Natural History

Talking Taino: If You Like Pina Coladas…

By Dr. Betsy Carlson and Dr. Bill Keegan

Pineapple and coconut are an interesting combination. While the former comes from the Americas, the latter was introduced from Southeast Asia (via the Canary Islands) by the Spanish. The Spanish believed that coconuts had “the most palatable taste of all things one can find on earth.” They also really liked pineapples, which they called “pina” because they resembled pine cones. The Taino called them anana. In a pina colada, we see the perfect melding of Old and New World fruits (when combined, of course, with rum from Southeast Asian sugar cane and historical American ingenuity in distillation).

tropical-fruitWhen you work in the West Indies it is impossible not to associate your favorite memories with fruits. Finding a ripe lime tree near Kew on North Caicos and squeezing its juice into a cold Coke after a hot day’s work. Ice cream made from soursop in Haiti or passion fruit in Puerto Rico. A papaya picked from a trailside tree in the Dominican Republic and drenched in lime juice fresh from a nearby tree. Walking along in Grenada popping genip and sucking all the sweetness from the fibrous seed, which leaves in your mouth what seems like a wad of chewed newspaper (we were told it would ward off thirst). Pineapple for lunch in Haiti, procured with a machete. Eating ripe coco plums on West Caicos or sea grapes in Cuba. The smell of a freshly cut guava . . .

Tropical and subtropical fruits are rarely an acquired taste; most of them are sweet and juicy and easy to love at first bite. People in the islands have an advantage because much of the world doesn’t have immediate access to these fruits (and when they do, the fruits are usually not ripe when they were picked to ensure that they will make it to market).

sapodillaSpaniards created an amazing mixing of fruits when they arrived in the New World. They brought with them some of the fruits that they had acquired through trade with Africa and Southeast Asia: bitter oranges, sweet oranges, lemons, limes, figs, and dates (although they hadn’t yet recognized the importance of citrus in countering scurvy during long ocean voyages). The Tainos, who they met, had also brought fruit trees with them when they moved from the South American mainland to the islands, and pre-Taino peoples had previously introduced fruits from Central America. Migrating people tend to not leave home without their favorite plants and animals.

Early Spanish descriptions of the fruits of the West Indies were glowing in their praise. Pineapples (Ananas sativus) were “one of the best fruits in the world . . . and also very handsome.” And, after the pineapple was introduced to North America in the 17th century, it was so well received it became a symbol of hospitality.

Avocado (Persea gratissima), which West Indians call “pear” (so as not to confuse it with “avocat” or “abocado,” which mean lawyer in French and Spanish), was reportedly “very good with cheese.” The Spanish also noted that the Taino gave these pear trees no care whatsoever and that God was “the principal gardener.” Soursops (Annona spp.) were described as “large, cone-shaped fruit, with white, delicate-tasting flesh.” Actually, they look like spiky green hedgehogs and can reach a foot in length. The mamey (Mammea americana), which is a Taino word, has not been introduced into the North American market yet, but the Spanish thought they tasted like peaches but better. (Can anything really be better than peaches?)

The Spanish chronicler Oviedo made this insightful statement about guavas (Psidium guajava): “They have many seeds that are bothersome only to those who eat the fruit for the first time.” Foods with such a heavenly taste and smell just might be considered sinful. The Tainos associated guava (guayabo) with the world of the dead. Spirits, called opias, were said to come out at night in the guise of bats and feast on these sweet fruits. The ruler of the world of the dead, Maquetaurie Guayaba, has guava as part of his name.

The richness of the fruit trees of the West Indies is in many instances the result of Taino introductions and management of various tree species. At archaeological sites in Puerto Rico and Hispaniola, the contents of Taino house gardens have been studied by Dr. Lee Newsom of Penn State University. She has identified in these house gardens papaya (Ababaia), guava, soursop (Guanabana), several fruits of the sapotacaea family (star apple, yellow sapote, sapodilla) and panama tree (Sterculia apetala), which is a member of the chocolate family that has edible seeds that can be ground and roasted and made into a beverage. The papaya and panama tree are not native to the West Indies; they were introduced by the ancestors of the Taino who came from South America, although the homeland of the papaya is Central America. The small, green genip (Melicocca bijugata) is another South American introduction.

Sapodilla, yellow sapote, and avocado also are originally from Central America and all were introduced to the West Indies before the South American migration. Yellow sapote (Caimito) is sometimes called “egg fruit” because the flesh has the consistency of a hard boiled egg yolk. Sapodilla has soft, brown flesh that tastes a bit like root beer. Its bark is the source of chicle, an ingredient of chewing gum. The related species, Star apple, has a green or purple skin and a mucus-like texture.

In the Bahama archipelago, several fruits have been identified in archaeological sites: cocoplum (Chrysobalanus icaco), hog plum (Spondias lutea), strong bark (Bourreria spp.), and wild lime (Zanthoxylum spp.). Strong bark and wild lime were identified at the Coralie site on Grand Turk. It was lime wood that was used to fashion the canoe paddle currently on display at the Turks & Caicos National Museum. Hog plum grows in clusters of small, yellow fruits with fibrous, juicy pulp and a large seed. The cocoplum, locally called Caicos plum, grows on windward beaches. Its fruits are dark purple and the size of olives and are much loved by iguanas. Iguanas also love tuna (prickly pear: Opuntia sp.), another favorite fruit for the Tainos.

bixa-orellana-podsOther types of trees were introduced prehistorically to the Islands because their fruits functioned as something other than food. Achiote (Bixa orellana), originally from lowland South America, has seeds that were ground and made into a bright red dye that the Tainos called bija. This red paste was used to color their skin. The color red was associated with Taino male virility, but bija apparently also repelled mosquitos. Today, achiote is used as a natural food coloring that gives us the lovely yellow color in processed American cheese. Cupey (Clusea rosea) was introduced because it was an important source of resin for the Taino, and Las Casas wrote that the Spanish used it as a substitute for paper.

The genipap (Genipa americana) seems also to have been introduced from South America. Called jagua by the Taino, the fruit was processed into a black dye and used for tattooing, painting, and possibly for dyeing hair. The Turks & Caicos National Museum was originally called Guinep House after the large genipap tree in the front yard.

Fruit trees in the Caribbean are often large trees and the Taino word for shade tree is the same as the word for fruit tree (Yabisi). The Tainos associated the black dye from the jagua fruit with representations of the spirit world. In Taino mythology, it was a cave called “Cacibajagua,” literally Cave of the Jagua, from which the Taino peoples first emerged. The rest of the human race came from a second cave called “AmayaƓna,” which glosses as the Cave of No Importance!

tree-gourdGuiro (Calabash: Crescentia cujete, and bottle gourd: Lagenaria siceraria) were among the earliest and most important plants cultivated in the Americas. They were the equivalent of pre-Hispanic canteens and were the main water container among the Tainos. The Tainos had no need to make ceramic water bottles (don’t tell Nalgene) because these gourds provided a ready and reliable container.

Europeans were not the first islanders to make alcoholic concoctions from West Indian fruits. The Island Caribs, who lived in the Lesser Antilles, reportedly made a kind of wine from pineapples.
So continue in the native tradition. Order a fruit salad made from local fruits; it will taste nothing like the fruits you get at home. And the next time you combine rum, coconut cream, pineapple juice, half-and-half and ice in a blender to enjoy a frosty Pina Colada, remember that you are experiencing the best of both worlds.

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

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