Natural History

Talking Taino: Eats, Shoots & Leaves

Story & Photos By Dr. Bill Keegan and Dr. Betsy Carlson

The Turks & Caicos Islands are a great place to take a vacation. One of the most common vacation activities is lying on the beach and reading a good book. In this regard, let us suggest Lynne Truss’s book: Eats, Shoots & Leaves (Gotham Books, 2003). The Brits who are reading this probably are already familiar with this runaway bestseller, which, of all things, is about punctuation. Yet the book only recently was released in the United States. The title comes from a joke about an undereducated nature writer who used the words of the book title to describe the diet of the Panda. The problem is that the punctuation gives the impression that the Panda eats dinner, shoots a gun, and leaves the restaurant (an “Oxford comma” has been added to give the Panda time to escape).

What does that have to do with “Talking Taino?” First, it places you on the beach reading a good book. Second, the title is so intriguing that we had to find a way to work it, and punctuation, into a column. Third, it highlights our shift in emphasis from animals to plants. All of our past columns have dealt with animals, yet plants were the major component of the Taino environment, diet and material culture. Finally, it provides the basis for connecting the seemingly random comments on plants that we offer here:

So you are sitting on the beach reading a good book. The coconut palms and casuarinas are swaying in the breeze. There are banana plants (bananas don’t grow on trees) used tastefully as landscaping, and the waiter just brought you a rhum-based drink. There are other beautiful flowers — bougainvillea, bird-of-paradise, ginger lilies — blooming in the gardens. But you will not find names for any of these plants in the Taino dictionary. They were all introduced from other tropical lands. Their presence is the outcome of what Alfred Crosby called the homogenization of the neo-tropics (The Columbian Exchange, Greenwood Press, 1972). There are, however, some intriguing stories . . .

taino-belt“Talking Taino”, in this issue, will mostly be “not Talking Taino”. Sometimes you need to define your subject by describing what it isn’t. People tend to assume that the environment that surrounds them has always appeared that way. We feel the need to start our consideration of Taino plants by describing what came after the Tainos.

In the 1980s there was a television commercial in which a very Navajo-looking woman said, “You call it corn, we call it maize.” This statement is inaccurate on many fronts. First, the Navajo use the Aztec word (it was something like tepontlatl) for the plant that scientific taxonomy has named Zea mays. The word maize actually comes from a Taino word: Mahiz (in Spanish, maiz) (pronounced: my ease; in contrast to the modern pronunciation: maze).

The last Native American to call corn, maize, likely died in the 16th century. So where did “corn” come from? Before the Americas were “discovered,” the British used the word corn to denote “Any of several cereal plants producing edible seed, such as wheat, rye, oats, or barley.” Remember Jack London’s (1913) story about John Barleycorn? The Europeans called maize “Indian corn,” which was later shortened to just corn. Mahiz was a minor crop for the Tainos. Spanish accounts suggest that it was eaten like today as corn-on-the-cob and only rarely was allowed to ripen for the making of cornbread (Johnnycake).

In his treatise on the Natural History of the New World, Oviedo (1526) described a plant with which he was unfamiliar. Because his descriptions were published so early in the exploration of the Americas many people believed that banana’s were native to the America~s [note: in order to preserve the pronunciation of a foreign plural name ending in a vowel it was common, in the past, to insert an apostrophe or tilde; the former has since become known in England as the greengrocer’s apostrophe]. Bananas were, in fact, a recent introduction from Southeast Asia. Coconuts are not native to the Americas (they were first brought to Europe from the Indian Ocean by the Portuguese in 1499); your rhum-based drink comes from sugarcane that the Spanish brought from the Canary Islands in the early 16th century; casuarinas came from Australia; and most of the flowers are on vacation from distant lands.

In an environment where there were so many native fruit trees, it is interesting that the main objective of Captain Bligh’s voyage, chronicled in The Mutiny on the Bounty, was to bring breadfruit from the Pacific Islands to Jamaica as a way to provide a cheap food source for the slaves. His goals were much the same as those of Sir Walter Raleigh, who, almost 200 years earlier, brought potatoes from Peru as fodder for the Irish peasants. (Even today in Jamaican markets you need to ask for “Irish”.) Captain Bligh failed twice, although he did manage to reach St. Vincent where a wide variety of Oceanic plants were transplanted in what became the first botanical garden in the West Indies. Breadfruit eventually did reach Jamaica, and is today common throughout most of the Antilles.

