Taino Civilization: Economy and Political & Social Structure

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The pre-contact Americas were full of some incredible cultures. In this lesson we'll get to know one of them as we explore the culture, economy, and politics of the Taino people.

Taíno Civilization

In 1492, Christopher Columbus landed on the island now known as Hispaniola. At this point, he firmly believed that he had crossed the ocean and arrived in East Asia. Thus was established one of the great questions of history: how could Columbus think that?

In a way, we can understand Columbus's blunder. After all, he was surrounded by thriving villages. The waters were filled with small boats engaged in the trading of spices and textiles. There was agriculture, and clear political structure. By all accounts, this perfectly matched the description of the islands off the coast of China that managed East Asian trade routes.

Of course, Columbus wasn't in Asia. He was encountering the Taíno, one of the ethno-linguistic groups of the Caribbean. As the first of all Central American peoples to have contact with Europeans, the Taíno had a major impact on European explorers. Unfortunately, they were also the first to be subjected to slavery and European diseases, and were almost entirely wiped out.

A lot of work has been done recently to reclaim this heritage, so let's get to know Taíno society a little better.

Taíno Political Organization

Taíno society was textured and varied, but also ordered. In any Taíno society, people existed within a hierarchical structure. At the very top were a class of noble rulers and priests. The chief of a Taíno village was called a cacique (kah-see-kay), and the priests were the bohiques. It's worth noting that there were some women caciques, so political power was shared to at least some degree.

Reconstructed Taino village
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Below this ruling class was a class of lower nobles, including the professional warriors. These people were known as nitaínos. Below them were the naborias, the workers. Everyone in Taíno society fit somewhere in this hierarchy and had a job to do.

There were also hierarchies of power between the different Taíno villages. We have to remember that there was no single Taíno kingdom or country, but instead groupings of dozens to hundreds of politically independent villages. Often, several of these villages would come together under a single ruler that occupied a position even higher than that of the caciques of each member village. This alliance helped make them politically, militarily, and economically stronger.

Taíno Economy

The Taíno people lived in an area that was overflowing with resources, and so they traded constantly with each other. They also interacted with trade routes from the mainland, sending Caribbean products into Mexico and receiving Maya and even Aztec products in return. Remember, one of the first things Columbus noted about the Caribbean was that it was filled with boats, all trading with each other. It was a complex economy.

So, what kinds of products were the Taíno people dealing with? The foundation of the Taíno economy was farming, and plants were grown for both subsistence and trade. Taíno farmers grew cassava, garlic, potatoes, chilies, guava, beans, peanuts, mamey, cotton and other things as well. Besides that, they were also expert hunters and, of course, anglers. A lot of time was spent fishing in Taíno society, and fish and shellfish were big parts of the local diet and economies.

A ceremonial stool was a sacred item in every Taino home
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Taíno Society

What was life like in Taíno society? Most people spent their time working, although leisure could be enjoyed with music, poetry, or sports. Like the cultures of mainland Mesoamerica, the Taíno practiced a game played sort of like volleyball, if you could only hit the ball with your hips or elbows. The ball for this game was made of rubber, something Europeans had never encountered before, and which they believed to be witchcraft when they saw it bounce.

Most Taíno people lived in circular huts, but the cacique lived in a rectangular hut that was in the center of the village. While all relatively small in size, these structures could withstand the hurricane-strength winds that ravished the islands every year, which is no small feat. The prized possession of every Taíno family was their canoe, a low boat that they could use for fishing, trading, or just getting around the islands.

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