Jamaica’s first inhabitants – the Tainos – also known as the Arawaks, landed in Jamaica, between 650 AD and 900 AD. They called the island “Xaymaca”. They knew Jamaica as “Yamaye”, the land of springs.
The Tainos were one of the Amerindian peoples who came from Central East Asia. Though they were very hard-working, the Tainos lived simple lives and were described as a quiet, peaceful group of people. Christopher Columbus believed this because, when he came to Jamaica, they greeted him with open hearts and fine hospitality.
The Tainos were short in stature with olive skins and dark hair. They did not wear much clothing. Men and unmarried women were usually naked, while married women wore skirts. It was a custom for unmarried Taíno women to wear a headband, while married women wore short, white skirts (naguea) at a length that indicated the wearer’s rank. The men wore a cotton loincloth or were often naked. Both males and females painted themselves before ceremonies, and the men were painted before going to war. Also fashionable was flattening the forehead by binding a hard object against it during childhood. Piercings in the ears and nasal septa were common, and decorated with feathers, plugs, and other ornaments. The Tainos also adorned themselves with belts and necklaces. The cacique (chief) wore an additional adornment, such as headdresses with gold and feathers.
Jamaica had over 200 village sites ruled by caciques. In every Taino village, there were social structures. The cacique was the leader and had many privileges, such as receiving the best food, living in the largest house, and having several wives. The cacique’s function was to maintain the welfare of the village by assigning daily work and ensuring that everyone had an equal share.
The relatives of the caciques lived together in large houses in the centre of the village. These houses reflected the warmth of the climate. They were simply constructed with mud, straw, and palm leaves and did not contain much furniture. Persons slept in cotton hammocks or on mats of banana leaves. The general population lived in large, circular buildings called bohios, constructed with wooden poles, woven straw, and palm leaves.
The Tainos hunted wild animals, birds, ducks, turtles, and snakes for food, as meat or fish was their primary source of protein. There were some small mammals which were hunted and enjoyed, such as various rodents, bats, and worms. The costal natives relied heavily on fishing, using nets made from cotton which they grew on the island. They tended to eat the fish either raw or only partially cooked.
The Tainos had a system of agriculture which was environmentally friendly. They planted their crops in a conuco, a large mound which was devised specially for farming. This they packed with leaves which improved drainage and protected it from soil erosion. One of the primary crops cultivated by the Tainos was cassava, which they ate as flat bread. They also grew corn, squash, beans, peppers, sweet potatoes, yams, and peanuts, as well as tobacco.
Although the Tainos were quite a peaceful people, they only remained humble until the Spaniards came on the island. The Tainos used weapons for defence, such as bows and arrows and had poisons for the arrow tips.
The Tainos were also a religious group and worshipped their gods (zemis) which controlled various functions of the universe. The zemis took on the forms of toads, turtles, snakes, alligators, and various distorted and hideous human faces. Many of the Taino religious artefacts, made of stone, have been found in Haiti.
After the arrival of the Spaniards, the Taino population decreased. There was a high demand for food and the Tainos refused to plant and harvest the crops requested by the Spanish. This brought about a high death rate, due to famine and an outbreak of infectious diseases.
However, the Taino population did not totally die out. A recent DNA study on an ancient tooth determined that the Taínos have living descendants in Puerto Rico, which indicates that many Puerto Ricans have a degree of Taíno ancestry.
Aarons, G. A. (1994). The Jamaican Taino: The Aboukir Zemis, symbols of Taino philosophy, mysticism & religion. Jamaica Journal, 25(2), 11-17.
Wooley, Glenn. (2011). The Taino of Jamaica. Retrieved from
DATE POSTED: March 27, 2019