Taino Artifacts: Art, Petroglyphs & Symbols

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever carved your name into a rock? Some early island cultures in the Caribbean created distinctive rock art. In this lesson, explore the art and symbols of the Taino culture, including petroglyphs.

What Was the Taino Culture?

People live all over the world, including on islands.

One group of early people lived in and among the hills and valleys on several islands in the Greater Antilles chain of the Caribbean. The Greater Antilles includes the islands of Cuba, Jamaica and Puerto Rico. These people were part of what is known as the Taino culture.

The Taino culture was at its height in the Caribbean from roughly 1000 to 1500 AD. Largely agricultural, they farmed crops such as yams, corn, cassava, and squash. The Taino were also excellent hunters and fishermen and often traveled amid the islands. Most Taino lived in family compounds led by a chief called a cacique. They had their own system of gods and deities, and protective spirits called zemis that came from deceased ancestors.

The Taino people were was one of the first indigenous populations to come into contact with Europeans, suffering disease and conflict in the process. They lost out to Europeans who increasingly settled the land and forcibly brought African slaves to the islands to work plantations. The Taino, some of whom were also forced into slavery, were almost completely exterminated by the 1500s. A few scattered members survived.

Taino Art and Symbols

The Taino people created many distinctive art objects. Let's take a closer look at what this culture has left behind.

Taino Petroglyphs

Among the most striking artistic works were petroglyphs. A petroglyph is a carving done in a rock surface like a cave wall. Taino left petroglyphs on cave walls, on large rocks in river beds, and on stone monoliths. Monoliths are single-stone monuments, which may be arranged into fence-like borders around multipurpose ceremonial spaces. These spaces or courtyards were sometimes referred to as bateys.

Example of a Taino petroglyph
Taino petroglyph

The petroglyphs included many symbols or simple figures composed of line. The symbols tend to fall into three categories. Some are anthropomorphic, which means they look like human figures. Others are zoomorphic, resembling animal figures like frogs, birds and bats. Still other petroglyph symbols are highly abstract, which means they don't resemble anything in the real world.

Petroglyph symbols stood for many things, including categories of people like babies and pregnant women or weather and natural elements, like the sun. Some symbols stood for abstract concepts like fertility or power. And other symbols represented specific Taino gods and goddesses.

Other Taino Art

The Taino were skilled carvers and made objects from substances like bone, wood, shell and stone. Many of the objects were used for cohoba ceremonies.

Cohoba ceremony spoon carved from bone, made between 1200-1500 AD
carved bone spoon

Cohoba was a psychogenic powder ground from seeds of a specific tree species. During healing ceremonies, a shaman or tribal healer used a special spoon to place cohoba in a small stone inhaler. The shaman then ingested the powder as part of the ritual. As the powder took over and put him into an altered mental state, he sat on a short ceremonial carved wood stool called a duho or dujo.

Example of a ceremonial stool called a duho or dujo
duho or ceremonial stool

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