History & Heritage
Taíno Culture in Hispaniola: A Visitor's Guide
Taíno petroglyphs in a cave in Las Caritas, Dominican Republic
Photo: Ryan Bowen
Explore 10 Taíno cultural sites and museums across Dominican and Haitian Hispaniola where you can experience Taíno culture first-hand
Ever wonder what it was like in Hispaniola before Columbus?
Much has been said about what transpired after Columbus set foot on Hispaniola, but how much do you know about the thriving, peaceful culture that called the island home when Columbus arrived? And to what extent is that culture still alive today?
"They traded with us and gave us everything they had, with good will…they took great delight in pleasing us…They are very gentle and without knowledge of what is evil; nor do they murder or steal…Your Highness may believe that in all the world there can be no better people…They love their neighbors as themselves, and they have the sweetest talk in the world, and are gentle and always laughing."
- Christopher Columbus, writing in a section of his journal addressed to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain c 1492.
Today, researchers estimate 5000 Taíno indigenous people live in Cuba, with hundreds of thousands more throughout the Caribbean are likely to have Taíno roots.
Their culture gives all Dominican, Haitian, Cuban, and Puerto Rican people a unique shared identity and history, a link to an ancestry of sharing and love that tempers the region’s history of conquest and rebellion.
Using radiocarbon dating, human presence on the island of Hispaniola has been traced as far back as 4,000 B.C. Those early inhabitants are believed to be linked to the Arawakan People of modern-day Venezuela where several thousand of their descendants, the Lokono, still live and continue their traditions.
Scientific and archeological research has shown that Taínos migrated to the Chiefdom of Jaragua (roughly the same region as Cabaret in modern Haiti), around 3,630 B.C. Over thousands of years on the island, the Taíno consolidated a culture that featured agriculture, trade, inter-tribal marriages, and a peaceful life philosophy.
The Taíno had at least two names for the island now known as Hispaniola: Ayti (Haiti) meaning "MounTaínous Land", and Kiskeya, meaning "Mother of all Lands" - adopted by the Dominican Republic as Quisqueya.
At the time of European conquest, the island of Hispaniola was shared amongst the now advanced Taíno civilization, separated into five tribal regions of chiefdoms:
Northwest of the island (close to modern-day Port-de-Paix, Cap-Haïtien). The head chief (Taíno: cacique) was Guacanagarix, famous for receiving Columbus and his men peacefully after they were shipwrecked.
Northeast of the Island (where modern-day Puerto Plata and Samaná are located). The head chief (Taíno: cacique) of the Maguá was called Guarionex.
On the Southeast coast of Hispaniola (where you’ll find modern-day Punta Cana, La Romana and Santo Domingo), the Higuey chiefdom was governed by cacique Cayacoa.
In the South-central region of the Island (home to Santiago, Río San Juan and Bahoruco), Maguana was ruled by cacique Caonabo. After Caonabo’s death, his wife Anacaona took over as leader of her people.
Located on the SouthWest part of the Island (Port-au-Prince; Jacmel), ruled by the Head Chief of Cacique Bohechio, the brother of Anacaona. Other prominent warrior Taínos were Enriquillo, Hatuey, and Lemba.
Get up-close and personal with Taíno history & heritage
Here are 10 museums and Taíno cultural sites across Hispaniola - the Dominican Republic in the east, and Haiti in the west - where you can experience Taíno culture first-hand:
Taíno petroglyphs in the Pomier-caves
Photo: Ministerio de Cultura
1. See petroglyphs at the Caves of Pomier
“Hispaniola is the heart of Taíno culture and the caves are the heart of the Taíno,” Domingo Abréu Collado, chief of the speleology division in the Dominican Ministry of Environmental and Natural Resources, told Robert M. Poole for the Smithsonian Magazine.
In Las Cuevas de Pomier (the Caves of Pomier) in San Cristobal, you'll step into a natural cave system that dates back to pre-Columbian times, when the indigenous Taíno people depicted their way of life and cosmology in carbon drawings on the walls of sacred caves.
Anthropologists estimate that these caves were inhabited up to 2000 years ago, with traces of Igneri and Carib peoples as well as the more recent Taíno. The archeological record tells us that indigenous inhabitants created a series of “micro basins” in its lower levels to store rain water, which they used for agriculture.
Inside, over 4,000 prehistoric paintings and 500 cave drawings have been found, with even more currently being uncovered by the Cuevas de Pomier Foundation. If you make the trip, you’ll see how indigenous artists created pictographs of human figures and the many gods and deities of their cosmology as well as native birds, fish, reptiles, including some of Hispaniola’s unique and precious wildlife, like the endangered solenodon and hutia, rhino iguanas, and red-tailed hawks. Your tour guide will explain how artists used a mixture of vegetal carbon, natural pigments, and even manatee fat!
