Talking Taino

Child’s Play

What was the life of Taíno children like?

By Bill Keegan, Betsy Carlson and Michael Pateman

The huge interest in the Paleo Diet got us wondering. If eating like a “Caveman” was a great idea, then why not other ancient practices, like childrearing? However, developing Paleo-Parenting guidelines proved challenging because children are largely invisible in research on ancient societies. Then we came upon the picture of young children in Amazonia walking through a burning garden and realized how difficult it would be to encourage young parents to follow our advice! So parenting aside, what about the kids?

“Anacacuya” was painted by Alejandra Baiz, a Taino artist from Puerto Rico.

Finding any discussion of children in anthropological studies proved nearly impossible. In fact, a scholarly article written less than 20 years ago asked, “Why don’t anthropologists like children?” Despite being important members of all communities, and often the most numerous, their activities have rarely been studied. One rare example that highlighted children’s activities comes from Doug Bird and Rebecca Bliege Bird, who conducted research among islanders of the Torres Straits off the northeastern coast of New Guinea. 

The Birds studied child’s play in these traditional fishing and farming communities, and it was what you would expect from watching children today — games of speed, strength, caring for pets and mimicking adult activities. Instead of “Doctor” they played “Shaman,” where one child would pretend to heal another who pretended to be a sick patient. The process involved a dramatic ritual in which the shaman removed an offending foreign object, the “cause” of the illness, by sucking the object out of the afflicted individual. The Spanish described this practice for adult shaman (behique in Taíno) in the Caribbean. 

The Birds also observed that children often played together just beyond the watchful eyes of adults; close enough to reassure themselves that adults were nearby, but free from adult supervision. This gave us a simple, yet illuminating, insight — we won’t see children in the archaeological record of the past until we look for them. Yet children have received even less attention from archaeologists. What should we be looking for in terms of preserved archaeological (“material”) evidence of their activities? 

Our search for children intensified as part of our effort to develop a more comprehensive curriculum for the Bahamas Ministry of Education. The story of the Lucayans, the first people to live in The Bahamas and TCI, was woefully out of date. Yet, secondary school students were expected to pass a comprehensive history exam which includes writing an essay about Lucayan “recreation.” None of the resources provided to the teachers even mentioned recreation.

In fact, the only mention of children at all concerned the practice of flattening an infant’s forehead. This was illustrated with what looks like a Medieval torture device — a hinged board supposedly used to squash the skull flat. Wrong! The actual procedure involved tightly binding the front and back of the skull with a cloth bandana and leaving it in place for six to nine months. The six main bones of a child’s skull are held together by cartilage so the brain can grow to its adult size. Binding the skull permanently adjusts the relative positions of the bones to create what was considered a beautiful appearance and provided a permanent mark of identity. While flattening the forehead was easily associated with infants, finding other accounts of children proved much harder. 

Our first archaeological encounter with children happened when Betsy and Bill collaborated on an archaeological rescue project in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands in January 2014. New sewer and utility lines were being installed under Main Street, and the team quickly, but carefully, excavated a 1,600-year-old archaeological site that had been sealed beneath the roadbed. In addition to pottery and other tools, the site contained thousands of whelks (Cittarium pica) and other tiny clam and snail shells. Kelly Delancy, who now works for the National Museum of the Bahamas, helped with their analysis when she was a graduate student at the University of Florida. Our study attracted international attention in the article, “Children Have Been Helping Their Families ‘Grocery Shop’ for Centuries” printed in Martha Stewart Living on March 27, 2019.

Almost all these shells came from animals that live in the rocky intertidal zone. If you walk along the rocky shorelines in the Turks & Caicos today and look closely, you will see chitons, nerites, limpets, star shells and other denizens of tide pools and splash zones. Over the years we have eaten most of these (they taste best in garlic butter!), but they are a lot of work for a very small morsel. From a strictly economic perspective, they require more energy to collect and cook than they return in calories. Economics is not always the best way to explain what people do. We know that everyone likes variety in their diet, and we sometimes choose the most expensive item on the menu. (A choice made easier when offered a discount.)

The Taino made red beads from the cherry jewel box shell, perhaps collected by children?

