Natural History

Partying, Taino-style

tt-vomitThe ritual of Taino arietos often had a deep and sacred meaning.
By Bill Keegan and Betsy Carlson

Music and dance are integral parts of human life. Every culture in the world has songs and dances that are used to mark important occasions and special ceremonies. Among the Tainos these were called arietos.

Taino communities are characterized by the arrangement of houses around a cleared central space. Dancing and singing associated with communal ceremonies was most often conducted in this central plaza. One of the most important ceremonies was the autumn feast. Men and women wore wreaths of grasses and flowers on their heads, strings of shells on their arms, hips and legs, and in the Bahamas (including the Caicos Islands) they are said to have worn crowns made of feathers. The ceremony began with a procession into the central plaza with the people dressed in little more than their ornaments, although married women wore a short skirt made of woven cotton. During this ceremony, food was offered to the spirits (cemies). The shamans (behique) would give a small piece of the cassava bread, which had been offered to the spirits, to each of the participants. These pieces were carefully preserved until the following year (much as Catholics keep palm leaves from Palm Sunday until the following Easter). Their singing and dancing were accompanied by drumbeats.

Drums were only used on the most solemn of occasions. These included celebrating the deeds of the ancestors, preparations for war and ceremonies associated with marriage and death. Men and women danced by themselves in rows or circles with their arms around the waists of their neighbors. The songs that were sung were part of their sacred knowledge passed down from the chiefs to their successors. These songs — oral histories — sang the praises of the gods and the heroic deeds of the ancestors. Each song could last three to four hours, and the dancing continued until the dancers collapsed from exhaustion and intoxication. The latter was the result of consuming copious quantities of “beer” made from either fermented cassava (uicu) or fermented corn (chichi).

During some ceremonies, the chiefs would inhale a narcotic snuff made from the crushed seeds of the piptadenia tree. The snuff (cohoba) was placed on a platform at the top of a carved wooden statue representing the cemi with whom the chief wished to communicate. By entering a trance they were able to ask the spirit for special assistance and divine the future. Their visions set the course for future actions. At times, this was accompanied by the playing of a ball game, called batey. The game consisted of 10 to 30 players on each side who attempted to move a spongy “rubber” ball the length of the court without using their hands or feet. Both sexes played the game, but always separately. The outcome of the game often was used as public justification for community-wide decisions on the proper course of action.

The importance of arietos as sacred knowledge is apparent in early Spanish attempts to establish control and extract tribute from the Tainos. Faced with insatiable demands from the Spanish, the Tainos organized a war party consisting of over 6,000 men under the leadership of the cacique Guarionex with the intention of wiping out the Spanish colony at La Isabela. Bartholomew Columbus received advance warning of the planned attack, and, in violation of Taino rules of behavior, attacked after dark and captured the caciques who were directing the rebellion. The caciques, including Guarionex, were released after promising never to rise up against the Spanish again. However, shortly thereafter, Columbus realized that he had made a mistake and sought to take Guarionex as his captive.

Guarionex had gone into hiding among the Macorix (a group on Hispaniola that spoke a language different from Taino). The Spanish demanded that Mayobanex, the cacique of the Macorix, turn over Guarionex. Although his sub-chiefs argued that Guarionex must be surrendered to avoid war with the Spanish, Mayobanex could not bring himself to do so. He replied that it was not reasonable to give him up to his enemies since he was a good man, had wronged no one, had always been his friend, and had even taught Mayobanex and his wife how to do the “Arieto of Magua” (where Guarionex’s province was located), a ceremony that was highly valued. This act of defiance was too little too late. By 1504 all of the principal chiefs, including Guarionex and Mayobanex, had been deposed by the Spanish. Nevertheless, it is telling that sharing the sacred knowledge contained in the Arieto of Magua was considered a primary justification for loyalty.

Singing was also an important part of curing ceremonies performed by behiques. Called to exorcise the evil spirit that had invaded the body of a desperately ill person, the behique would use a bone or wooden spatula (often carved at one end to represent a Taino cemi), to induce vomiting and thus purge their body of its profane contents. They then inhaled cohoba or swallowed a narcotic herb (gioia) that allowed them to communicate with the spirits. After lighting a torch they danced and sang around the body accompanied by the rhythmic shaking of a rattle. After some time, an object was removed from the body and was identified as the cause of the illness. If the individual recovered, the reputation of the behique was enhanced and the object was kept as a cemi.

