Taíno revisited

By Nicholas Laughlin

The Earliest Inhabitants: The Dynamics of the Jamaican Taíno,
ed. Lesley-Gail Atkinson
(University of the West Indies Press, ISBN 976-640-149-7, 215 pp)

Taíno Indian Myth and Practice: The Arrival of the Stranger King, by William F. Keegan
(University Press of Florida, ISBN 978-0-8130-3038-8, 230 pp)

The first human inhabitants of Jamaica arrived on the island some time after 600 AD. These Ostionoid people, as they are called by archaeologists, were the ancestors of the Taíno — once known to generations of scholars as Arawaks, due to their supposed cultural similarities to the Arawaks of the Guianas. This is the first thing Lesley-Gail Atkinson sets straight in her introduction to The Earliest Inhabitants; “they are two distinct ethnic groups.” By about 1200 “the prehistoric culture that we call the Taíno” had developed; by the end of the fifteenth century, the onslaught of European colonisation had begun.

“Jamaican prehistory is regarded as one of the least studied Caribbean disciplines.” This is the second misconception Atkinson tackles. As early as 1774, Edward Long described Taíno artifacts in his History of Jamaica. In 1792, in what is still the island’s single most important archaeological find, three wooden zemís were discovered at Carpenter’s Mountain (and soon made their way to the British Museum). The Institute of Jamaica, founded in 1879, has been responsible for dozens of archaeological surveys over the last century, and organised an exhibition of pre-Columbian artifacts as early as 1895. And in 1970, James Lee founded the Archaeological Society of Jamaica, spurring on the efforts of amateurs and professionals alike, and publishing the Archaeology Jamaica newsletter. “Jamaican archaeology has a long and rich heritage,” Atkinson concludes, but has often been neglected by scholars elsewhere in favour of research into the Taíno of Cuba, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico. The Earliest Inhabitants is an attempt to reverse that neglect, and to survey the major developments in Jamaican archaeology of the last two decades.

Atkinson, who works with the Jamaican National Heritage Trust, has collected fourteen papers, six of them reprinted from journals, the rest commissioned for this volume, which include overviews of major trends in Jamaican Taíno research, reports of excavations at specific sites, studies of Taíno pottery, rock artifacts, petroglyphs, and zemís, and an investigation of the threat posed to archaeologically important sites by road-building and house-construction (the Taíno often chose elevated places with good views for their settlements — the same locations that attract today’s land developers). There is an abundance of technical data here, presented in tables, diagrams, and maps, but most of the papers are accessibly written and contain much to interest non-specialists. And among the figures for “neutron activation analysis of pottery samples” there are fascinating glimpses of the ways ordinary Jamaicans think of their island’s prehistoric heritage. There is the story of the Taíno skull salvaged by a construction worker from a site in the hills above Kingston; “his fellow workers, thinking that he was going to work obeah with the skull, crushed it into pieces.” Or the account of the thrilling discovery of three Taíno wooden images near the village of Aboukir by a Mr Clayton who kept them in his house for twenty years under circumstances that “appear to have been associated with obeah”; eventually he was persuaded to give them up to the National Heritage Trust. (A small complaint: a book so full of information really does need an index.)

William F. Keegan’s Taíno Indian Myth and Practice is a more technical volume, much of which will puzzle ordinary readers, though professional archaeologists and anthropologists will no doubt find much to stimulate debate and dissent. But at the core of the book is a story with elements of mystery that Keegan sets out to explain, in an occasionally jaunty prose that livens his theorising. Early accounts of Columbus’s arrival in Hispaniola describe a powerful Taíno chief named Caonabó, about whom little is known except that he was himself a “stranger,” born in some other island; that he put up stout resistance to the Spaniards, and was considered a major threat by the invaders, but was eventually captured.

Comparing and interpreting the stories of the Spanish chroniclers, considering the possible origins and meanings of various Taíno myths and symbols, and closely re-examining the data turned up by archaeological expeditions, Keegan plausibly locates Caonabó’s birthplace on the island of Middle Caicos. Far more important, he suggests — by example as much as by direct argument — a fresh approach to evaluating archaeological data against written and oral texts, in an attempt to better understand how the interplay of “myth” and “reality” constructs our knowledge of history. He also makes a strong case for Hispaniola-fixated researchers to pay closer attention to the archaeology of nearby islands. Lesley-Gail Atkinson would certainly agree.


The Caribbean Review of Books, August 2007

Nicholas Laughlin is the editor of The Caribbean Review of Books.