Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Yamaye Taino ("Arawak") of Jamaica revisited

The "Arawak". Were they Jamaican?
  © by Michael Auld,Jamaican-born writer/artist
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Above: Etching of the image of the Taíno ("Arawak"), one of the peoples indigenous to the Caribbean, along with the scientific term for the group. It is obvious that the artist never saw a Taíno woman since her body type, facial features and hair style are not Amerindian. She wears a nagua, a clothing article worn by married women. She holds a bow and arrow, weapons that an Island Carib woman used with deadly force against one of Columbus' longboat-men chasing a canoe off the coast of St. Croix in 1493. She holds a macaw-like parrot, probably the kind endemic to the Caribbean, now extinct. The last red macaw in the wild was shot, for its feathers and meat, in Cuba in 1864. Jamaica's Yamaye Taíno were known as excellent bowmen.

Above: Watercolor painting by Jacques Barraband (1800 approx) of an actual Cuban macaw. It was the smallest of the macaw family. This bird represents the last remaining example of a Caribbean macaw. They were captured for display in Europe and only a few of their skins remain today.

Above: Illustration of a Taíno ballplayer wearing a carved stone belt, according to one researcher, used to change the body's center of gravity, making the player more agile. Puerto Rico has a number of excellent examples of these belts that were ornately carved from one piece of rock. Here, the player hits the heavy, solid rubber ball with his hip. Underneath the player are images of balls that bounce (originally with the aid of rubber) used in a number of contemporary games whose roots are in the Mesoamerican team sport invented by the Olmec civilization of Mexico's Yucatan. This illustration by Michael Auld was taken from one done in Madrid, Spain in the 1500s and reported by an ambassador to the Spanish Court. The game and rubber ball spread around the world in the guise of (L-R) volleyball, soccer, basketball, American football and tennis.

Yamaye was a recorded name, at the time of Cristóbal Colón (Columbus), for the island of Jamaica. Frey Bartolomé de las Casas estimated that there were approximately six million Taino in the northern area of the Caribbean at the arrival of Columbus in the Americas in 1492. Generally, the islanders within the large Taino ethnic collective of Caribbean Amerindians called themselves by the names for their islands. They were, Yucayas or Lucayas (Bahamas), Caobana (Cuba), Kiskeya or Aytí (the island of Hispaniola shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Boriken (Puerto Rico) and Yamaye (Jamaica).

There were earlier, pre-Taino inhabitants of
the Caribbean who may have come from Belize, the Yucatan, and Florida starting over 6,000 years ago. They were the true human discoverers since they may have come into a pristine area of their Western Hemisphere that the 15th century Spanish thought was the biblical Paradise. (Some Europeans also thought that the Caribbean was the fabled Greek "Atlantis", thus, the "Antilles"). This "D" shaped area contained a vast sea and hundreds of islands and small "cayos",  a Taino word from which "cay" and " key" were derived. The agriculturalist ancestors of the Taíno began to arrive at around the time of the birth of Jesus the Christ, mainly from South America.

The British term "Arawak" for the Yamaye Taino people of Jamaica, has been incorrect and is still mistakenly used by some Jamaicans and writers 50 years after the island's independence, however, less frequently now. The Taino spoke a distinctly different Arawakan language of which the other major Caribbean branch, Cariban, is also a member. Technically, Arawaks are the neighbors of the Mainland Carib in northern South America. They are as distinctive on that continent as the Island Carib or Calinago of the Eastern Caribbean island of Dominica. The Island Carib are also different from their Carib relatives in the Guianas and Venezuela, especially since they intermarried with the earlier occupants of their islands, the Ortoiroid people. Although they have descendants in other islands, the Island Carib is the only indigenous group in the Caribbean to have a reservation, the Carib Territory, that elects chiefs and council members every four years.

