Natural History

Talking Taino: The Book

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tt-coverBy Bill Keegan & Betsy Carlson

It seems like yesterday, but five years have now passed since we began writing our column called “Talking Taíno” for Times of the Islands. Our goal has been to use the words of the original inhabitants of the Caribbean, known as Taínos when Europeans arrived, to highlight Caribbean natural history, then and now. Editor Kathy Borsuk embraced our idea, and has been a huge supporter of our musings. We’re so pleased to

announce that in November 2008, The University of Alabama Press will publish the complete collection of our essays, including several older essays on Columbus and several new essays written specifically for the book.  Just in time for Christmas!

The book contains 25 short essays about Caribbean natural history. Although many were revised to expand their scope, the heart of these essays is in the Turks & Caicos Islands. Over the years we have been fortunate to have a variety of excellent photographers contribute illustrations to our work. This publication includes 40 black and white photographs and 15 color plates, including several spectacular underwater photographs by Barbara Shively. The book is dedicated to our long-time, don’t call him old, friend and colleague — Brian Riggs.
If you will allow us an indulgence, we will skip the Taino words for the moment, and offer instead the Preface to the book. We’ll get back on track in the next issue of Times of the Islands:
The grey beard (Bill, not Betsy) is telling. Combined, the two of us have spent 45 years conducting archaeological research in the Caribbean. Bill started in 1978, and Betsy in 1992. Over the years we have directed research projects in Trinidad, Grenada, St. Lucia, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, Jamaica, Grand Cayman, the Turks & Caicos Islands, and throughout the Bahamas. We have also had the good fortune to visit many of the other islands in the Caribbean.
Our experiences have been remarkable. We’ve walked hundreds of miles of Caribbean coastline, dodged drug smugglers, camped on beaches miles from humanity, seen the night sky in the total absence of other light, SCUBA dived in pristine waters, searched for glass fishing floats on beaches that no one ever visits, and enjoyed the wonders of nature that surrounded us. Most of all, wherever we went, we were welcomed by the friendly people who today live in these islands. It is an understatement to say that we were welcomed with open arms; it is more accurate to say that they adopted us!
The main reason we made these trips was to study the lifeways of the peoples who lived in the Caribbean before the arrival of Christopher Columbus. Sadly, harsh treatment and European diseases extinguished their culture, a culture we today call Taíno (also known as Arawak). In an effort to repay our debt to the past and present we began writing a series of short essays called “Talking Taíno.” The bottom line for each essay was showing the relationship between the Taínos of the past, and the present natural history of the islands. Our goal has been to bring the past to life, and highlight commonalities between past and present. We did so by emphasizing Taíno words, and Taíno beliefs about the natural world.
Most of our essays have a Taíno word list and English translation, and these are compiled in three appendices. We also recommend the most comprehensive discussion of Caribbean languages in English, which was published by Julian Granberry and Gary Vescelius (Languages of the Pre-Columbian Antilles, University of Alabama Press, 2004). A significant difference between their work and ours is that they tend to exclude the names for plants and animals, which we do include in our appendices with their scientific and common names.
It should be noted that Taíno was not a written language, and thus there are a variety of spellings for the same word; for example, zemi and cemí, Xaragua and Jaragua. One issue is finding the letters that appropriately express particular pronunciations. In this regard, Granberry and Vescelius do an excellent job of capturing the proper pronunciation of Taíno words.
Initially, we wanted to call this collection of essays “Buffalo Sojourn.” The first meaning was a play on words that we hoped reggae fans would recognize immediately (“Buffalo Soldier”). A key line from this Bob Marley song is:  “If you know your history, then you will know where you’re coming from.” Our intent in writing these essays was to provide a more detailed introduction to the (natural) history of the islands and their peoples.
There was also a more personal connection. We began work on several archaeological research projects in the Turks & Caicos Islands in 1989, and were later invited to Jamaica by Mr. Tony Clarke in 1998. One of our first (non-archaeological) discoveries was that many of the feral donkeys that we had seen wandering the streets of Grand Turk had been airlifted to Jamaica, and were now thriving in the lush pastures of Tony’s Paradise Park dairy farm. Tony was looking for an archaeologist to investigate the sites on his property, and heard of us during the process of arranging the transfer of donkeys (thanks to Marsha Pardee). We have worked for donkeys in the past, but this is the first time one got us a job!
Several years later we encountered some new residents. Fidel Castro presented the Prime Minister of Jamaica with 12 water buffalos as a special gift in recognition of their many years of cooperation. This was a very practical gift, and shows that heads of state are not always motivated by pomp and circumstance. But no water buffalo would want to live on the streets of Kingston, so they were distributed to several farms in the country, and four of them were sent to Paradise Park. The hope was that they would eat the water hyacinth that was clogging the Dean’s Valley River, but they actually preferred pasture grass. We always thought that grass was grass, but these farms actually plant special pasture grasses for their dairy cows. The donkeys and water buffalos are thrilled! (We have heard that Bob Marley was also an aficionado of fine grass.) We spent five field seasons at Paradise Park working near our donkey friends from Grand Turk and the water buffalos from Cuba.
Cut to the chase. Very different worlds were thrust together into a common history 500 years ago. We hope you will appreciate with us the wonders of the Caribbean world, the peoples who lived there in the past, and those who live there today. They are, whether you know it or not, an integral part of who you are.

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 with Southeastern Archaeological Research, Inc., Jonesville, Florida.

Talking Taino is published by The University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, Alabama 35487-0380 (, ISBN -13: 978-0-8173-5508-1.

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