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Amerindians In Dominican Republic

The Taínos' ancestors began settling on this island as early as 6,000 to 4,000 B.C.-8,000 years ago!--arriving in canoes from today's Yucatan and Belize in Central America, going first east to Cuba, then southeast to Hispaniola, which Native peoples called Quisqueya, Haití, or Bohío. Later groups arrived from northern South America, primarily from the Orinoco and Amazon River valleys and the Caribbean coast of today's Venezuela, canoeing northwestward from Trinidad and Tobago, one by one up the chain of islands to Puerto Rico and Hispaniola.

There were at least four different "waves" of Native peoples who came here, all of whom eventually merged to become Taíno, which is what we call the Natives who were living here when the Spaniards arrived in 1492, though they used to be called Island Arawak because their language is based on Arawakan from South America. The Taíno sent out colonies to Jamaica, eastern Cuba, and today's Bahamas. We know more about the Taínos' culture than about their ancestors' culture, but the Taínos' spiritual ideas obviously developed from those of their early ancestors-a blend of ideas from several regions of the Americas.

Caves played an important role in their spiritual beliefs and customs, in part, perhaps, because this island has so very many caves. The Taínos' origin myth is centered around a cave that was right here on the island of Hispaniola. They say that the ancestor spirits lived in this cave, coming out only at night to eat jobos, a small plum-like fruit. One night the jobos must have tasted especially good, for some ancestor spirits were still outside the cave eating them when the sun came up and turned them into human beings.

Did the Taíno really believe that there were no people on earth until this happened? I don't think so. Myths like this are teaching stories. This one appears to have been told in order to keep the people safely in their homes at night, except for special nights when their cacique (chief) said it was OK to go out and hunt hutías, a small nocturnal mammal.

The Taíno weren't really afraid of the dark, but they taught their children that the nights belonged to the opia, ancestor spirits, who walked about trying to charm any young women who were outside instead of safe at home with their families. (Opia acted and looked just like human men except that they had no belly buttons.) [Photo: The "Between Two Worlds" photo representing how caves were considered to be doorways, portals, between the physical world and the spirit world, was taken by my friend Nick Higgins]

Although the Taíno were a Stone-Age people, even their earliest ancestors were already advanced to the stage that they did not live in caves. (They are called Stone-Age because they did not know how to smelt metal of any kind, so all their tools were made of stone, bone, and wood-they did, however, make beautiful adornments that they covered with gold "foil," gold that they pounded flat and attached with a natural glue.) The Taíno were agriculturalists. They planted fertile gardens called conucos. Their principle crops were yucca, corn, beans, squash, peanuts, and peppers--and they had advanced methods of irrigation.

They also gathered fruit that grew abundantly in the forests, had fish farms in the rivers and incredible techniques for catching large ocean fish and reptiles, water birds, and the island's only mammals, the hutia and a similar rodent called a soledonon. The Taíno built large, comfortable, round homes of woven straw called bohíos, with palm-thatched roofs to keep out the rain and heat. Inside they decorated the walls with what the Spaniards called "tapestries," woven out of colorful fibers that they collected, and they wove cotton hamacas to sleep on, attached to the bohío's central pole and support poles along the walls.

They lit small fires inside their bohíos at night, whose smoke kept mosquitoes away. The caciques and their families lived in larger, rectangular homes called caneyes, which also housed the statues representing the cacique's spiritual guides, his zemies, who protected the yucayeke (town) and helped the cacique make good decisions for the welfare of all his people. (The Taíno didn't worship the statues of the zemies, just like Christians don't worship the cross; they worshipped what the zemies stood for.)

The caneyes had roofed porches where the cacique and other wise men of the yucayeke could sit in comfort, shaded by the sun during the day. The caney's porch faced the batey, a central plaza where special events like their ballgame (also called a batey) or their areitos, community-wide song and dance festivals, took place. The Taíno only used caves as shelters in times of emergency, like during hurricanes, or to escape from Spanish military patrols--but mostly they used caves for religious or spiritual purposes.