The Indians that greeted Columbus to be long thought to have died out. But a journalist’s find for your descendants turn up surprising results

Taíno leader Francisco "Panchito" Ramírez Rojas supplies a prayer to the sea near Baracoa on Cuba"s eastern coast. Maggie Steber

If girlfriend have ever paddled a canoe, napped in a hammock, savored a barbecue, smoked tobacco or tracked a hurricane across Cuba, you have paid tribute to the Taíno, the indians who invented those native long before they invited Christopher Columbus come the brand-new World in 1492.

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Their world, which had actually its origins amongst the Arawak people of the Orinoco Delta, progressively spread from Venezuela across the Antilles in tide of voyaging and also settlement begun about 400 B.C. Mingling with people already established in the Caribbean, they emerged self-sufficient areas on the island the Hispaniola, in what is currently Haiti and the Dominican Republic; in Jamaica and also eastern Cuba; in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and also the Bahamas. They grew yuca, sweet potatoes, maize, beans and other crops as their society flourished, reaching its top by the time of europe contact.

Some scholars estimate the Taíno population may have actually reached more than three million ~ above Hispaniola alone together the 15th century attracted to a close, with smaller settlements elsewhere in the Caribbean. Every little thing the number, the Taíno towns described by Spanish chroniclers to be densely settled, well organized and widely dispersed. The Indians to be inventive world who learned to strain cyanide native life-giving yuca, arisen pepper gas because that warfare, devised substantial pharmacopeia native nature, developed oceangoing canoes huge enough for much more than 100 paddlers and also played gamings with a ball made the rubber, which fascinated Europeans seeing the product for the first time. Return the Taíno never developed a composed language, they do exquisite pottery, wove complex belts from dyed cotton and carved enigmatic photos from wood, stone, shell and also bone.

The Taíno impression Columbus v their generosity, which may have added to your undoing. “They will give all that they execute possess for anything the is offered to them, trading things even for bits of damaged crockery,” he provided upon conference them in the Bahamas in 1492. “They were an extremely well built, with really handsome bodies and also very great faces....They perform not carry arms or recognize them....They must be good servants.”

In short order, Columbus developed the very first American swarm at La Isabela, ~ above the north coast of Hispaniola, in 1494. After a brief period of coexistence, relations in between the newcomers and natives deteriorated. Spaniards removed guys from towns to occupational in yellow mines and also colonial plantations. This retained the Taíno from planting the crops that had fed them for centuries. They started to starve; many thousands dropped prey to smallpox, measles and other European conditions for i beg your pardon they had actually no immunity; part committed self-destruction to avoid subjugation; hundreds dropped in fighting through the Spaniards, when untold numbers fled to far regions past colonial control. In time, countless Taíno women married conquistadors, combining the gene of the new World and Old world to produce a new mestizo population, which took on Creole attributes with the arrival of African slaves in the 16th century. By 1514, right two decades after first contact, an main survey showed that 40 percent the Spanish men had actually taken Indian wives. The unofficially number is without doubt higher.

“Very few Indians to be left after 50 years,” stated Ricardo Alegría, a Puerto Rican historian and also anthropologist ns interviewed before his fatality this previous July. He had combed v Spanish archives to track the eclipse that the Taíno. “Their society was interrupted through disease, marriage with Spanish and Africans, and also so forth, however the key reason the Indians to be exterminated together a team was sickness,” that told me. That ran with the figures from his native island: “By 1519, a 3rd of the aboriginal population had died due to the fact that of smallpox. You uncover documents very soon after ~ that, in the 1530s, in i beg your pardon the concern came native Spain come the governor. ‘How numerous Indians room there? Who space the chiefs?’ The answer to be none. They space gone.” Alegría paused prior to adding: “Some stayed probably...but it was not that many.”

Possibly as countless as three million souls—some 85 percent the the Taíno population—had vanished through the early on 1500s, according to a controversial extrapolation from Spanish records. Together the Indian populace faded, for this reason did Taíno together a living language. The Indians’ reliance on beneficent icons known together cemís gave way to Christianity, together did your hal­lucinogen-induced cohoba ceremonies, i beg your pardon were assumed to placed shamans in touch through the spirit world. Their local chieftaincies, each headed through a leader recognized as a cacique, crumbled away. Their well-maintained round courts returned to bush.

Given the dramatic fallen of the native society, and the development of a populace blending Spanish, Indian and African attributes, one might be tempted to explain the Taíno extinct. Yet 5 centuries after the Indians’ fateful meeting through Columbus, facets of their society endure—in the hereditary heritage of modern Antilleans, in the persistence that Taíno words and also in isolated neighborhoods where people bring on classic methods that architecture, farming, fishing and also healing.