2. Museo del Hombre Dominicano, Santo Domingo
This museum has the largest and has the most extensive collection of Taíno artifacts in all of the Caribbean. Centrally located in Santo Domingo, the museum hosts exhibitions and installations recreating Taíno life and the methods they used to thrive in La Hispaniola. There are three floors dedicated to indigenous Taíno History:
First Floor: Dedicated to archeological Pioneer Narciso Alberti Bosch, featuring his personal monoliths along with temporary exhibitions by different artists and anthropologists.
Third Floor: The hall of Paleoindian, Mesoindian, Neoindian and pre-Columbine ages, showing ceramics, tools, and technologies used by Taínos.
Fourth Floor: Dedicated to different stages after Hispaniola’s “discovery” by Europeans, including slave trails, punishments and Vodou rituals.
MUPANAH - Museum of The Haitian National Pantheon
Photo: Anton Lau
3. Museé du Pantheon National Haitien, Port-au-Prince
The National Museum of Haiti has been around since 1938, exhibiting relics and historical documentation about the nation's history, dating back to when Arawakans and Taínos first migrated to Hispaniola. Beautiful pieces of art can be seen depicting the cruelty of the Spanish and French towards enslaved African and Taínos.
4. Yucayeque Macao Museo Indígena
Yucayeque is an eco-tourism center with over 40 ranches displaying the Higuey Chiefdom Culture, where you'll visit subterranean caves and have a chance to swim in cenotes. You can join interactive cultural activities focused on Taíno history, entertainment, and indigenous gastronomy.
This 340-acre property cultivates traditional Taíno foods for you to try: yuca, batata, avocado, cacao, pineapples and yams.
Historic exhibit at Centro León Museum
Photo: Mikkel Ulriksen
5. Centro Cultural Eduardo León Jimenes
Apart from being a modern cultural center for visual arts, Dominican anthropology, and art history, Centro Leon houses a magnificent and unique collection of Taíno ceramics and artifacts like vases, amulets, and necklaces, holding impressive exhibitions on Dominican ancestry.
The museum is located in Santiago de los Caballeros.
6. Taíno Museum in Haiti
Located on the northwestern coast of Hispaniola in Cap-Haïtien, Haiti, this museum showcases the artifacts and findings of the Kathy Dicquemare Foundation. Visitors can see a huge collection of bracelets, hair pins, relics and even skulls used by Taínos for certain religious ceremonies.
The museum has created animated videos telling the story of Columbus' arrival, to better educate the next generation of historians.
7. Museo Aquiologico Regional Altos de Chavon
Visited by thousands every year, Museo Chavon in La Romana is probably the world’s second-biggest concentration of all things Taíno, with a collection of over 3,000 pieces discovered during 40 years’ worth of archaeology by Samuel Pión. The collection is extensive and amply illustrates the evolution and complexity of indigenous society before foreign intervention.
8. En Bas Saline
On the Northeastern edge of Haiti, just 7.5 miles from Cap-Haitien, En Bas Saline is an ancient Taíno village that dates back to around 1,200 AD.
This is the famous site where Columbus was shipwrecked aboard the Santa Maria on Christmas Eve over 500 years ago. En Bas Saline village was part of the Marien Chiefdom, and Columbus was received by head chief Guacanagarix. Columbus dubbed the village La Navidad (Christmas), and even built a fort here (it was later destroyed in a revolt).
Reserva Ecológica Ojos Indígenas
Photo: Reserva Ecológica Ojos Indígenas
9. Swim and wander iguana habitat at Ojos Indigenas
Ojos Indigenas is a nature reserve south of Punta Cana. Visitors can swim in incredible Larimar-colored lagoons fringed with lush vegetation, and wander through self-guided trails (and an Iguana zoo!) to learn about indigenous Taíno culture and agriculture.
On site, you’ll take a self-guided tour to 12 freshwater lagoons, held sacred to the indigenous people for their resemblance to eyes (Spanish: ojos). A system of trails takes you through the 1,500 acres of protected land, with over 500 species of plants that create a unique habitat for its wildlife.
Less than ten minutes’ drive from central Punta Cana, a visit to Ojos Indigenas makes an excellent day-trip.
Cueva del Puente, Cotubanamá National Park
Photo: Jose Luis Torres
10. Explore caves and subterranean lagoons at Cotubanamá National Park
Cotubanamá National Park is home to some 400 (!) magnificent caves. Eerily bright-blue underground lagoons are fed by rain water, filtered by the rocky Coraline terrain above, and you can take a guided tour of the caves with professional Scuba instructors. There’s far too many to try to see all of them, so if you only see one, make it Sendero Padre Nuestro (the Path of Our Father).
In the stunning Sendero Padre Nuestro cave you'll find petroglyphs and pictographs left behind by generations of Taíno artists, and trace passages to find remarkably blue subterranean lagoons. While some underground lakes are dyed bright colors by toxic compounds, the water in Sendero is pure and an important source of clean drinking water. To preserve this clean water for coming generations, the Sendero is the second-most heavily protected site in the country, but you can take a dip or even scuba dive through the canals that lead to Cueva de Chico.
Written by Omar Guzman.
Published October 2021.
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