The large whelks at the Main Street site are something we expect adults to collect, but why were there so many tiny shells? Our sample looked like as if someone was instructed to collect every animal living on the rocks without regard to size. What better way to keep the kids busy then to have them glean the rocks while the adults engage nearby in more productive fishing and gathering?

These small shellfish had other characteristics that are especially well suited for a child’s size and attention span. They are abundant so the children won’t get bored, predictable so you know they will find something, lightweight and easy to carry by even small children, and they are easy to collect, especially by small hands. Small-size resources that are easy to capture are best suited to foraging by children. Modern studies of children helping adults with mollusk collection confirmed this idea. Children were less selective, captured a higher diversity of taxa, rarely engaged in field-processing (extracting the meat from the shell) and focused on resources located close to their habitation or base camp. In addition, the seemingly small contributions from children made longer collecting trips more rewarding.

A related activity is worth considering. Every archaeological site that we have studied has evidence for the manufacture of tiny (2–4 mm) disc-shaped beads. White beads were made from the queen conch shell, and red beads from the cherry jewelbox shell (Chama sarda). The jewelbox shell has the unusual quality of retaining its bright red color for hundreds of years if protected from sunlight. Based on our experience walking beaches in The Bahamas and TCI, jewelbox shells are rare, and it is unlikely that enough shells for bead making could be collected in a single foraging trip. It is more likely that the shells were accumulated over time. Given their small size and haphazard distribution, we propose that children were tasked with collecting these shells in the beach wash. The advantage of collecting the dead shells from the beach was that they were already partially shaped and polished. This may have been a way for children to curry favor with adults while at the same time playing along the Atlantic coast beaches.

Archaeological evidence for toys is much harder to find. Kids pick up all manner of objects and pretend that they are something else, but anything made of a perishable material is long gone. The long running joke is that when archaeologists find something they can’t explain they attribute it to “ceremonial significance.” Perhaps we need to ask instead whether things we can’t explain are due to child’s play? 

For the past four years we have been investigating a Lucayan archaeological site near Wemyss on Long Island, Bahamas. Site LN-8 is a Lucayan settlement with three superimposed living surfaces. Large stains from house posts show that we were excavating inside Lucayan houses that were rebuilt in the same location over a period of 500 years. One of many mysteries is why we found so many small pieces of finger coral (Porites porites) inside a house. There are no known practical uses for this type of coral. We wondered, could they be associated with a kid’s game, perhaps a kind of ancient LEGO? Such speculation may seem farfetched, but while counting and weighing dozens of pieces we made a discovery that may point to children.

Could this small figurine (radiocarbon dated to AD 1426-1515) be a doll?

A small figurine, perhaps a “doll,” made from finger coral was recovered. The object was found at the second living surface (28–38 cm below surface), which is radiocarbon dated to AD 1426–1515. It measures 6.2 cm in length and has two eyes incised on either side of the head. The coral was abraded in places to produce the figurine shape, and the coral polyps are worn smooth through handling. A “mouth” appears on one side, although this may be from suspending the doll on a string necklace. There are a set of eyes on either side of the head, which could reflect symmetry, but also gives the object the same appearance when viewed from either side. Or, the two sets of eyes might reflect the “twin spirits” ascribed to cemís. The conventional interpretation of this artifact would be a cemí idol, the representation of a spirit(s), which would elevate it to the status of a ceremonial object associated with adult practices of worship. Yet cemís are rarely manufactured from coral, and the simplicity of the artifact suggests to us that it may have been made and carried by a child. We call this object a “doll” to emphasize this point and interpret it as a child’s talisman.

When we were children there were no car seats, no bike helmets, no sunblock; but if you went swimming less than 30 minutes after eating you would drown. Even recent notions of childrearing don’t always provide sound guidance. Walking through a burning garden and carrying a machete might not concern parents in Amazonian communities, but crayons are certainly a better gift for a five-year old today.

Dr. Bill Keegan is Curator of Caribbean Archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History (University of Florida); Dr. Betsy Carlson is Senior Archaeologist at Southeastern Archaeological Research (SEARCH, Inc.) in Jonesville, FL; and Dr. Michael Pateman is former Director of the Turks & Caicos National Museum and currently Curator/Lab Director of the AEX Maritime Museum on Grand Bahama. 

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