Caciques and Cemi Idols: The Web Spun by Taino Rulers Between Hispaniola and Puerto Rico

Caciques and Cemi Idols: The Web Spun by Taino Rulers Between Hispaniola and Puerto Rico

by Jose R Oliver

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Cemís are both portable artifacts and embodiments of persons or spirit, which the Taínos and other natives of the Greater Antilles (ca. AD 1000-1550) regarded as numinous beings with supernatural or magic powers. This volume takes a close look at the relationship between humans and other (non-human) beings that are imbued with cemí power,


Cemís are both portable artifacts and embodiments of persons or spirit, which the Taínos and other natives of the Greater Antilles (ca. AD 1000-1550) regarded as numinous beings with supernatural or magic powers. This volume takes a close look at the relationship between humans and other (non-human) beings that are imbued with cemí power, specifically within the Taíno inter-island cultural sphere encompassing Puerto Rico and Hispaniola. The relationships address the important questions of identity and personhood of the cemí icons and their human “owners” and the implications of cemí gift-giving and gift-taking that sustains a complex web of relationships between caciques (chiefs) of Puerto Rico and Hispaniola.
Oliver provides a careful analysis of the four major forms of cemís—three-pointed stones, large stone heads, stone collars, and elbow stones—as well as face masks, which provide an interesting contrast to the stone heads. He finds evidence for his interpretation of human and cemí interactions from a critical review of 16th-century Spanish ethnohistoric documents, especially the Relación Acerca de las Antigüedades de los Indios written by Friar Ramón Pané in 1497–1498 under orders from Christopher Columbus. Buttressed by examples of native resistance and syncretism, the volume discusses the iconoclastic conflicts and the relationship between the icons and the human beings. Focusing on this and on the various contexts in which the relationships were enacted, Oliver reveals how the cemís were central to the exercise of native political power. Such cemís were considered a direct threat to the hegemony of the Spanish conquerors, as these potent objects were seen as allies in the native resistance to the onslaught of Christendom with its icons of saints and virgins.

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Caciques and Cemí Idols

The Web Spun by Taíno Rulers between Hispaniola and Puerto Rico
By José R. Oliver


Copyright © 2009 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-1636-5

Chapter One


In this book I will be exploring the underlying social significance of the spatial distribution of a class of religious portable artifacts-cemís-that the Taínos and other natives of the Greater Antilles (ca. A.D. 1000-1650) regarded as numinous beings and believed to have supernatural, magic powers. (A more precise definition of cemí will be provided later.) To understand the distribution of cemí idols requires a close look at the relationship between human beings and other (nonhuman) beings that are imbued with cemí power. I will be exploring interisland interaction through the web of human and cemí idol relationships that was spun within the Taíno cultural sphere, most specifically between Puerto Rico and Hispaniola (Figure 1). I will explore not only the inter-insular relationships in which cemís and humans acted but also where all interaction begins: at the personal, face-to-face level between persons and cemí idols. The material evidence comes from a selection of archaeological artifacts largely held in museum collections. The evidence for theinterpretation of human and cemí interactions emerges from a critical review of the sixteenth-century Spanish ethnohistoric documents and, most particularly, from the famous Relación Acerca de las Antigüedades de los Indios written by Fray (Friar) Ramón Pané in 1497-1498, on orders of Christopher Columbus (Pané 1974 [1497-1498], 1990, 1999).

Although objects imbued with cemí potency are quite diverse in material, form, and style, I will be focusing on four broad formal categories: (1) the large, highly decorated three-pointed stone sculptures, (2) the large stone heads, (3) stone collars, and (4) elbow stones (see Figures 2, 3). A fifth category, the guaízas, or "face masks," will also be highlighted, as they provide a fascinating contrast to the other four categories, especially the stone heads. The first four classes of iconic artifacts are endogenous Caribbean creations for which there are no firmly established homologues or antecedents in the American continents (see Oliver 1998; Walker 1993:450-451). They are of interest because their spatial distribution is restricted to southeastern Hispaniola, Mona Island, Puerto Rico, Vieques Island, and the Virgin Islands (García Arévalo 2005), although a few rare large three-pointers did spread farther south into the Lesser Antilles, as far as the Grenadine Islands (Crock and Petersen 2004; Kaye et al. 2004; Knippenberg 2004). In contrast, the spatial distribution of the guaízas extends beyond the frontier of the so-called Classic Taíno culture area. As Jeffrey Walker (1993:378-392) pointed out, there seems to be a codependent relationship between the massive and decorated three-pointers, stone collars, and elbow stones, so it is possible that these three artifacts may have spread as a set rather than as separate items.

