The Taíno people are one of the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean. At the time of European contact in the late 15th century, they were the principal inhabitants of most of Cuba, Trinidad, Jamaica, Hispaniola (which today is made up of Haiti and the Dominican Republic), and Puerto Rico. Cuba’s largest indigenous group was the Ciboney (or Siboney) inhabiting the central part of the island, while other Taínos dominated the eastern part. In the Greater Antilles, the northern Lesser Antilles, and The Bahamas, they were known as the Lucayans. They spoke the Taíno language (an Arawakan language), which contained traces of earlier languages which were supplanted by Taíno. The ancestors of the Taíno entered the Caribbean from South America and their culture is closely linked to that of Mesoamericans. At the time of contact, the Taíno were divided into three broad groups, known as the Western Taíno (Jamaica, most of Cuba, and the Bahamas), the Classic Taíno (Puerto Rico and Hispaniola, and the Eastern Taíno (northern Lesser Antilles). Taíno groups were in conflict with the Caribs of the southern Lesser Antilles.
At the time of Columbus’s arrival in 1492, there were five Taíno chiefdoms and territories on Hispaniola, each led by a principal Cacique (chieftain), to whom tribute was paid. Ayiti (“land of high mountains”) was the indigenous Taíno name for the island of Hispaniola, which (on the Western side) has retained its name as Haïti in French.
Cuba, the largest island of the Antilles, was originally divided into 29 chiefdoms. Most of the native settlements later became the site of Spanish colonial cities retaining the original Taíno names, including Havana, Batabanó, Camagüey, Baracoa, and Bayamo. The name Cuba comes from the Taíno language, although the exact meaning of the name is unclear. It can be translated as “where fertile land is abundant” (cubao), or a “great place” (coabana).
Puerto Rico was also divided into chiefdoms. As the hereditary head chief of Taíno nation, the cacique received significant tribute. At the time of the Spanish conquest, the largest Taíno population centers may have had more than 3,000 people each.
The Taíno were historically enemies of the neighboring Carib nations, a different group which also had its origins in South America and lived mainly in the Lesser Antilles. The relationship between the rival groups has been the subject of many studies. For much of the 15th century, the Taíno tribe was being driven to the northeast in the Caribbean because of raids by the Carib. Women were taken as captives, resulting in many Carib women speaking Taíno.
The Spaniards who arrived in the Bahamas, Cuba, and Hispaniola in 1492, and later in Puerto Rico, did not bring women on their first expeditions. Since the arrival of the conquistadores, Taíno women were kidnapped and some were enslaved and traded amongst the Spaniards. The rape of Taíno women in Hispaniola by the Spanish was common, resulting in mestizo children. Scholars suggest there was also substantial mestizaje (racial and cultural mixing) in Cuba, and several Indian pueblos survived into the 19th century.
The Taíno became nearly extinct as a culture following settlement by Spanish colonists, primarily due to infectious diseases for which they had no immunity. The first recorded smallpox outbreak in Hispaniola was in either December 1518 or January 1519. This smallpox epidemic killed almost 90% of the Native Americans who had not already perished. Warfare and harsh enslavement by the colonists also caused many deaths. By 1548, the Taíno population had declined to fewer than 500. Starting in about 1840, there have been attempts to create a quasi-indigenous Taíno identity in rural areas of Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. This trend accelerated among the Puerto Rican community in the mainland United States in the 1960s. At the 2010 U.S. census, 1,098 people in Puerto Rico identified themselves as “Puerto Rican Indian,” 1,410 identified as “Spanish American Indian,” and 9,399 identified as “Taíno.” In total, 35,856 Puerto Ricans considered themselves Native American.
The name was used by the indigenous people of Hispaniola to indicate that they were “relatives”; Columbus misunderstood the term as meaning “Good, noble people” The Taíno people, or Taíno culture, has been classified by some authorities as belonging to the Arawak, as their language was considered to belong to the Arawak language family, the languages of which were present throughout the Caribbean, and much of Central and South America. The early ethnohistorian Daniel Garrison Brinton called the Taíno people the “Island Arawak”. Nevertheless, contemporary scholars have recognized that the Taíno had developed a distinct language and culture.
Taíno and Arawak appellations have been used with numerous and contradictory meanings by writers, travelers, historians, linguists, and anthropologists. Often they were used interchangeably; “Taíno” has been applied to the Greater Antillean nation only, or including the Bahamian nations, or adding the Leeward Islands nations, or all those excluding the Puerto Rican and Leeward nations. Similarly, “Island Taíno” has been used to refer to those living in the Windward Islands only, to the northern Caribbean inhabitants only, as well as to the population of the entire Caribbean.
Modern historians, linguists and anthropologists now hold that the term Taíno should refer to all the Taíno/Arawak nations except for the Caribs, who are not seen to belong to the same people. Linguists continue to debate whether the Carib language is an Arawakan dialect or creole language, or perhaps an individual language, with an Arawakan pidgin used for communication purposes.
Rouse classifies as Taíno all inhabitants of the Greater Antilles (except the western tip of Cuba), the Bahamian archipelago, and the northern Lesser Antilles. He subdivides the Taíno into three main groups: Classic Taíno, mostly from Haiti, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic; Western Taíno, or sub-Taíno, for population from Jamaica, Cuba (except for the western tip) and the Bahamian archipelago; and Eastern Taíno for those from the Virgin Islands to Montserrat.