Puerto Ricans, Dominicans (D.R.) and Cubans, for example, have continued to use the name Taino for their ancestors because Spanish speakers in the Caribbean acknowledged continued contact with that extensive, sophisticated and complex Precolumbian Caribbean society. Many of them exhibit strong Taino features and claim descent from their indigenous people. The Taino told the European intruders who they were. In 1493, they told Columbus that they were "Taino", meaning the "Good" or "Noble" people, differentiating themselves from their captors on St. Croix, the Canib or Carib (Strong Man), a warrior society dominated by men. The Taino, like some West African societies, were matrilineal, so, when Spanish or Africans intermarried with them, their children learned Taino cultural retentions from their mother's knees. This may be one of the reasons why we have incorporated many Taino gifts into Caribbean contemporary cultures. On land, they were the major work force and woodsmen with intimate knowledge of their territories. Intermarriage with the Taíno was encouraged by Spain, while Englishmen preferred to marry their own women and continued to have children with the women of the subjugated.

There are many Jamaican genetic descendants of the Yamaye Taino. Other additions to the Taino gene pool in Jamaica, survive in families who came to the island as Cuban and Haitian immigrants. So, Taino genetic retentions are more abundant than one may suspect. One example is of a prominent Jamaica-Welch athlete/sports caster whose DNA results, in a BBC survey, indicated 6% Taino ancestry. During Spanish occupation, the island was a destination point or refuge for many of the world's people, some fleeing the Inquisition. Typically, this influx included Mores and other Africans, Sephardi Jews, Celts, Portuguese and others. After the English capture of Jamaica in 1655 other Amerindians came to the island, although not in large numbers. For example, Miskito Indians of Nicaragua/Honduras were used by the British to track down Maroons. According to one source, Native Americans "from the Carolinas were sold into slavery by the English to plantations in the Caribbean". This was in addition to the deportation of the Pequot prisoners of war to Bermuda after their war in Connecticut/New England .

There are many Taino retentions on which Jamaica was built, from which the island continue to profit. Many of what one calls "Jamaican" foods, fruits, spices, medicines, etc., etc., are Amerindian in origin. Maroons still weave Taino hammocks from the bark of the medicinal Yamaye trumpet tree, jerk pork on a Taino barbecoa with Yamaye spices (pimento and Scotch bonnet peppers) while fishermen carve Taino canoas (canoes) out of that culture's sacred ceiba tree we call "cottonwood".  Even this giant tree, also sacred to the Maya,  has the same spiritual connotations with beings seen by Jamaicans as "duppies", probably from the Taino word, "opia", a spirit of the dead. Jamaican bush medicines are mostly made from endemic plants that the Yamaye introduced to the Spanish and their African or mulatto (i.e. European-Yamaye or European-African mixed) runaways. This escapee trend began with the indigenous Yamaye Taino who fled to the mountains to avoid Spanish work camps/ranches to become cimarrones, later called Maroons by the English. These independent groups, the Eastern and Western Maroons, survive in Jamaica on a smaller scale than they did in early Spanish and English-Jamaican histories. Maroon groups were increasingly made up of a variety of ethnic Africans with similar concepts of resistance.

Akan-speakers from Ghana, West Africa made a more dominant impact on African retentions in that group. So, it was also among the larger multi-African Jamaican society where the Akan folk hero, Anansi the spider-man dominated the island's folkloric tradition. One explanation for the Jamaican accent, linguists say, is "English spoken with Twi (Akan) intonation and not British English."

It took many years for the indigenous populations of the Americas to become the minority and in some areas they remained the majority. At least, their gene pool expanded to incorporate other ethnicities. There were just not that many arriving foreigners to match the teeming millions of indigenous Amerindians in a vast Western Hemisphere. Not every Amerindian or their cultural traits "died out" or became extinct. As it is with all epidemics, survivors become stronger. The re-population of North America with its growing numbers of "Hispanics" is proof that the indigenous Amerindian gene is rapidly multiplying in that part of the continent. Most of the people who illegally cross America's southern border have decidedly Amerindian genes. Chicanos are often proud of this genetic/cultural heritage. Salvadorians, Nicaraguans and South Americans make up the bulk of legal immigrants in some major eastern cities and suburbs.