For more than a year, I looked for these glimpses the Taíno survival, amongst living descendants in new York City and also dusty Caribbean villages, in museum displaying terrific religious objects developed by long-dead artists, in interviews through researchers that still conflict the fate of the Taíno.

My search started in the nooks and crannies the limestone caves basic the Dominican Republic, wherein the Taíno thought their world began. “Hispaniola is the heart of Taíno society and the caves space the love of the Taíno,” claimed Domingo Abréu Collado, cook of the speleology division in the Dominican set on Environmental and Natural Resources. That clapped top top a tough hat at the enntrance gate to the Pomier Caves, a complicated of 55 caverns less than an hour’s drive from the gridlock that Santo Domingo. That led me native the eye-numbing brilliance the tropical noon right into a shadowy tunnel, wherein our headlamps picked out the image of a face sculpted into stone, that eyes vast in surprise.

“That’s Mácocael,” stated Abréu. “This male was supposed to safety the entrance of the cavern at night, however he acquired curious and also left his post for a look roughly outside. The sun recorded him there and also turned him to stone.” The sentinel, whose Taíno name means “No Eyelids,” currently stands guard for eternity.

More 보다 1,000 years prior to the Spaniards arrived, regional shamans and other pilgrims checked out such caves come glimpse the future, come pray for rain and also to attract surreal photos on the walls with charcoal: mating dogs, huge birds swooping down on human prey, a bird-headed male copulating with a human, and also a pantheon that naturalistically calculation owls, turtles, frogs, fish and other creatures important to the Taíno, who associated details animals with particular powers that fecundity, healing, magic and also death.

Abréu, a lean male with spicy features, paused before a sweaty wall crowded v images. “So many paintings! ns think lock are concentrated where the points of energy converge,” the said. Abréu’s headlamp fell upon images of stick numbers who appeared to be smoking cigarettes pipes; rather bent over bowls come inhale snuff through long tubes. These were the tribal leaders who fasted till their ribs showed, cleansed themselves through vomiting sticks and also snorted cohoba powder, a hallucinogen ground native the seeds of the Anadenanthera peregrina, a tree indigenous to the Caribbean.

The cohoba ritual was an initial described by Friar Ramón Pané, a Hieronymite brother who, ~ above the orders of Columbus himself, lived among the Taíno and also chronicled their rich id system. Pané’s writings—the many direct resource we have actually on ancient Taíno culture—was the basis for Peter Martyr’s 1516 account the cohoba rites: “The intoxicating herb,” Martyr wrote, “is so strong that those that take it shed consciousness; when the stupefying action begins come wane, the arms and legs become loosened and the head droops.” Under that influence, individuals “suddenly begin to rave, and also at as soon as they to speak . . . The the home is moving, transforming things upside down, and also that men are wade backwards.” together visions guided leaders in plan war, evaluate tribal disputes, predicting the farming yield and other matters of importance. And the drug seems to have actually influenced the otherworldly arts in Pomier and also other caves.

“Country human being are still afraid of caves—the ghosts, friend see,” stated Abréu. His voice to be accompanied by the sound of dripping water and the fluttering of bats, i m sorry swirled roughly the ceiling and also clicked in the dark.

The bats scattered prior to us; us trudged up into the daylight and by beforehand the next morning we were rattling with the rain-washed roadways of Santo Domingo bound because that the northeast trying to find living Taíno, in Abréu’s opinion a dubious objective. Formerly an excavator for the Museum of the Dominican Man, the was unconvinced of finding genuine Indians however was happy enough to aid scout because that remnants of your influence. The very first signs began to appear around the city of Bayaguana, wherein the roadway narrowed and we jounced past plots that yuca, plantains and also maize, several of which to be planted in the heaped-earth sample favored by Taíno farmers of old. New fields, clearing by the slash-and-burn approaches Indians brought here from southern America, smoldered follow me the way. On the edge of Los Haitises national Park, we met a woman that had collection up shop next to the roadway to offer casabe, the coarse, flat Taíno bread make from yuca. “None left,” she said. “I offered the critical of that yesterday.” We began to check out simple, sensibly designed residences with thin walls of palm planks and also airy roofs of thatch, prefer those portrayed in Spanish woodcuts from Columbus’ day.

