The Origin of the Tainos
Civilization has existed in the Caribbean for thousands of years
despite the Euro centric assumption that the "New World"
was discovered in 1492. The peopling of the Caribbean is not the
product of a single discovery; its history is not mirrored in the
narrative of a single expedition. Rather, it has been a lengthy
process of assimilation and conquest. The arrival of the Europeans
was a harsh and drastic example of this process. Many different
groups have migrated to and within the Caribbean. Cultures have
dominated, and cultures have submitted. With each new migration
the Caribbean culture evolved. The culture continues to change,
even today, with recent continental gentrification. Each influx
brings new characteristics, oftentimes at the expense of the rich
traditions of the past. The tropical paradise for which the Caribbean
is known serves only as a backdrop to the colorful tapestry of cultures,
which have constructed the history of the region.
The First People to Settle in the Caribbean
The first people to settle in the Caribbean most likely came from
Central America and settled in Cuba and Hispaniola. Archeologists
and ethnologists call them the Casmiroid. They lived in the upland
savannas of what is now the nation of Belize and survived primarily
by hunting. They gradually migrated to the river valleys where they
could fish and gather plant foods, which grew in abundance in this
rich and fertile environment. They then began to make seasonal trips
to the coast where they learned to exploit the resources of the
sea. It was from these coastal camps that the migration to the islands
of the Caribbean began about 6000 years ago.
The trade winds and the major ocean currents in the Caribbean generally
favor east to west and north to south travel, however there is a
phenomenon known as the Cuban countercurrent which is a west to
east current south of Cuba, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico. The Casmiroids
took advantage of this current to cross the approximately 125 miles
of open water between Yucatán and Cuba known as the Yucatan
Passage and later to cross the narrower Windward Passage between
Cuba and Hispaniola.
Cuba and Hispaniola are the largest islands in the Caribbean and
as such have resources that are not available on the smaller islands.
Here the Casmiroids could enjoy a rich environment similar to that
of their ancestors on the mainland. The interior of the islands
offered access to hunting and fresh water fishing. The forests and
river valleys offered an abundance of wild fruits and vegetables.
Sloths (which were hunted to extinction), manatees, crocodiles,
waterfowl, land crabs and turtles could be hunted in the mangrove
swamps and river estuaries, and the numerous bays and offshore reefs
provided an abundant supply of fish and other seafood. The compatibility
of this large island environment with the traditional lifestyle
of the Casmiroids probably explains why they never traveled further
east to the smaller islands of the Caribbean such as St. John.
The First People to Inhabit St. John
Beginning around 2000 BC, a second group, called the Ortoiroid by
present day Archeologists, migrated to the islands of the Caribbean.
Their lived in South America in the area of the Orinoco Delta and
later migrated to the coastal sections of Trinidad when that island
was still part of the mainland.
The South Equatorial current flows from Africa eastward to South
America. Off the coast of Guyana the current is deflected to the
northward by the force of the Orinoco River flowing into the sea.
This phenomenon is even more pronounced in the summer when the Orinoco
is in flood from upriver rains. The Ortoiroid used this current
to facilitate their travel northward throughout the Lesser Antilles.
From the northern Leeward Islands they rode the easterly trade winds
across the Anegada Passage into the Virgin Islands, and by 1000
BC they had settled Puerto Rico where, for the first time they faced
another culture, the Casmiroids, on the other side of the Mona Passage.
The Ortoiroid were a coastal people. Their settlements were small
and widely dispersed and they survived mainly on the resources provided
by the sea. Ortoiroid artifacts include barbed spearheads made of
bone, ornaments made from perforated animal teeth, and tools made
from stone, bones and shells. In 1986 a team of archeologists uncovered
charred whelk shells from an Ortoiroid settlement in 770 BC at Lameshur
Bay. The find was verified by carbon dating.
The Ortoiroids used different areas of St. John for different purposes.
The finding of whelk shells at Lameshur Bay shows that this was
a site where the inhabitants collected and prepared seafood and
is referred to by archeologists as a procurement site. Grootpan
Bay was a manufacture site dedicated to the fabrication of stone
tools. The actual village was located at Salt Pond Bay.
The Mona Passage between Puerto Rico and Hispaniola served as a
natural barrier separating the Ortoiroid and Casmiroid peoples.
The two cultures existed independently until the arrival of a new
wave of immigrants.
The Emergence of the Taino
About 500 BC, a new wave of Native Americans, also originally from
the river valleys of South America, made the difficult ocean crossing
between Trinidad and Grenada, 80 miles to the north and out of sight
of land. From there, they proceeded up the island chain arriving
on St. John around 20 AD. (White on red ceramic artifacts distinctive
of this new culture, dating between 20 AD and 600 AD, were found
in Reef Bay and Coral Bay.)
Like the Europeans who came to the islands 2,000 years later, these
settlers did not find their newly discovered territory to be unoccupied.
The Lesser Antilles, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico were already
inhabited by a coastal people, gatherers and fishers who lived in
small and widely dispersed settlements. And like Columbus and the
Europeans, the newcomers overwhelmed the pre-existing culture they
These newcomers were the ancestors of the Tainos. They are known
as Los Archaicos (Ancient Ones) to today's Taino descendants and
are called Saladoids or Pre-Taino by today's academic community.
The Taino Ancestors were more advanced than the Ortoiroids. They
cultivated the land whenever possible and carried on an extensive
and far-reaching trade. (Archeological digs have uncovered gemstones
and shells with drawings of animals only found on the South American
mainland.) They fabricated ceramic pottery, and made tools and weapons
out of shells and stone.
The ancestors of the Taino easily defeated and replaced the existing
population of the islands, whose settlements were sparsely populated
and widely dispersed. They encountered different conditions when
they crossed the Mona Passage. The inhabitants of Hispaniola possessed
better weapons and had a larger population. They were able to defend
their culture against the invaders who remained on the eastern coast
of Hispaniola in an apparently uneasy state of coexistence.
The Pre Tainos underwent a Dark Age between 400 and 600 AD. They
no longer carried on long distance trade and their ceramics and
artwork became less sophisticated. This period of cultural stagnation
ended around 600 AD resulting in a new and revitalized culture,
which expanded into Hispaniola and eventually replaced and absorbed
the Casimiroids of the Greater Antilles. Casmiroid and Pre Taino
cultures blended together and the result was the formation of a
new people, the Taino.
According to Taino myth the Tainos originated in caves in a sacred
mountain in Hispaniola. Modern research has now shown that this
myth is essentially correct. Although influenced by trade and hereditary
and cultural ties to both Mesoamerica and South America, the essence
of Taino culture evolved locally in eastern Hispaniola and then
spread westward to Cuba, Jamaica and the Bahamas and eastward to
Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
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