Natural History

Talking Taino: Obeah and Zombies

The African Connection

By Dr. Bill Keegan and Dr. Betsy Carlson

Whenever we visit the Turks & Caicos we try to get together with our old friend, Chuck Hesse (Caicos Conch Farm). And every time we see Chuck he promotes his belief that Africans were living in the Islands prior to the arrival of the Spanish.

olmec-headThe case for Atlantic crossings by Africans was first proposed on the basis of superficial resemblances between the physical appearance of black Africans and artifacts of the Olmec culture of Gulf-coast Mexico. According to Rutgers Professor Ivan Van Sertima, the Olmec’s colossal stone heads, terracotta sculptures, skeletal remains, and pyramids, along with ancient European maps, all point to contacts between Africans and Central Americans between 800 and 600 B.C. Van Sertima’s conclusions are not widely accepted, and little effort has been expended in searching for possible connections between the Tainos and Africa. Undeterred, Hesse is wont to point out that Taino ceremonial seats are very similar to African birthing chairs.

The Tainos believed that their rulers were semi-divine and therefore could not soil themselves by sitting directly on the ground. Instead they sat on low wooden seats called duhos (one is on display at the Turks & Caicos National Museum) that do bear a striking resemblance to the low and sloping stools used in parts of West Africa during childbirth. Whether these resemblances are coincidental, derive from direct contact, or are the result of indirect contact remains to be demonstrated. The later possibility is at least partially supported by a wooden sculpture with Dahomey (West Africa) features that Keegan found washed up on a beach in Mayaguana.

While the jury is still out regarding possible pre-Columbian contacts between Africa and the Americas, there is increasing evidence that Tainos and other native peoples did interact with the enslaved Africans who were brought to the islands by Europeans beginning in the 16th century. These interactions had a profound effect on cultural beliefs and behaviors that continue to the present.

We know that escaped Africans were adopted by Island Caribs in the Lesser Antilles and through miscegenation became the Black Caribs (Garifuna) who the British rounded up, massacred, and then shipped the few survivors to Belize at the end of the 17th century. A recent study conducted on Montserrat indicates that knowledge of some of the medicinal plants used by the Island Caribs was passed on to Africans and continues in use today.

The question of Taino/African interactions is more difficult to specify because it has long been assumed that Taino culture was extinguished by the mid-16th century. More recent studies suggest that at least some Tainos managed to survive in remote areas. It is in this regard that two particular phenomena are worth reconsidering.

Let us start with a big tree. Columbus in 1492 and Oviedo in 1526 were both impressed by the size of the canoes (canoa) that the circum-Caribbean Indians made from the Ceiba (pronounced “sayba”). Ceiba (also called kapok or silk cotton) trees grow to more than 100 feet tall and can measure 10 feet in diameter above their buttress. The buttress can extend more than 25 feet from the base of the trunk. Taino canoes were hollowed out of tree trunks all in one piece. Some were 10 to 12 spans wide (a “span” measures 9 inches or 1/8th of a fathom), and could carry more than 100 men. The wood is exceedingly lightweight and easily worked. Dugout canoes are still made today from Ceiba trees in Jamaica.

dog-godThe Tainos also believed that the forest was inhabited by opias. Opias were the spirits of the dead, and one could identify them because they lack a navel. They were supposed to come out of the forest at night and feast on guayaba fruit. In fact, it is tropical bats that eat guavas at night, thus the Taino association of opias with bats. Opias also are associated with the deities who ruled the world of the dead. According to Ramon Pane: “They say a certain cemi, Opiyelguobiran, had four feet like a dog and is [made] of wood, and often he comes out of the house at night and enters the forests. They go there to seek him and bring him back to the house. They bind him with cords, but he returns to the forests.” The classic example of this cemi reportedly came from a cave in the Turks & Caicos.

Various beliefs in supernatural spirits were brought to the West Indies from Africa by enslaved peoples. It is likely that these beliefs were influenced by the last remaining native peoples. One of the modern words for spirits of the dead — Obeah — may originally have come from the Taino word — opia. Anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston studied Obeah in Jamaica for six months in 1936. She reported that “duppies” (spirits of the dead) live mostly in Ceiba and almond trees, and that neither tree should be planted too close to the house because the duppies will “throw heat” on the people as they come and go. Duppies are responsible for various kinds of mischief and can hurt a living person such that medicinal cures (including “balm baths”) must be sought from local healers who serve as both “doctor and priest.” Hurston’s observations during a “nine night” ceremony (so named because it lasted nine nights after a person dies) are instructive:
“It all stems from the firm belief in survival after death. Or rather that there is no death. Activities are merely changed from one condition to the other. One old man smoking jackass rope tobacco said to me in explanation: ‘One day you see a man walking the road, the next day you come to his yard and find him dead. Him don’t walk, him don’t talk again. He is still and silent and does none of the things that he used to do. But you look upon him and you see that he has all the parts that the living have. Why is it that he cannot do what the living do? It is because the thing that gave power to these parts is no longer there. That is the duppy, and that is the most powerful part of any man. Everybody has evil in them, and when a man is alive, the heart and the brain controls him and he will not abandon himself to many evil things. But when the duppy leaves the body, it no longer has anything to restrain it and it will do more terrible things than any man ever dreamed of. It is not good for a duppy to stay among living folk. The duppy is much too powerful and is apt to hurt people all the time. So we make nine night to force the duppy to stay in his grave.”

