud Puerto Rican. And throughout the Caribbean
the story of the Taino is growing in significance. WAVE CRASHES Why do you want to study the Taino
and what have you’ve really got out of the experience
of studying this culture? Well, the way I engage with
this indigenous past… ..is in the sense that I’m trying to
trace back my own history. And so I think that, in a way,
that allows me to provide historical roots to the
people of Puerto Rico that go back deep in time. Right
now in Puerto Rico we are told that we only have 500 years
of history and that’s not true. All that indigenous past is
part of our history. It’s not written in the same way as Europeans
wrote it but it’s actually portrayed in the rock art, in the artefacts
that we study as archaeologists. In October 1492, three Spanish ships
appeared over the horizon. The Taino people, the Caribbean, the Americas were on the verge
of traumatic change. History didn’t begin with
the arrival of Christopher Columbus. But when he walked ashore, nothing
would ever be the same again. Columbus arrived in the New World and decreed that this island should
be called Hispaniola, meaning “Land of the Spanish”. First contact
Between the Old World and the New. It’s an era-defining moment,
the repercussions of which are still reverberating down through
the centuries. By the Spaniards’ own accounts,
the Taino people received the Europeans with generosity
and kindness. Indeed Columbus himself wrote,
“They were very friendly to us “and became wonderfully
attached to us.” More ominously he noted,
“They should be good servants.” Christopher Columbus’s name has been
translated by some as “Christ-bearing Coloniser”. Perhaps it should be no surprise
he wanted to claim gold for Spain, and to leave a Christian God
for the indigenous peoples. He founded the first ever
European settlement in the Americas, La Isabella,
on the north coast of Hispaniola. Just inland, an exciting project is
excavating indigenous sites along Columbus’s route. I spoke to archaeologist
Corine Hoffman about the collision between Europe
and the so-called New World. This is the first region of
the encounters of the Americas and nothing is known about
this region, nothing is known about its people, therefore
it’s really, really important. The encounter is always
seen as this moment of disease, of slavery, of rapid depopulation.
Do you think that message is true? That message is partly true. I think that the encounter had a dramatic impact on the indigenous
populations of the Americas – decimation of language, of culture,
of people, of identities. The Taino initially welcomed
the tall, strange white men. But the relationship
between the islanders and the Spanish quickly turned sour. The Spanish had swords, horses,
ferocious dogs, all of which they used
against the unprepared islanders. Columbus and his followers showed no
mercy for the culture they encountered. To this day there are still statues
in the Puerto Rican capital, which credit the invading Spanish
with populating the island. Perhaps this is due to the
chronicles they left behind about their
conquest, which painted the invaders as patriotic Christian
heroes with noble motives. What do you think
the Spanish used to justify their domination of these
islands? When they came across the first
Taino village, what did they see and how did they use what they saw to
justify what they were going to do? Well, I guess that the most
important thing is they were explaining to the
Spanish court that they were encountering savages, cannibals,
wild people, useless people and that was their legitimation.
They asked for legitimation to be able to continue their colonisation
of the Caribbean and later of the Americas. The only thing that the Spanish
wanted, of course, was gold because that was their prime search
here and they couldn’t find it. Changing our understanding of that
indigenous perspective can really play into modern day education of
communities here. Absolutely. The strange thing is
that even if you would ask people in this region
about their knowledge about the pre-Columbian period,
they would say, “For us, history begins in 1492.” The history that is still
taught in schools in the Dominican Republic but all over
the Caribbean is still about the savage Indians and that is an
image we have to deconstruct. For 60 years following contact, the Spanish attacked
then subjugated the Taino. Important caciques were drowned,
hanged or burned at the stake. Cemis were destroyed
in the name of Christianity. The chronicles tell us horror stories of a female chief
known as Anacoaona, forced to witness 80 of her fellow
caciques being burned alive. It was decreed that any Taino who
refused to convert to Christianity was to be enslaved. By 1504,
just 12 years after first contact, all the caciques who had originally
welcomed Columbus were dead. It was a barbaric pattern that would
be repeated across the Americas. It’s a horrific story, and it’s arguable if these islands
ever fully recovered. The Taino were killed,
forced to work in gold mines, died of disease,
subjugated into slavery. The Taino and their entire way of
life was on the edge of extinction. For many years, historians assumed
that the Taino had disappeared, that they had died within
a century of the Spaniards’ arrival. But just as the Europeans didn’t
discover the Taino culture, nor should they declare it extinct. 500 years after their presumed
demise, interest in the Taino has
never been greater. In 2003 a genetic
survey of the people of Puerto Rico revealed that 61% of the population
showed traces of indigenous DNA. In other words,
remnants of Taino DNA. And in recent years, on sacred
days of the Taino calendar, the people of these islands have
been rediscovering their historic roots and taking
pride in their indigenous identity. I am proud to be a Taino.
Soy Taino. We’re Taino. Soy Taino. I am from New York and I am Taino. Soy Taino. RHYTHMIC DRUMBEAT There’s something incredibly moving
about seeing people reconnecting with the ancient
traditions of their ancestors. RHYTHMIC DRUMBEAT And in many ways, pre-Columbian Caribbean history is
still up for grabs. By re-enacting ancient Taino
ceremonies, these modern Puerto Ricans are at last beginning
to take pride in their own story, and retelling it in their own way. THEY CHEER AND PLAY INSTRUMENTS CONCH REVERBERATES THEY CHEER George Orwell said that the most
effective way to destroy a people is to deny and obliterate their own
understanding of their history. For too long, the story of the Taino
has been told through Western eyes, as if it wasn’t valid unless it was observed by people
of European descent. But with the resurgence of interest
in the Taino culture and appreciation
of the sustainable way in which they managed their
resources, an understanding that ideas, goods, genetics have been mixing
here for thousands of years. It enriches everyone on these
islands and serves as a cautionary tale about just how fragile an idyllic
island life can be.

Jean Kelley

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