The road finished at Sabana de los Javieles, a village known as a pocket of Taíno settlement because the 1530s, once Enrique, among the critical Taíno caciques of the colonial period, made peace with Spain and also led some 600 pendant to northeastern Hispaniola. Castle stayed, married Spaniards and also Africans, and left descendants who still retain aboriginal traits. In the 1950s, researchers uncovered high percentages the the blood varieties that are predominant in indians in blood samples they took here. In the 1970s, dentist surveys developed that 33 the end of 74 villagers kept shovel-shaped incisors, the teeth characteristic that American Indians and also Asians. And a current nationwide hereditary study created that 15 percent to 18 percent that Dominicans had Amerindian mite in your mitochondrial DNA, testifying to the ongoing presence of Taíno genes.

None that this would surprise Ramona Primitiva, a villager whose household has long adopted its native antecedents. “My father provided to tell us we came from the Indio,” she said, using one more name because that the Taíno. “My family has always been here. Us didn’t come from what else.” we sat in white plastic chairs in ~ the regional store, thankful for the shade of one overhanging roof and also happy to have actually neighbors sign up with the conversation.

“My father provided to tell united state we were descendants of the Indians,” stated Meregilda Tholia Johelin.

“My ancestors were Indio,” said Rosa Arredondo Vasquez.

“My grandmother claimed we come from the Indians,” stated Gabriela javier Alvarez, who appeared with an aluminum guayo, Taíno for the grating boards when fashioned from rough stone and supplied for shredding yuca roots.

Jurda Arcacio Peguero wandered by, eavesdropped because that a moment, climate dashed following door come fetch a batea, Taíno because that a lengthy wooden tray for fruit or vegetables. “It’s one old one,” she said, handing over an item fragrant of garlic and worn buttery smooth native use.

The villagers did not speak to themselves Indian or Taíno, however they knew exactly how Indian traditions had shaped life in the community. Most had kept a long silence about their aboriginal heritage for fear of gift ridiculed: indians were nation people—uneducated campesinos stereotyped as gullible or backward. The bigotry has actually softened somewhat, but nobody desires to be taken into consideration a rube.

It was late in the day when we claimed our farewells and also turned for the capital, back down a rutted roadway through lumpy eco-friendly hills. “I’m sorry we couldn’t uncover an Indian for you,” Abréu said, sensing my disappointment. Brooding in the passenger seat, ns wondered if the prevailing scholastic wisdom might be true—that the Taíno had actually been extinct together a distinct civilization for half a millennium, existing at finest as hybrids in pieces of their old homeland. Did any kind of pure Taíno survive?

That concern was the dorn one to ask. It took a nudge indigenous Jorge Estevez, a self-described Taíno from new York City, to repeat me the notions of gyeongju purity went the end the home window with Adolf Hitler and also the eugenics movement. “These principles are yes, really outdated,” said Estevez, who collaborates educational workshops in ~ the Smithsonian’s national Museum that the American Indian in brand-new York. “There’s no such thing as a pure Taíno,” that continued, “just prefer there room no pure Spaniards. The not even clear around the ethnicity of Christopher Columbus! The males who came v him were blended with Moors, v Sephardic Jews, with Basques—a good mixture that was walk on. That story continues.”

Even the Taíno evolved as a distinct human being only after centuries of traveling and merging with other populations in the Antilles. “So when civilization ask if ns am pure Taíno, i say ‘yes,’” claimed Estevez, who traces his roots to the Dominican Republic and also has the shovel incisors come prove it. “My ancestors to be from a plethora of different tribes. They combined with a many others to become Taíno. What you need to look in ~ is how the society persists and how that is gift transmitted.”

Estevez, a former pugilist who retains a boxer’s brawn and also grace, unzipped a black color suitcase and also began unpacking objects come bolster his debate for the survive of a Taíno culture: a feather-light makuto, a basket woven indigenous palm fronds; ladles, cups, plates and a music instrument well-known as a guiro, all made native gourds; a wooden batea for delivering produce, choose the one I had seen in the Dominican Republic a couple of days before. These were no dusty artefacts from a museum however utensils made newly by Antillean villagers who still use them and call castle by your Taíno names. “My mom knew how to weave this things,” that said, holding increase the makuto. “We also made casabe.” as he gained older, Estevez steadily built up Indian lore and objects indigenous a network the uncles and aunts in the islands, adding brand-new evidence to his suitcase every year. “All mine life I’ve been on this journey in search of all this Taíno points to see exactly how much survival is there,” that said.

