Taino People: History, Language & Culture

Instructor: Grace Pisano

Grace has a bachelor's degree in history and a master's degree in teaching. She previously taught high school in several states around the country.

The Taino people lived throughout the Caribbean before the arrival of Columbus. After European arrival, their culture was all but wiped out. In this lesson, we will learn about their history, language, and culture.

The Important People You Probably Haven't Heard Of

If you speak English, it would probably surprise you to know that many words you use every day (like canoe, hammock, and barbecue) came from a group of people who lived throughout the Caribbean in the late 1400s but who are essentially extinct today. In addition to their linguistic contributions, the Taino people also shaped the way Spanish settlements in America farmed, traded, and established ways of living. Let's talk about who the Taino were, their language, and their culture.

History

The Taino people originated in Venezuela and spread throughout the Caribbean. When Columbus arrived in the late fifteenth century, the Taino had settlements in the Bahamas as well as the islands of Cuba, Hispaniola, and Jamaica. They could even be found as far east as Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. At one time, they were the largest group in the Caribbean. Historians estimate that at their height, there were between one and three million Taino.

An image depicting an interaction between Christopher Columbus and Native Americans

In 1494, when Columbus established La Isabela, there was a brief, peaceful coexistence between Europeans and the Taino. La Isabela was Columbus's first settlement in the Caribbean. Today, it is located on the northern shore of the Dominican Republic.

However, this peaceful interaction was short-lived. By 1520, there were only a few thousand Taino remaining, and by 1550 they were nearly extinct. The Taino fell so quickly because of disease, starvation, and slavery.

The Taino who survived became mixed with Spanish conquistadors and African slaves. Through this process, the culture and language almost died out.

Language

The Taino people spoke a language called, you guessed it, Taino. This language was a part of the Arawakan language group, a collection of languages used among South American native populations. Although Taino is no longer spoken today, small groups of people still speak other branches of the Arawakan language in countries like Brazil.

The Taino language was only a spoken language. The English words hammock, canoe, barbecue, tobacco, hurricane, and Cuba are derived from the Taino language.

Culture

When the Spanish arrived, they noted that the Taino people had an organized and well-structured society. This impression came, in part, from what they saw in the Taino villages. Settlements were as small as a few families or as large as groups of up to 3,000 people. Houses were made of logs with thatched roofs.

Within the settlements, the Taino practiced shifting agriculture to provide food for the community. Shifting agriculture is a practice where the forest is burned and the ashes are raked into small mounds. Crops are then planted in these mounds. The main crops of the Taino were cassava and yams. In addition, they grew many of the same crops we use today, including peppers, squash, corn, and beans. Peanuts and tobacco were also among their produce. For protein, the Taino hunted small animals that included lizards and birds; they also ate seafood.

On special occasions, the Taino would paint themselves. They also wore ornate jewelry. The fact that they had jewelry shows us that the Taino had the basic functions of day-to-day living established well enough to focus on the art of jewelry.

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