taino-necklaceSorry to burst your bubble, but you are sitting in a largely transported, anthropogenic (= human created) landscape. How could this happen? Today the answer is that people willing to spend money to travel to the West Indies have certain expectations concerning what they will find there, and these expectations are met by the travel companies that try to convince people to pay for their tours. In the past, it had to do with profits. Sugar, indigo, and dyewoods, along with Taino products — salt, tobacco and cotton — provided the economic foundation for European expansion in the West Indies. Salt, which was once called “white gold,” was the major commodity of the Turks & Caicos; Cuban cigars are still considered the finest of tobacco products; and the Tainos produced, according to Las Casas, “a thousand things from cotton,” including short skirts for women and belts that had decorative designs created by the addition of shell beads. We know that Tainos from Haiti traveled to Grand Turk to manufacture red beads from the thorny jewelbox shell (Chama sarda) as early as AD 1100.

The introduction of sugarcane and the cultivation of cotton set in motion the African Diaspora. With the arrival of the Spanish, warfare, excessive demands, mistreatment, and introduced diseases led to the rapid demise of the Taino peoples. In order to maintain an adequate labor pool the Spanish brought enslaved Africans to the Caribbean and set them to work on sugar and cotton plantations. These are the ancestors of most of the people who live in the islands today. The mixing of cultures, especially African and Taino, has created a rich heritage. A heritage based on fishing, farming, medicinal plants, local cuisines, and especially self-reliance. Europeans may have skimmed off the profits, but modern West Indians have persevered.

Deforestation has caused major problems in the islands. Stripped of their protective vegetation the soil becomes baked into a hardpan, and heavy rains can cause incredible floods. A recent incident is worth noting. We are saddened by the loss of life in southern Haiti and the Dominican Republic as the result of severe flooding in June, 2004. It was reported that the town of Mapou, Haiti, was completely underwater. A New York Times article used the name Mapou to highlight the ecological devastation that Haitian peoples have wrought on their country. They made special note of the fact that the name Mapou comes from a tree that occupies a special place in the Haitian practice of Voodoo. However, there are no longer any mapou trees in Mapou; the implication being that primitive beliefs were belied by the cutting down of sacred trees.

Had the press done more than skim the surface, they would have found deeper meanings. The name for the tree is of Taino origin (mapu, meaning large red tree). It is a very impressive tree that we know firsthand. While in Haiti we were challenged to hike from Labadee to Cap Haitian (“Okap” in Kweyol/Creole). Close to a spring near the top of the “mountain” overlooking Okap there was a huge tree. It was unlike any tree we had seen in Haiti. It would have taken three people holding hands to encircle its circumference.

How could such a huge tree survive in a country where mango trees (a valuable and imported fruit tree) are felled for lumber? The answer is that the mapou requires a reliable water source, the trunk is usually hollow, there are numerous branches, and cavities in the wood. As a result it does not provide a good source of lumber. It has survived the decimation of Haiti’s forests because it is of little value except for shade. The tree achieved a spiritual significance because it grows to an enormous size in a place where most trees are best described as saplings. A similar fate befell the ancient forests of the Turks & Caicos, where trees on Grand Turk, Salt Cay, and South Caicos were cut because they “attracted rain” and thus hindered the production of solar-distilled salt.

The Tainos deserve the last word. It is reported that in an effort to discourage the Spanish invasion of their territory the Tainos fed them the fruit of the prickly pear cactus (tuna in Taino). These fruits apparently can cause a person’s urine to turn red when consumed in sufficient quantities. In fact, this cactus fruit was later fed to the chenille worm which concentrated the red color and was used to produce a dye for clothing. Unfortunately, what may have been a great practical joke (imagine your reaction if your urine suddenly turned red!) was not enough to frighten the Spanish away from Taino lands. In the end, the Tainos learned the hard way that a Spaniard — eats, shoots & stays.

Bill Keegan is Curator of Caribbean Archaeology, Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL. Betsy Carlson is an archaeologist with SEARCH, Inc. Gainesville. The careful reader will note that we managed to incorporate almost every form of standard punctuation in this column. “Keep to the Code” 🙂

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South Caicos was once a major exporter of salt harvested from its extensive salinas. Award-winning Master and Craftsman Photographer James Roy of Paradise Photography ( created this vertical composition by assembling a series of six images captured by a high-definition drone which was a half a mile away from his position.

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