Relegated come a footnote of history for 500 years, the Taíno came roaring ago as front-page news in 2003, when Juan C. Martínez Cruzado, a biologist in ~ the college of Puerto Rico, announced the results of an island-wide genetic study. Taking samples native 800 randomly selected subjects, Martínez reported the 61.1 percent that those surveyed had mitochondrial DNA of indigenous origin, describe a persistence in the maternal line that surprised him and his fellow scientists. The very same study revealed afri markers in 26.4 percent that the population and 12.5 percent for those of european descent. The results encouraged a Taíno resurgence, v native teams urging Puerto Rican colleges to take note of the aboriginal contribution to Caribbean history, opposing building and construction on lack sites and seeking federal acknowledgment for the Taíno, through attendant benefits.

Though the inquiry of Indian identification is often fraught v political implications, that is specifically pronounced in Puerto Rico, i beg your pardon still struggles with its standing as a are of the united States. The island enjoys no the benefits of statehood nor the self-reliance of a nation, through deep divisions in between proponents because that each. Ardent nationalists check out the recent surge in Taíno activism as a threat to political unity. Activists say their adversaries are cultivating Eurocentric background and a colonial course system. Also Taíno leaders periodically view one one more with hostility.

“Here in Puerto Rico, power plays room rampant,” claimed Carlalynne Melendez Martínez, one anthropologist who has launched the nonprofit group Guakia Taina-Ke, our Taíno Land, come promote native studies. She goal is to boost Taíno culture by reviving the Arawak language, preserving social sites and also establishing preserves for aboriginal people. “We’re to teach the language to children and teaching civilization how come farm. We don’t perform songs and also dances because that the tourists,” she said, introduce to a completing group.

In Puerto Rico’s main mountains, I come upon a mrs who referred to as herself Kukuya, Taíno for firefly, who was obtaining ready for a gathering of ind in Jayuya, a town associated with both transformation and aboriginal festivals. She had grown up in brand-new York City however had lived in Puerto Rico because that 35 years, having actually been guided come this remote community, she said, by a vision. Green-eyed and rosy-cheeked, she stated her forebears were Spanish, African, Mexican and also Maya and also Taíno.

“My great-grandmother was pure-blooded Taíno, my mother of blended blood,” she said. “When ns told world I to be Taíno, they said, ‘What, room you crazy? there aren’t any left!’ however I don’t think you have to look a specific way. I have every one of my ancestors within me.”

Like Kukuya, countless Puerto Ricans have actually been learning their inner Taíno in recent years. In the 2010 census, because that example, 19,839 Puerto Ricans confirm the identity box marked “American Indian or Alaskan Native,” boost of practically 49 percent end the 2000 count, when 13,336 confirm it. Neither canvass provided a Taíno option.The native population represents less than 1 percent that Puerto Rico’s 3.7 million people, however indigenous leaders take into consideration the latest head counting a milestone—further proof that part Indians live on long after castle were assumed to it is in annihilated.

“What I’m really excited around is the there’s a lot of youth coming into this and daunting the standing quo,” stated Roberto Mukaro Borrero, president of the united Confederation of Taíno People. Borrero, a new Yorker of Puerto Rican parentage, has tried come soothe fears about a Taíno floor grab based upon Indian identity.

“I want to make it clear that we’re not below to take ago Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic,” the said. “Or to create a casino. If you just look in ~ the explanation we’ve made over the last ten years, there’s not one cite of casinos, kicking anybody out of the country or being divisive in any type of way. We just want a seat at the table.”

Still, some scholars continue to be skeptical. “You need to be aware of world running approximately saying they’re Taíno, due to the fact that they room after a commonwealth subsidy,” said Bernardo Vega, a previous director of the Museum that the Dominican Man and the Dominican Republic’s former ambassador to the joined States. Yvonne M. Narganes Storde, an archaeologist at the university of Puerto Rico agreed. She provides the activists credit for preserving necessary sites ~ above the island, yet she sound wary of their emphasis on developing a different Taíno identity. “All the societies are mixed here,” she said. “I probably have actually Taíno genes. We all do. We have incorporated every these cultures—African, Spanish and also Indian. We need to live v it.”

A few pockets that Taíno culture remain in eastern Cuba, an area shaped by rough mountains and also years the isolation. “Anybody that talks about the extinction of the Taíno has actually not really looked at the record,” claimed Alejandro Hartmann Matos, the city chronicler of Baracoa, Cuba’s oldest city, and an authority on the island’s earliest inhabitants. Hartmann, a Cuban that German ancestry, had invited me to accomplish Indian descendants from the island’s Oriente region, and also to note the 500th anniversary of Baracoa, started in 1511. Joining united state was José Barreiro, assistant manager of study at the Smithsonian’s nationwide Museum that the American Indian. V Hartmann, Barreiro has been tracking descendants of the Indians because 1989. Based on their research, the pair estimate that at least 5,000 Indians endure in Cuba, while thousands of thousands likely have indigenous roots.