Another connection can be found in the practice of Vodoun (or Voodoo), specifically with regard to the creation of zombies. The word zombi probably comes from the Kongo word nzambi, which glosses as “spirit of a dead person.” In Haiti a zombi is someone who has annoyed his or her family and community to the degree that they can no longer stand to live with this person. They respond by hiring a Bokor, a Vodoun priest who practices black magic and sorcery. Through the application of a coup poudre (magic powder) the victim appears to die. They are then buried and within a few days are exhumed. Though still living, they remain under the Bokor’s power until the Bokor dies.

In 1982, noted ethnobiologist E. Wade Davis went to Haiti following reports that two people who were supposed to be dead had recently returned to their villages. Both the victims and their relatives attested to the fact that these two had been turned into zombies. Fortunately for Dr. Davis one of the victims was able to describe the symptoms that followed his poisoning. Davis succeeded in learning the recipe for poudre zombi, and was present to witness its preparation. In the process, he recognized that the main ingredients included fou-fou which we know as the porcupinefish (Diodon hystrix), and the crapaud de mer, sea toad or pufferfish (Sphoeroides testudineus). These fishes contain a deadly nerve toxin, called tetrodotoxin.

But where did the use of pufferfish as a poison come from? It is not present in African versions of Vodoun and must therefore have been added after Africans reached the Americas. The answer seems to be that Africans learned how to use this toxin from the Tainos. Indeed, there are substantial numbers of porcupinefish bones in the archaeological sites. Initially we assumed that the Tainos had simply found ways to prepare the fish to avoid being poisoned. After all, their staple crop was manioc (Manihot esculenta), a root whose “bitter” varieties contain toxic levels of cyanogenic glucosides (cyanide). The poison must be removed by grating the tubers and squeezing out the juice before the flour can be eaten. If they had learned to remove one poison, they certainly could have learned to remove others.

taino-porcupine-fishWe then made two discoveries that suggested these fish were not just food. First, the huge upper jaw of a porcupinefish was identified in a faunal sample from MC-32 on Middle Caicos. This jaw was from a fish that would have been over 2 feet long, which is about their maximum size. The jaw was put on display in the original small exhibit of Taino artifacts in the Turks & Caicos National Museum. By chance it was juxtaposed to a display of pottery from archaeological sites in the Islands. One of the larger pieces was recovered from the bead-making workshop on Grand Turk. The bowl was shaped like an animal, and we originally thought that it represented a frog because frogs figure prominently in Taino mythology. However, on closer inspection and comparison to published photographs of pufferfish, we became convinced that the bowl was shaped to look like a puffer. This bowl was brought to Grand Turk from Haiti around AD 1200. It was found in association with a variety of ritual paraphernalia in a place where they were making disc-shaped beads. These beads were woven into belts to record alliances between caciques (chiefs), and their value derived from their brilliant red color and their origin across the sea.

Compare the photographs of the fish and the bowl. Notice how both have a bulbous body, both have raised eyes, both have an elongated mouth, and both have nose holes — though the holes in the pot have been relocated to above the eyes where they served to accommodate strings by which the pot was suspended. It is striking how alike the two images appear. Given the historical context in which this pufferfish effigy bowl was recovered one is left wondering whether the Tainos used the tetrodotoxins in these fishes as a means to communicate with the spirits (as they did with cohoba and tobacco), and to heighten the authority of the behique (shaman) who could seemingly die and then days later appear to rise from the dead. Were there zombies before there was Vodoun?

It has long been assumed that the Taino peoples were driven to extinction prior to the arrival of enslaved peoples from Africa. However, new evidence suggests that there were interactions and that some of the Tainos’ knowledge, beliefs and practices have survived to the present. And maybe, just maybe, these interactions began centuries before the arrival of the Spanish.

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, Florida.

1 Comment

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Fred Kennedy
Sep 26, 2012 21:01


I am publishing a book on Jamaican Taino. Do you know where I can obtain copyright permission to use image of Opiyelguobiran that is is posted here on your site?

Thanking you for considering my request.

Fred Kennedy.

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