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Taino Lifestyle Essay

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. The cacique’s function was to keep the welfare of the village by assigning daily work and making sure everyone got an equal share. The relatives of the caciques lived together in large houses in the center of the village. These houses reflect the warmth of the climate and simply used mud, straw and palm leaves. The houses did not contain much furniture. People slept in cotton hammocks or simply on mats of banana leaves. The general population lived in large circular buildings called bohios, constructed with wooden poles, woven straw, and palm leaves.

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 Taino had a developed system of agriculture which was environmentally friendly and almost maintenance free. They raised their crops in a conuco, a large mound which was devised especially for farming. They packed the conuco with leaves which improved drainage and protected it from soil erosion. One of the primary crops cultivated by the Taino was cassava or yuca, which they ate as a flat bread. They also grew corn, squash, beans, peppers, sweet potatoes, yams, peanuts as well as tobacco.

(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:

Religious worship and obeisance to the zemi themselves

Dancing in the village court during special festivals of thanksgiving or petition Medicine men, or priests, consulting the zemi for advice and healing. This was done in public ceremonies with song and dance People had special dress for the ceremonies which included paint and feathers. From their knees on down they would be covered in shells. The shaman (medicine man or priests) presented the carved figures of the zemi. The cacique sat on wooden stool, a place of honor. (There are many surviving stone carvings of the cacique on his stool.) There was a ceremonial beating of drums. People induced vomiting with a swallowing stick.

This was to purge the body of impurities, both a literal physical purging and a symbolic spiritual purging. This ceremonial purging and other rites were a symbolic changing before zemi. Women served bread (a communion rite), first to zemi, then to the cacique followed by the other people. The sacred bread was a powerful protector. (The interesting similarities between this ritual and the Christian practice of eucharist is obvious!) Finally came an oral history lesson — the singing of the village epic in honor of the cacique and his ancestors. As the poet recited he was accompanied by a maraca, a piece of hardwood which was beaten with pebbles.

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.

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 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.

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