Late one night, after a job of quincentennial celebrations v live music, dancing, poetry recitations and occasional tots that rum, Barreiro and also I sat bleary-eyed about a kitchen table as the indefatigable Hartmann raced through a list of historical references to ind of the Oriente, start in 1492, as soon as Columbus sailed into Baracoa harbor, planted a wood cross ~ above the shore and also praised the location for that “good water, an excellent land, good surroundings, and also much wood.”

“Indians have showed up in the record ever before since,” stated Hartmann. Indigenous people established the city that Jiguaní in 1701 and also formed the all-native Hatuey Regiment in the Cuban war versus Spain in 1895. José Martí, founding father that Cuba’s freedom movement, generally mentioned indians in his war diary. Mark Harrington, one American excavator conducting field in 1915 and 1919, uncovered natives quiet hanging on in east Cuba. He was followed—in the 1950s, ’60s and also ’70s—by anthropologists who scoured the region recording the skeletal structure, blood type and other physical characteristics of Cuban villagers with aboriginal ancestry. “So if girlfriend look to the past,” stated Hartmann, “you watch this lengthy record the Indians life here. Anyone who claims otherwise is speak from ignorance.”

And today?

“Just look at around!” said Hartmann, spreading his arms wide. In a main of trying out Baracoa and also its environs, we had encountered many Cubans v the high cheekbones, coppery skin and also other functions that imply Amerindian ancestry. And while it was clear the indigenous families have intermarried v Africans and Europeans, us met villagers in Baracoa and the adjacent settlements of Playa Duaba and also Guirito that proudly established themselves together Indian. They maintained the old traditions, planting their thick gardens, praying come the moon and sun for strength, collection wild plants because that healing and also marking the passage of time without clocks or watches.

“When I see the vivijagua ant come out of his nest and crawl throughout the rafters in the morning, I understand it’s time to go to the fields,” 75-year old Francisco “Panchito” Ramírez Rojas told us. “When the chipojo lizard comes under from the palm tree to get a drink the water, I understand it’s noon. I additionally know it’s noon once my shadow disappears and also I’m stand on my very own head,” that said, gaining up indigenous our having lunch table to illustrate his point.

A lean man bronzed by years in the sun, Panchito radiated a organic authority, which had actually earned him the title of cacique in the neighborhood of La Ranchería, not much from the U.S. Naval station and also prison at Guantánamo Bay.

Ramirez took the opportunity to find for useful plants in the woods follow me the Toa River. Striding up to a cedar, the patted the rough trunk as if it were an old amigo. “This tree is a relative,” he said. “It has actually feelings prefer we do, so it must be treated with respect. If you do tea from the bark that this tree, it has actually a most power. It’s an excellent for colds and respiratory problems. However if you nothing ask permission prior to you cut the bark, it might not work. For this reason I constantly say a tiny prayer so the tree knows ns serious and also I desire to re-superstructure its power. ‘Give me your stamin for healing.’ it is what ns ask.”

Hearing Ramirez, i felt the hairs on the back of mine neck bristling: His an approach of conversing with plants was virtually identical come one explained by 15th-century Spanish chroniclers. Although those accounts have been widely published, that is unconvinced that Ramirez ever before read them: the is illiterate. The learned his handmade from a great-uncle and also other elders that were herbal healers in his mountain community.

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“If we expect to obtain food indigenous the earth,” that says, “we have to offer something back. So in ~ planting time we always say a prayer and bury a small stone or a coin in the field, simply a small message to the earth, so that she will aid with production.”

Like those who taught him, Ramirez is happen his expertise on, to a son, Vladimir Lenin Ramírez Ramírez, and to other family members, for this reason they will store the heritages going. “The young persons will bring on for us,” Panchito Ramirez said. Yet he admitted problem over the dwindling of Indian communities, which have been diminished by marriage to outsiders. “I’d choose for my youngsters to marry Indians, however there simply aren’t sufficient of us. Therefore our world are leaving the hill to find brand-new families. Lock scattered every over.”

Robert M. Poole is a contributing editor because that Smithsonian. Photographer Maggie Steber is based in Miami.