The Taínos were an indigenous group of people who ruled the island of Puerto Rico  (which they called Boriken) when Christopher Columbus and his expedition arrived in 1493. A little more than two decades later, they were virtually wiped out.
But surprising developments have recently revealed that the Taínos may live on in Puerto Rico, and not just in the vestiges of their customs, cuisine, and language that are still prevalent today. Preliminary results from DNA studies recently conducted at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez indicate that nearly half the island’s Puerto Rican residents may contain indigenous DNA.
The study of Taíno history and culture is a fairly recent academic undertaking. Previously, what little was known of the peaceful, agrarian society was derived from written accounts by Spanish settlers. But the ongoing study of archaeological sites has uncovered new details about the highly politicized and spiritual society.
The Taínos are thought to have originated in South America before migrating to the Caribbean, where they settled in Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba. Taíno society in Puerto Rico is believed to have developed between A.D. 1100 and 1500. By the time of Columbus’s arrival, the island comprised about 20 political chiefdoms, each one ruled by a cacique (chief). Unlike the laboring class, who mostly wore nothing, the cacique wore a resplendent headdress made of parrot feathers, a gold amulet, and a mao, a white cotton shawl-like garment that protected the shoulders and chest from the sun.
Second in power to the caciques were the bohiques (shamans). Ornamenting their faces with paint and charcoal, they led spiritual rituals and ceremonies, using herbs, chants, maracas, and tobacco to heal the sick. To communicate with the gods and see visions of the future, bohiques and caciques inhaled a hallucinogenic powder made from the bright red seeds of the cohoba tree. It was ingested in a ceremony that began with a ritual cleansing that involved inducing vomiting with ornately carved spatulas. The powder was then inhaled through tubes created from tubers or bones.
Of special spiritual importance to the Taínos was the enigmatic cemi, a three-pointed object carved from stone or wood. Its significance is a mystery, but some believe it was thought to contain the spirit of the god Yocahu. Cemis were plentiful, powerful objects, believed to control everything from weather and crops to health and childbirth. Most cemis, which were kept in shrine rooms, were representations of animals and men with froglike legs. Some were ornamented with semiprecious stones and gold and are believed to represent the cohoba-fueled visions of the caciques and bohiques.
The Taínos saw spirituality in every natural thing, even death. Laborers were buried under their houses, called bohios — conical huts made from cane, straw, and palm leaves. But chiefs and shamans had special funerary rites. Their bodies were left to decompose in the open, and then their bones and skulls were cleaned and preserved in wooden urns or gourds, which were hung from the rafters. Pity the poor wives of the caciques, who were polygamists. Their favorite wives were buried alive when their husbands died.
Religious ceremonies, called areytos, were held in ceremonial plazas or rectangular ball courts, called bateyes. Lining its perimeter were monoliths adorned with petroglyphs — carvings of faces, animals, and the sun. This is where feasts, celebrations, sporting events, and ritual dances were held. Music was performed on conch trumpets, bone flutes, wooden drums, maracas, and güiros, a washboard-type percussion instrument made from gourds. Sometimes neighboring villagers would join in the festivities, participating in mock fights, footraces, or ball games similar to soccer, played with a heavy bouncing ball made from rubber plants and reeds. As in our modern-day ball games, the consumption of alcoholic beverages — corn beer in Taíno times — was also a highlight of the activities.
When they weren’t whooping it up at the batey, the Taínos were hard at work growing, gathering, and hunting food. Lucky for them, the island was rich in resources. Peanuts, guavas, pineapples, sea grapes, black-eyed peas, and lima beans grew wild. Fields were cleared for the cultivation of corn, sweet potatoes, yams, squashes, papayas, and yuccas, a staple that was processed into a type of flour used to make cassava bread. Cotton was also grown for the making of hammocks. Iguanas, snakes, birds, and manatees were hunted. The sea provided fish, conchs, oysters, and crabs. Canoes, carved from tree trunks, were used to fish and conduct trade with nearby islands. Some canoes were so huge that they could hold 100 men.
The Taínos were a matrilineal society. Women held a special place in the culture because nobility was passed down through their families. The only commoners to don clothing, married women wore cotton aprons; the longer the nagua, the higher the social rank of the wearer. Women spent their time making pottery, weaving hammocks, and processing yucca, a time-consuming and complicated procedure. Babies were carried on their mothers’ backs on boards that were tied to the babies’ foreheads, a practice that produced the flat heads that Taínos found attractive.
Columbus’s arrival marked the beginning of the end for Taíno society. They were already weakened from attacks by the Caribs, an aggressive, possibly cannibalistic indigenous group from South America who captured Taíno women and forced them into slavery. The Spanish followed suit by enslaving many of the remaining Taínos.
It didn’t take long for unrest to grow among the Taínos. In 1510, Cacique Urayoan ordered his warriors to capture and drown a Spanish settler to determine if the colonists were mortal. Upon Diego Salcedo’s death, the Taínos revolted against the Spanish, but they were quickly overpowered by the Spaniards’ firearms. Thousands of Taínos were shot to death, many are believed to have committed mass suicide, and others fled to the mountains.
Several devastating hurricanes hit the island during the next several years, which killed many more Taínos. It has been reported that by 1514, there were fewer than 4,000 Taínos left, and in 1519 a smallpox epidemic is said to have virtually wiped out the rest of the remaining population.
In the last decade, interest in learning more about the Taínos has increased. As pride in the legacy of Taíno society grows, so do efforts to preserve its heritage.
In 2007, what experts are calling the largest and most significant pre-Columbian site in the Caribbean was discovered during the construction of a dam in Jacana near Ponce . The five-acre site contains plazas, bateyes, burial grounds, residences, and a midden mound — a pile of ritual refuse. After a preliminary four-month investigation that included the removal of 75 boxes of skeletons, ceramics, and petroglyphs, the site has been covered back up to preserve it until a full-scale excavation can begin. It is expected to take 15 to 20 years to unearth all the secrets the site contains.
And for a taste of Taíno culture, visit Jayuya  in November for the Festival Nacional Indígena, featuring traditional music, dance, food, and crafts.