Europeans, Africans and other Asians (the Taíno are an Asiatic people like the island's Chinese and "East" Indians) all arrived only within a short 500 years ago into a very ancient highly complex and technologically advanced Western Hemisphere. (Read the book "1491:  New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus" to get a better understanding of our hemisphere). Amerindian Empires rose and fell as they interacted via conquest, amalgamation or far flung trade routes. For example, archeologists found an ancient obsidian item in the Eastern Caribbean that was mined in the Mexican mountains. The obsidian, a volcanic glass, used in efficient tool-making or as ceremonial objects, also were used as scalpels for doing successful cranial surgery in Mesoamerica. Some of these surgeries were done to relieve life-threatening pressure sometimes caused by blunt trauma. These operations were yet to be successfully done in Europe hundreds of years later. This surgical tool, the obsidian scalpel, under an electron microscope, is sharper than its steel counterpart. The obsidian piece found in the Caribbean had followed the route of the hemispheric spread of maize (from another Taíno origin word, "maisi" the cereal crop seen by Columbus in the Caribbean in 1492).

Early indigenous Mexicans invented corn/maize from cross-pollinating wild grasses...
Photo of Teosinte, the grass origin of maize/corn.
Photograph of varieties of maize/corn and a corn husk doll with corn-silk hair (by Michael Auld). Native Americans in North America, like some Mesoamericans, have stories about a Maize god or Corn Mother and how the grain was first introduced to them. Early Mexicans created and developed a wide variety, sizes and colors of corn for almost any climate, soil and elevation. This is why the seed must be planted by humans. Today, there is ongoing controversy about "genetically enhanced" corn, an interesting scenario considering that this is how the grain was first created. China is today's larges producer of corn.

According to Britannica on Line, Corn Mother, also called Corn Maiden, mythological figure believed, among indigenous agricultural tribes in North America, to be responsible for the origin of corn (maize). The story of the Corn Mother is related in two main versions with many variations.: "In the first version (the “immolation version”), the Corn Mother is depicted as an old woman who succors a hungry tribe, frequently adopting an orphan as a foster child. She secretly produces grains of corn by rubbing her body. When her secret is discovered, the people, disgusted by her means of producing the food, accuse her of witchcraft. Before being killed—by some accounts with her consent—she gives careful instructions on how to treat her corpse. Corn sprouts from the places over which her body is dragged or, by other accounts, from her corpse or burial site.

In the second version (the “flight version”), she is depicted as a young, beautiful woman who marries a man whose tribe is suffering from hunger. She secretly produces corn, also, in this version, by means that are considered to be disgusting; she is discovered and insulted by her in-laws. Fleeing the tribe, she returns to her divine home; her husband follows her, and she gives him seed corn and detailed instructions for its cultivation."

... while Tropical Amerindians converted the poisonous cyanotic yuca/cassava into cazabe, the mold-resistant bread and the source of the word "cassava". Jamaica's popular bammy bread is reshaped cazabe since the Taino made large tortilla-shaped bread. The Spanish used Yamaye cazabe and their island for the  staging of the invasion of the mainland Americas. This was after they "borrowed" the hammock and used woven Yamaye Taino cotton for sails on their ships. The Yamaye were reputed cotton weavers and bowmen. (See Jamaica's Coat of Arms). Columbus came from a wool-weaving family and Taino craftsmanship did not elude his eyes.

Photograph of three of the Jamaican bammy, a bread made from the bitter cassava/yuca in a bammy presser or mold, next to a pencil for size contrast. The bitter cassava has a higher level of poison in its flesh. The toxic juice that is squeezed out to make meat tenderizing casareep, was once used by the Taíno for suicide when the early Spanish began to destroy their civilization. The sweet cassava/yuca is sold in many stores in the USA and was used, along with sweet potato and a woman's saliva, by the Taíno as a starter to make a fermented alcoholic beverage. The favorite bammy bread is best cooked in a skillet with coconut oil, however, it is sometimes baked to reduce the cholesterol level.  Hot, sliced and with added butter, its flavor is like a sourdough bread. The cassava/yuca/manioc, the source of tapioca, began to be exported by the Portuguese and Spanish around the Eastern Hemisphere's tropical cultures, beginning in the16th century
So, the next time you eat jerk, bammy, festival, anything cornmeal for that matter (porridge/pudding/dumplings/pone/blue drawers, i.e. dukanoo), naseberry, susumber, chaineyroot, makafat, strong back, Irish moss, sour/sweet sop, custard apple, genep, starapple, stinking toe, pumpkin, chocho, corn, cassava, yampie, callaloo, Indian kale, peanut, sweet potato, pepper pot, pineapple, beans/peas, pingwing; or smoke tobacco,  play football (from the Taino rubber ball game called "batey"), bounce a rubber ball, use a latex glove, chew gum (from the sap of the naseberry or "chicle" tree-- the source of a major chewing gum brand) or use a rubber band, just think "Yamaye", "Taino" or "Amerindian". These are but a few of the hundreds of items indigenous to the Americas.

