Natural History

Talking Taino: Starry, Starry Night

orion-aBy Dr. Bill Keegan and Dr. Betsy Carlson

Jacques Derrida is dead. He died on October 9, 2004 at the age of 74. Derrida was a French philosopher who recognized the importance of language in shaping our perception of the world around us. He pioneered a field of critical theory called deconstructionism. The approach argues that all writing has multiple layers of meaning, which even the author might not understand. Written language is thus open to an endless process of reinterpretation. It can be compared to peeling back the layers of an onion.

“Talking Taino” is all about language. For the most part we have dealt with words that name particular plants, animals and activities; but we also have tried to show the ways in which Taino beliefs, myths if you will, structured the meanings of particular species and behaviors. Moreover, we are constrained by the fact that the Tainos did not have a written language. In this regard we must rely on the Spanish chroniclers for the Taino words that had importance and meaning. They are translations that cannot possibly capture the meanings that were understood by native speakers.

Vincent Van Gogh is also dead. He died a long time ago (1890), but he left a lasting mark on the world. His schizophrenia shaped an artistic palette that distorted the colors and hues that the “normal” brain perceives. One of the most acclaimed paintings of this postimpressionist artist is titled Starry Night. In it, and in his other works, he depicts things that the rest of us do not see.

Derrida and Van Gogh remind us that we live in a world of language and impressions, and that these may not fit our own modern beliefs or interpretations of the natural world. We tend to look at the world according to what we read and see; yet looking beyond what we usually see to that which we don’t see can enrich our lives. One of the most impressive things that we no longer see is the starry night.

Sitting on the beach at Jacksonville Harbour, East Caicos, we were finishing our one-pot meal of Thai chicken in peanut sauce that had been cooked on a small gas stove when we began to detect a humming in the bush behind us. As the sound grew in intensity we dove for our tents as swarms of mosquitoes (in Taino jejen) descended upon us. Trapped in our nylon cocoons we waited impatiently. Two hours later we emerged to a new world. Most of the mosquitoes had gone to bed, and we were immersed in the glow of starlight. Our surroundings were dominated by the brilliance of the heavens.

It is likely that similar scenes were played out every day for hundreds of years by the Taino peoples who inhabited these islands (although they didn’t have Thai chicken for dinner, they did grow peanuts, which they called mani). The darkness of the surrounding forest was a dangerous place at night where opias (spirits of the dead) wandered eating guavas and sweet fruits while searching for the living. But the village was far from dark. The night only seems dark to those who find incandescent lights a necessity. As John Denver wrote in his song Rocky Mountain High, “the shadows from the starlight were softer than a lullaby.” You have to experience it to believe him.

Although the night time held particular dangers, it also provided opportunities. Tainos who paddled a canoe from the Turks & Caicos to Haiti during the day ran out of visual landmarks soon after passing Bush Cay. Bush Cay is five miles south of Big Ambergris Cay on the Turks Bank, within the Seal Cays Wildlife Sanctuary. However, the night sky offered thousands of points of reference. It has long been the ideal map for sailors.

The night sky also offers a more encompassing display by which the passing of the seasons can be observed. It is true that the sun provided some hint of the passing of time, but the night sky is superior in this regard.

mc-6-courtDr. Shaun Sullivan pioneered the study of Taino astronomy in the late 1970s during his research at the Taino site called MC-6 on the south coast of Middle Caicos. At the middle of the site he found a stone-lined courtyard. This court is a remarkable piece of engineering. It is virtually flat, exhibiting only 10 cm of grade despite 500 years of weathering. It was constructed with soil carried from the salina along the south side of the site. The northern and southern margins of the court are flanked by double rows of undressed limestone that are incorporated into earthen ridges. Sullivan’s topographic map showed that the double rows of stones were not parallel but instead bow proportionately along their course. At either end the court is about 13 meters wide, and at the middle it is about 19 meters wide. In addition, there is a large stone that had been set in the center of the court.

