Taíno society began to disintegrate as soon as the Spaniards arrived in the New World. Diseases, the cruel treatment they endured in the gold mines, casualties due to confrontations with the Spaniards, and migration to neighboring islands contributed to the decrease of the Taíno population. The mixing races was another significant factor that contributed to the reduction of the Taíno population. However, Taíno heritage survives in our blood and in many cultural elements.
During the first century of conquest and colonization, Spaniards used and adopted a series of habits, knowledge, and techniques from the West Indians. From his first voyage, Columbus expressed admiration for the navigation skills and knowledge Indians had; he took seven of them as guides. Columbus himself wrote in his Diary that West Indians had subtle inventiveness. West Indian navigators were decisive in the first years of discovery and exploration.
The first American word incorporated into Spanish was canoa, which was a very narrow Indian boat with paddles. The canoe also became a means of transportation used by the conquistadors. This type of boat continued to be used almost until today, for various purposes, in rivers and lagoons.
The Spanish colonizer also learned fishing techniques from Taínos. Some of these have lasted until the present, such as the system that uses corral-type fishing traps that are placed in river mouths. Poisoning rivers and lagoons with a plant called baiguá, diving underwater to find sea shells such as lambí (also known as conch or Cittarium pica), using nets or round fishing nets, and using fishing baskets that are placed as traps in the sea, are other examples.
Taíno agricultural techniques were used and adopted quickly by Spanish settlers and have been passed down through the years, to today's country people. The slash and burn system—meaning cutting down trees and weeds and then burning them to clear an area—was brought by West Indian natives from South America. The conuco or cultivation field was an area of land located near Taíno dwellings that was used for cultivating. This is still done. Another technique used until the end of the 16th century, was cultivating in mounds, meaning sowing over mounds of land suitable for cultivating. This system was so common that Spaniards established it as a measurement of land surface. Of the Taíno agricultural tools, only the coa or digging stick still exists; it is a pole used in hoeing with which they dug the land to sow grains, plants, and tubers.
Of the agricultural products, cassava bread was the greatest Taíno contribution to the colonizers' diet. Cassava bread is made from yucca flour, an edible root common in different areas of America, and it was an essential part of the first conquistadors' diet. Because it was a non-perishable product, it was the basic food on ships that left from the West Indies.
Europeans also ate other native products that are still an essential part of Puerto Ricans' diet, such as sweet potatoe, taro root, peanuts, yams, cotton, topee tambo, chili, annatto, and corn. Another plant that became important to the Europeans was tobacco. Because of the great demand for this leaf, it was one of the main Puerto Rican agricultural products until a few decades ago.
Some Taíno everyday objects were incorporated by Spaniards into their daily lives, such as the hammock, a net that when hung by its ends serves as a bed. Spanish navigators acknowledged its usefulness and began to use them on their boats. Today, the hammock is a very popular object in Puerto Rican culture. Settlers also adopted manufacturing methods for ceramics, wooden tools, and baskets. For example, the fruit of the calabash tree, a tree with a large, hard fruit, may be used to make ditas or pots for various uses. The fruit of the calabash tree is used to make maracas, which are musical instruments that consist of a handle and a hollow sphere that has small rocks or seeds inside. Originally, natives used the maracas in their dance rituals. Today, it is considered a typical instrument in the country's popular music.
Taíno dwellings were known as bohíos, which consisted of a small round or square house with palm tree leaves as roof and walls. Because it was practical for the West Indian climate, Spaniards also adopted the dwelling's design. Bohío construction techniques, with few alterations, were the standard until the beginning of the 20th century.
Artistic performances of native West Indians have hardly transcended into the Puerto Rican culture. Taínos gave importance to areitos—a ceremony in which singing and dancing took place to celebrate an event and verbally transmit their traditions. They also used various musical instrument, but only the descriptions provided by chroniclers still exist. However, the so-called Taíno style —represented in pots, duhos or ceremonial stools, cemí or sculpted gods, necklaces or hoop earrings made of rock and petroglyphs—, it has been an inspiration to a great amount of artists and artisans. Puerto Rican literature has had some characters that resemble Taínos, such as Loarina, Guarionex, Bayoán, Marién, Guanina, Agüeybana el Bravo and Anaiboa, which, along with the native poetry of the 19th century, personify the national American and West Indian themes.
Native influence on popular medicine and Puerto Rican traditions was diluted by the predominance of Spanish ad African influences before the end of the 16th century. In terms of genetics, indigenous racial characteristics have disappeared and are commonly confused with characteristics of physical appearance that evoke Indians.
The greatest native legacy is found in the Spanish language. Spanish was enriched by the contributions of West Indian words of Arawak and Carib origin. Spanish has introduced a great amount of indigenous words regarding toponymy and anthroponymy, flora and fauna, material and spiritual life, and social coexistence. In the Hispanic West Indies, indigenous vocabulary survives with more than 500 words. In Borinquén, particularly, we would have to add about 200 names of rivers, mountains, mountain ranges, bays, towns, and caciques or Taíno chiefs.
Adapted by Grupo Editorial EPR
Original source: Sebastián Robiou, Aportación indígena a la cultura puertorriqueña, 1992. Premio concurso de artículos V Centenario.
Autor: Grupo Editorial EPRL
Published: December 29, 2009.