Tales of the Tainos
Story by Claudia Colli
They gathered in large communal houses made of thatch and wood, and lived off the land and sea, taking only what was needed, living in harmony with nature. Long before Columbus discovered these islands in the name of Spain, before Dutch settlers erected the islands' earliest forts and English planters grew sugarcane along its hillsides, the Virgin Islands were inhabited by the Taino Indians, descendents of the Caribbean's earliest Indian tribes who migrated to the Antilles from South America over 3,000 years ago.
And while remnants of forts and sugar plantations still dot the islands, vivid reminders of the islands' colonial past, there is little tangible evidence of the Tainos who peopled the Virgin Islands around 800 years ago. What does remain of their presence is primarily found in the archeological record. The remains of charcoal pits show where they cooked their food; the shells of whelks and clams, and the bones of small animals indicate what they ate.
At one time there could have been several thousand Indians living on Tortola, spread out in dozens of small communal villages along the shore from Cane Garden Bay and Beef Island, to Long Bay on Tortola's western end. Some, like a fishing camp in Paraquita Bay may have been temporary settlements – a place where villagers came to fish and hunt. Others were permanent settlements like the lush and wooded area behind Long Bay Beach which is now known as Belmont. Here there was a protected inlet fringed with mangroves where villagers could gather whelks and a beach where they could launch their canoes to fish. Community members grew corn, sweet potato and cassava in the area's rich soil and cooked the cassava on clay griddles. They spun the cotton they raised into fiber using spindle whorls to create loincloths for the men and short skirts for the women. For cooking and for use in rituals, they formed pottery from clay which they incised with cross hatching, or decorated along their rims with adornos – figures of animals and deities.
At the western end of the beach, the triangular shaped hill referred to as Belmont hill, would have abutted this inlet, and was a focal point of the village's religious life. Here ritual objects for use in ceremonies as well as many household artifacts and tools from cassava griddles and bowls to stone tools have been found. There is evidence of postholes, which would have once contained the wood supports for large communal round houses made of thatch. These finds depict a daily routine that was both sophisticated and spiritual.
Although earlier prehistoric tribes resided in the Virgin Islands from perhaps 2,000 BC, the most recent Indian culture to populate Tortola and neighboring islands were the Tainos. The Taino culture encompassed all of the Virgin Islands including Tortola, St. John, St. Thomas and St. Croix, as well as the larger islands of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic where the communities were much larger and more highly developed.
Dr. Peter Drewett former head of the department of archeology at London University, spent close to a decade excavating the site at Belmont and painting a vivid picture of life there, initially as a village and later as a ceremonial area. In 2004, he and his team unearthed an astounding find – a Taino ball court 25 meters in length; nine of the dozens of stones that would have bordered the court were found, one of which was carved with a petroglyph of the sun.
These ball courts are an integral part of Amerindian religious life and are found at Taino settlements elsewhere in the Virgin Islands as well as on Puerto Rico and the Domincan Republic. In the Taino ceremonial sites at Tibes and Caguana, on Puerto Rico these ball courts had attained a high degree of sophistication. Nine ball courts and ceremonial plazas have been found at Tibes and ten at Caguana where many of the stones bordering the courts were carved with petroglyphs.
Columbus and other Spanish explorers, who first encountered the game at the end of the 15th century, recounted a spirited game where teams comprised of ten to 30 players alternated serving a rubber ball which they kept in motion by bouncing it back and forth from their bodies to the ground within the court. Both men and women played the game, although separately. Spectators sat on stones or embankments, and the caciques and nobles on their stools – known as duhos. Batey, as the Indians called the game, was both a recreational sport, as well as a grand religious ceremony, which would include dancing, drumming, singing and rattling. Great feasts would also be part of these rituals. These plazas may have been significant in other ways and played a part in marking the time of year. According to Archeologist Osvaldo García Goyco at Caguana, "there is evidence that some of the plazas are orientated in relation to the equinox and solstice of the four seasons of the year."
In Belmont, there would have been single ball court, but it too was ceremonial. And like the Tainos at Tibes, the villagers at Belmont also celebrated the solstice. Central to the Amerindian religion was the worship of three-cornered idols or fetishes called zemies. Representing their deities, zemies were usually made of wood, stone, bone or shell. But it was also believed that they lived in trees, rocks and other features of the landscape such as the triangular shaped hill that served as the site's backdrop. During their digs, the archeological team unearthed a number of ceremonial artifacts, including a vomit spatula (used for purification rites) and two pairs of long polished stones aligned towards the center of Belmont. On the solstice, the sun sets directly behind the hill and in a stunning display, beams of light cascade down either of its sides, throwing a shadow across the stones.
Where today these islands are defined by political boundaries, that was not the case 1,000 or so years ago. Ken Wilde the resident archeologist at the St. John National Park has been excavating Amerindian artifacts on the island for over 20 years. He has unearthed eye inlays, the beads for a chieftan's belt, lithic tools, a stone collar ball belt, pottery and the figurative adornos that decorate them. All these artifacts can also be found on the larger island of Puerto Rico and on the eastern portion of the Dominican Republic, and certain items like the adornos and lithic tools are similar to ones found on Tortola.
Using canoes the Tainos could easily have travelled from island to island, interacting and spreading their culture. "What is really fascinating about what we are finding about this particular area is you look at the Virgin Islands, it mirrors eastern Puerto Rico as far as the pottery styles," Wild explains. "We have classic Taino here on St. John and you probably have it in Tortola as well – just like they had in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic."
The Indians, who lived on Tortola and its neighbors, inhabited these islands for many centuries, interacting with nature and leaving little imprint on the landscape. But their reign came to an end soon after the arrival of the Spanish. When Columbus arrived the Tainos has already abandoned Tortola, perhaps relocating to an island with more resources. On Puerto Rico, Hispaniola and other islands, the Indians fell victims to diseases which the Europeans brought with them and by the harsh enforced labor of the encomienda system.
The Tainos, though, live on within modern culture in many ways. Foods we take for granted and the words we use for them all come from the Taino: sweet potatoes (batata), corn (maiz) and cassava (casabe) were all Taino foods; the Taino gave us the hammock (hamaca), the canoe (canoa) and tobacco (tabaco). Perhaps even batey may have been a forefunner of our modern game of football or soccer. These gentle people that lived here before Columbus had little impact on the lands they occupied, but a larger impact on our everyday lives.