Cultural Corner: The Taíno

Cultural Corner: The Taíno

The Taíno were a group of indigenous people that lived in the Caribbean before contact with the Europeans. The name Taíno translates as ‘men of the good.’

They were the largest group of inhabitants on the islands of Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and the Bahamas. The Taíno were the first group to make contact with Christopher Columbus when he landed in the ‘New World’ on his famous voyage in 1492.  

At the time of the arrival of Columbus, there were five separate Taíno chiefdoms in Hispaniola each led by their own chief called a cacique. The Taíno name for Hispaniola was Ayiti, which translates as ‘land of high mountains.’ The Taíno language belongs to the Arawakan language family. Speakers of these languages are also found in Central and South America and indeed the ancestors of the Taíno are believed to have moved to the Caribbean from South America.

There were an estimated 2 to 3 million Taínos living in the Caribbean at the time of contact in 1492. Unfortunately, the Spaniards enslaved these indigenous populations and forced them to work on plantations and in mines. The harsh working conditions in combination with various European diseases such as smallpox to which they had no natural immunity, let to the deaths within 30 years of approximately 80% of the indigenous population of the islands. Those that survived often intermarried with first the Spanish colonists and the later the imported African slaves. This unique history has resulted in Caribbean people having a very mixed ancestry with recent DNA tests showing that most in habitants of Puerto Rico and Cuba feature 10% to 20% indigenous blood. 


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