A variety of musical instruments were used during arietos. As mentioned, the most solemn occasions were accompanied by the beating of a wooden “tongue drum.” These drums, called maguay, were made entirely of wood and lacked the animal-hide head that is typical of other drums. (The Tainos had no large mammals from which drumheads could be made.) The drum was beaten with a single wooden stick, and provided the beat that was followed by the singers and dancers. For their part, the dancers wore strings of shells that “tinkled” together with the rhythm of their movements. Based on archaeological finds these seem to have been made mostly from Olive shells (Oliva sayana). It has also been suggested that women played castanets, which may have been made from opposing clamshells.

tt-tinklersThe Tainos also had rattles, as mentioned in conjunction with the curing ceremonies of the behiques. Although the Spanish described these as made from wood, it is more likely that they were hollowed out tree gourds. Two types of maracas are described. The first was small and held in both hands, which suggests that it lacked a handle. The second had two handles, described as scissor-like, and were much larger. We know that gourds were used as water containers so these may have been used primarily when calling upon spirits associated with water. In addition, some of the earliest pottery bowls in the Caribbean have hollow “adornos” affixed to the sides that contain small clay pellets that cause them to rattle when shaken. Adornos typically represent animals in at least two perspectives. The animal associations with particular spirits may have carried over to the more prosaic use of undecorated rattles. Alternatively, these rattles, which typically are not preserved in archaeological sites, may have had incised decorations representing particular cemies.

The Spanish recorded that trumpets made from the shells of large marine snails (for example, queen conch and triton’s trumpet) were used for signaling. Indeed, examples of shell trumpets are well known from archaeological excavations in the islands. Moreover, the making of a shell trumpet cannot be accomplished through the simple smashing of the uppermost point of the shell. The apex of these snails is far too hard and dense to create a useful mouthpiece, so the uppermost portion had to have been carefully removed. What is surprising is that we have found trumpets made from a variety of different large snail shells (cobo) and in a variety of different sizes. Each of these would yield a different tone that would reflect differences in the signal being presented, but may also reflect the use of trumpets as a musical accompaniment to particular arietos.

One of the most spectacular trumpets was found at the Governor’s Beach site (GT-3) on Grand Turk. What is remarkable is that this small triton’s trumpet shell (Charonia variegata) had been used to the point where the ridged surface of the shell was worn flat where the person blowing the trumpet held it in their fingers. After cleaning the shell and experimenting with its use as a trumpet, we found that it would only emit a sound if held with fingers placed exactly on the worn surfaces. It is hard to imagine why such a long-used and apparently prized instrument was discarded, especially when it still worked perfectly 800 years later!

One of the most enigmatic musical instruments is the bone flute. Although few have been found in archaeological contexts, and the Spanish chroniclers provide only passing mention of their use, their existence cannot be denied. Interestingly, the Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida has a collection of eight such flutes that were donated by a private collector. Dr. Peter Roe, a well-regarded authority on Taino mythology and iconography, examined these and concluded that they were authentic. The bone flutes are made from human leg bones and have open ends with holes drilled along their central axis. The occasions on which such flutes were used are not described by the Spanish.

tt-maracaThe brass bells that were brought by the Spanish fascinated the Tainos. This in part comes from the Taino association of gold or brass objects with a heavenly source (turey). Columbus’s most desired trade items were small hawks bells (bells attached to the feet of hawks trained for hunting). In addition, the brass church bell at La Isabela was highly esteemed as “turey that speaks,” because the peal of this bell called the faithful Christians to mass.

The term arieto tends to be associated with formal occasions, yet Las Casas noted that women would spontaneously break into song as they worked together on the drudging task of processing manioc into cassava bread. Thus, while scientists may try to find logical meaning to such frivolous activities as singing and dancing, we cannot deny that “music hath charms to soothe the savage beast.”

Dr. Bill Keegan is Curator of Caribbean Archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida. Dr. Betsy Carlson is an Archaeologist at Southeastern Archaeological Research, Inc., Gainesville, Florida.


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Feb 15, 2011 17:30

The article intrests me a lot!!!!!!!!

Robert Harrison
Jun 1, 2012 17:53

Can you tell me where I can find more information about the vomit Spatula pictured above.
Material, size provenance and present location.
Thank you so much, Regards, Robert

Mia Rosario, MSW, CCHW
Mar 28, 2018 8:29

I am of TAINO ancestry and would love to “see” a picture of the flutes and other artifacts depicted in this article (close up shots if possible) to get an idea of what they looked like.

Thank You,
Mia Hibi D’Aniki Rosario/Pure Heart
Tallahasee, FL

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