The Taino introduced Europeans to the Olmec civilization of the Yucatan's invention of rubber (made from the vulcanized sap/"blood" of a Tropical American tree), and the world's first team sport, the rubber ball game. In the Americas, the love for soccer, football, tennis, volleyball and especially basket ball has it roots in the ancient Amerindian sport, first seen by Europeans as "batu", played on Taino village "bateys" or clay-paved ball-courts. In the Caribbean, almost every village had one while in Central America huge, ornately carved stone stadia were the norm.

The Maya version of the Mesoamerican ballgame. The stone hoop to the right protrudes high from the left and right walls of a large stadium. The hole in the hoop is slightly larger than the ball that represented, in some cases, the sun's auspicious movement through the sky. In some of these games the winners or losers, possibly the captain of the team, was sacrificed, becoming an honored messenger to the gods. This game, still played in some Mexican villages, may have influenced the American inventor of basketball, a difference being that male players could not touch the ball with the hands. If the ball hit the ground it would be considered "dead" with the point going to the winning team. Hitting the ball through the hoop was more rare and would define the winning team.  Betting was the norm in both the Caribbean and Central America, and the Mexica (Aztec) lords wagered cities during some games. Rubber balls were imported into Mexico City from the Yucatan forests where the rubber trees grew. It is said that the ball courts were built at greater frequency when there was strife in the empire. The game was used to reduce wars and bloodshed between cities of the Mexica Empire.
Central American ballgames were not for sissies, but for warriors prepared to die, since the object was a struggle between positive and negative with the ball representing the ominous movement of the sun across the sky. The player's padded hip or forearm kept the ball, heavy enough to break limbs,  "alive" in the air. It was as agile a game as volleyball, except there was not a net between the two teams. The Taíno version was more social, however, with the same chance at gambling.

The Taino language and genetic markers are as "extinct" as English is in creole-speaking Jamaica, whose folks converse in  a language made up of Amerindian, European, African, Asian and Middle Eastern words. "Maka", for thorn (related to the now extinct Caribbean "macaw" parrots and the thorny trunk "makafat" tree), like "barracuda" for a fish, are Taino and Cariban words. For example, "jerk" is from a Maya term used to describe drying out and preserving meat, the same practice applied on the Taíno berbecoa (for "barbecue"), a concrete platform that Jamaicans use to sun dry coffee or cacao (coco/chocolate) beans.

Enlargement from a 19th century photograph of two Jamaican Maroons after the Morant Bay Rebellion. They were required by a treaty with the British in the island to help to put down rebellions and to no longer accept runaways. The treaty, signed before the American Revolution, created enmity between the Maroons and enslaved Africans in the island, that led to the Second Maroon War. As seen here, facial bone structures, especially that of the man on the left, exhibit Amerindian features.
The Maroons, who learned jerk from the Yamaye Taino, call their wooden cooking platform a "caban", the word that came from the Spanish "cabin". In Boston Bay, Jamaica, jerk pork can be cooked on a pimento/allspice rack over a pimento log fire, an unbroken Taíno-Maroon (and Precolumbian) tradition from the 16th century.