The rest of the settlement is organized around the court. There are eight structures with stone foundations surrounding the court. Sullivan found that when a transit was positioned over the central stone and then pointed at a structure mound on the periphery of the plaza, turning the transit 180 degrees intersected a complementary structure mound on the other side of the plaza. In addition, two other stone foundations were precisely reciprocal in that both had prominent high points on the side toward the plaza. When the transit was set over the central stone and the crosshairs centered on the mid-point of one of the structural prominences and then flipped, the prominence of the reciprocal structure was bisected precisely. The prominences were not functionally integral to the structures to which they were attached. They seem to have been used for some manner of sight alignment.

The main alignment through the center of the court conforms to the rising and setting sun on the summer solstice, an event that Sullivan observed firsthand in 1981. Sullivan also identified a number of other alignments with the rising and setting of stars that are significant in Native American astronomy. The most significant of which are alignments with the rising and setting positions of Betelgeuse, one of the principal stars in the constellation Orion. In fact, the structures are not all exactly aligned around the court, and Keegan has shown that their alignment seems to represent Orion. The court served as a direct link to the heavens as an observatory that marked important cosmological events.

Orion is located on the celestial equator and has 3 of the 25 brightest stars in the night sky (Betelgeuse, Bellatrix, and Rigel). The stars of Orion are exceptional even in a night sky diminished by modern light pollution. Because the belt of Orion is aligned with the equator and sits at the center of the tropical sky, it has served as an important constellation in many native South American cosmologies. For them, Orion was the one-legged man.

Orion follows a cycle that provides an obvious means for telling time and marking the seasons. It makes its first appearance low on the horizon at dawn in early July and appears higher and higher each morning until mid-September when it is at the center of the sky at dawn. By mid-December, Orion sits at the center of the midnight sky. By mid-March, it is at the center of the sky at sunset, after which it appears lower and lower on the horizon each sunset until disappearing in late May. In this way, Orion can act as a marker for the summer and winter solstices and the vernal equinox. One reason for using Orion is that his circuit through the sky marks the beginning and end of the wet and dry seasons so important for tropical farmers, and he is associated with periods of good and bad fishing.

The Taino word for sky was turey. This also was the Taino word for the brass objects brought by the Europeans; they believed the brass had mythical origins and therefore came from the sky. Orion also had a mythical identity in the guise of the chief Anacacuya (literally “light of the center”). According to the Taino myth recorded by Ramon Pane in 1498 in northwest Hispaniola, Anacacuya was a prominent cacique who was drowned by his brother-in-law Guayahona, because Guayahona wanted to take all the women of the village for himself. While on a canoe trip, Guayahona told Anacacuya to look closely at a beautiful cobo (seashell) in the water, then toppled him into the sea. Each night, stars set into the sea and are born from the sea. Through the water, Anacacuya was able to enter the supernatural world of the sky and become Orion.

One of the best ways to experience the pre-modern world is to observe the night sky. In most places this has become impossible due to light pollution. We no longer live in places where the horizon is completely dark at night. Yet the Turks & Caicos Islands offer several unique opportunities.

There are very few places in the world — and Grand Turk is among the best — where you can watch the full moon rise at dusk from the sea on one side of the island and then travel to the other side to see it set at dawn back into the ocean. This is an exceedingly rare and rewarding (not to mention romantic) experience.

Ecotourism is all about getting close to nature in all of its “pristine” beauty. The night sky dominates half of our existence, yet it is rarely viewed in its pristine state. It would not be hard to arrange trips to places in the Turks & Caicos where you can still observe the night sky away from the glow of the bright city lights. The result will be a truer appreciation of the role that the night sky played in the lives of the people who first lived in the Islands, and a clearer vision of the starry, starry night.

Dr. Bill Keegan is Curator of Caribbean Archaeology, Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida. Dr. Betsy Carlson is an archaeologist with SEARCH, Inc. Gainesville.

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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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