Story and photos by Diane Slawych
Contrary to popular belief, the Indigenous people of Cuba didn’t entirely die off after the Spaniards colonized the island. Tainos, who were the last Amerindian group to settle on the island, can still be found in Cuba’s eastern provinces, though the chances of meeting them is slim.
But thanks to historical documents and archaeological finds in the last few decades we know how they lived many hundreds of years ago. About six km from the resort area of Guardalavaca is Aldea Taina, an authentic reconstruction of a Taino village.
Laid out on an open grassy area, it features recreated versions of their large, circular thatched dwellings, as well as a small plot of cultivated land, tropical fruit trees and life-sized models of Taino at work and play.
The Taino, who began arriving in Cuba in AD 1250 from Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, were a mostly peaceful people skilled at pottery and boat building. They cultivated food including manioc and yucca, which is still grown on the island today. Their language included words such as hurikan (hurricane), hamaka (hammock) and kanowa (canoe) that have passed into English, Spanish and other European languages. Even Cuba’s reputation for producing quality cigars can be traced back to the Taino, who grew and smoked tobacco as part of their rituals.
The ingenious Tainos also used materials found in nature to make their huts or “bohios.” “You see over there?” said the guide, pointing to a towering Royal Palm tree not far where we were standing. “Those dried bits that fall off from the trunk near where the berries are? That’s what they used to construct the house and the roof is made from the leaves.”
Not all the Taino bohios were intended for habitation. One of them, like the first that we enter, would’ve been reserved for use only by certain tribe members including the chief or cacique. Inside, on the dirt ground is a decorated idol representing life and death. Nearby
are models of a group of Taino men seated in a circle. This is where they would have performed rituals that included inhaling cigar smoke through their nostrils to produce hallucinations that put them in touch with the spirit world.
When they finished the ceremony, one of the men would blow into a conch shell, signaling they were ready to inform the rest of the community of the visions they received from the gods. This was followed by a dance, like the one that is replicated in the courtyard here. (Live performances usually take place here daily as well).
Another hut, similar in size and construction, is where the Tainos would have lived – a large communal space with hammocks where they would have slept.
Elsewhere on the site is a display of how cassava was prepared and then made into bread (you can sample a piece at the restaurant here); some replicas of carved “zemis” (sculptural objects which housed a spirit); and another hut that functioned as a clinic where a shaman would wave plants and shake rattles over a patient to get in contact with the god of health and determine the nature of a person’s ailment.
Of the estimated 500,000 Tainos who lived on the island before the Spaniards arrived, only about 5,000 remain today, though hundreds of thousands likely have Indigenous roots.
The location of Aldea Taina is fitting, as more Indigenous remains have been found in this area than any other part of Cuba.
Across the street at the Museo Chorro de Maita, you can see some of those remains – 108 Taino skeletons dating back to the 15th century, which were uncovered in 1986. In glass cabinets along the walls are dozens of artifacts that were found in the graves including ceramic jewellery, shells, spatulas to induce vomiting during purification ceremonies and fragments of earthenware pots.
New and amazing finds continue. About two decades ago, Canadian archaeologist David Pendergast and his Cuban counterparts stumbled on a group of posts at an underwater site at Los Buchillones in the central province of Ciego de Avila. It turned out to be the first almost perfectly preserved Taino house ever found and estimated to be about 400 to 700-years-old. Who knows what more will be revealed and learned in the years to come?