The Yamaye, like their relatives in the other large Caribbean Islands, had intricate governmental institutions. Why not? They were seafaring expert agriculturalists whose islands were divided into villages, districts and larger collections of "cacigazos" governed by local and regional caciques and stratified governing groups of sub-caciques, nobles (Nitaino) and spiritual advisers (bohuti) with larger groups of "commoners" with a segment of people the Spanish called "slaves". For example, the female cacique, Anacaona of Haiti, had over 100 caciques under her in the early 16th century. She was famous for her traditional "areito" a historical Taino ballad or a saga presented in the form of a song. Unfortunately, the Spanish governor, Nicolas de Ovando who succeeded Columbus, hanged her after massacring most of her 100 caciques who were assembled in the governor's honor. One of her caciques, Hatuey, escaped to Cuba where he later became a martyred folk hero at the hands of the perusing Spanish. To discredit the notion of the "docile Arawak", two incidents stand out;
(1) Hatuey spoke against the Spanish and their worship of their god whom he perceived to be "guanin", a 14 k gold alloy. When he was about to be burned at the stake, a Spanish priest told Hatuey that if he became a Christian his soul would go to heaven. "Are there Cristianos in Heaven?" Hatuey asked. "Yes", said the priest. "Then, I do not want to go there", Hatuey replied. So, they burned him.

(2) According to the book 1493, between 1492-93 some of Columbus' men were left on Hispaniola after one of the three ships sank. The erected fort called La Navidad (Christmas, the day of the first landing on Hispaniola) was attacked and wiped out by a Taino group of warriors (as retribution for rape, murder, and food-stealing) using blinding teargas "grenades", gourd-filled burning ash with crushed peppers, lobbed among the Spanish to disorient and blind them while Taino warriors, faces covered with bandannas, charged the confused Spanish through blinding smoke. Here is the first record of teargas and blinding pepper spray. Both La Navidad, the first Spanish settlement in the Americas, and the nearby Taino village were destroyed in a scorched-earth strategy.

Cuban and Jamaican Taino before and after Spanish arrival, continued to interact with the Central American mainland empires of the Maya and the Mexica ("Aztec"). Cortez met a Yamaye Taino woman in the Yucatan in 1519 while Columbus described the Yamaye of Jamaica's Bahia de Vaca (Cow Bay) across the sea from the Gulf of Mexico in terms that portrayed cultural sophistication. Their belief system, similar to Spanish Catholicism, included a supreme being (Yucahu Bagua Marocoti, god of the sea, and the yuca/cassava, without grandfathers) and lesser, often twin gods similar to Christian saints. This belief in duality, i.e. the balance of positive/negative, or good/evil, or night/day, is as Asiatic as their practice of shamanism. As a Maya man spoke about Amerindian philosophy, "life cannot exist without this balance.They need each other." The Taino belief system was also based upon this ideal. Taino influences in the island are taken for granted and are so subtle that their contributions to Jamaicanisms are often not recognized.


  1. Actually dokunu comes from the akan food dokunu and the word dopi comes from the akan word adope (pronounced adopi)

  2. The word Dukunu/dokunu is Akan from Ghana. However, other ingredients can vary from banana flour, corn meal, wheat flour or sweet potato. The last three ingredients are Taino. In Belieze, it is a Maya tamale, coocked in corn husks or a banana leaf with an African name, dukunu. When cooked by Jamaican Maroons with Taino products, it is Amerindian. This naming of Taino products occurs elsewhere. For example, the Taino mani is called peanut, pinder nut, goobers and ground nut. While in Cuba it retained its Taino name where the peanut vendor, was made into a popular song is "el manicero".

  3. Actually, some products added to blue drawers/dukunu, such as wheat, called "corn" in Old English, came from the Fertile Crescent (today's Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Egypt and Israel). Maize was invented by Ancient Mexicans from cross pollinating grasses. The sweet potato and yuca/cassava are from the a Amazon. Some products, mistakenly believed to be from Africa, Europe and Asia, were taken there by the Portugese, Spanish or Dutch after the 1492 Caribbean Encounter.

  4. Hello everybody ,I am from Borinquen , and I am a proud descendant of the Taino People recent DNA proves what my oral family tradition spoke of! as mentioned above it is very true that the Taino culture spread from the maternal line ,and one thing that many do not know or acknowledge is that one does not need to have Taino Blood to be Taino , We Islaners are Taino by Culture ,the Culture was spread in the Mountains by the maroon Taino who took in run away slaves who in turn embraced the Taino Culture