The geographical distribution of all four objects is much more restricted than the maximum regional extent of what has been called the "Classic Taíno" culture area-that is, by the archaeologically and normatively defined distribution of the late Chican Ostionoid (ca. A.D. 1000-1500) series of cultures (Rouse 1992: figs. 2, 3). Various other portable and powerful artifacts have a wider distribution throughout the Antilles than the four classes mentioned, such as the guaízas worn on the chest, belt, arm, or forehead; duhos (seats or benches); wooden figures or statuettes; inhalators (for hallucinogen snuffing); and, above all, a myriad of elaborate pendants and plaques for body adornment (on Taíno wood artifacts, see Oliver et al. 2008; Ostapkowicz 1999; Saunders and Gray 1996). The geographical circumscription of the aforementioned four classes of cemí artifacts, centered between east-southeastern Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, suggests two things: (1) that there existed a shared tradition in each island region of manufacturing these particular classes of cemí icons, and (2) that there existed a tight, reinforced, socially driven web or network through which these icons circulated and were inherited. This distribution of artifacts also suggests that the so-called Classic Taíno natives did not all share or construct in the same way their identity, or their "Taínoness." As will be argued shortly, Taíno is best approached as a spectrum or mosaic of social groups with diverse expressions of Taínoness (Rodríguez Ramos 2007), not all of whom were Taíno peoples in the conventional or standard sense provided by Irving Rouse (1965, 1992) and others. In this book I will analyze the political-religious significance of the cemí objects and their distribution. I will also focus on the relationships between the icons and human beings and the various contexts in which these relationships were enacted. In doing so, the scale at which interactions take place is also considered, ranging from the intimate, face-to-face or person-to-person relationships to the broader regional, inter-insular relationships of human interaction.

The diverse cemí idols were central to the exercise of native political power and as such were seen as a direct threat to the hegemony of the Spanish conquerors. At the same time, however, these potent objects were literally allies in the resistance put up by the native leadership against the onslaught of Christendom with their icons of saints and virgins. The struggle of the Antillean natives was in many ways a battle for the rule and survival of cemí idols. The war of the region of Higüey in Hispaniola (1503-1504) and the Rebellion of the Caciques (chiefs) in Puerto Rico (1511-1519) provide the contexts in which to analyze the intertwined human and cemí relations, offering valuable insights on the consequences of Spanish colonization. Yet, at the same time the significance of appropriation and empowerment with regard to cemís will also be studied. This is the case of a Cuban cacique with the adopted (Spanish) name of Comendador, who appropriated a Catholic icon and used it as he would have used a cemí in order to engage in a ritualized combat against the rival cacique who was "protected" by his own cemí icon-an example of the initial process of Catholic syncretism with echoes of Taínoness that survived into the eighteenth century in the cult of the Vírgen de la Caridad del Cobre and the Vírgen de Guadalupe (Pérez Fernández 1999; Portuondo Zúñiga 1995). These and other accounts dealing with resistance and syncretism will be explored in part V of this book. Before the iconoclastic conflicts can be discussed, and before the relationships between cemí idols and natives can be analyzed, it is imperative to provide a critical review of what is meant here by Taíno (singular), since it is given as the culture and language of the natives in the Greater Antilles, and to also reexamine what is implied by Taínos (plural), since it refers to the individuals and the people who created, gave meaning, and used the cemí idols.

Chapter Two

Believers of Cemíism

Who Were the Taínos and Where Did They Come From?

This section serves as a background on Greater Antillean archaeology so as to contextualize, in broad strokes, the potent cemí objects and to identify, again in broad strokes, the peoples who interacted with them. It is not an easy section to write, because in the last few years our understanding of who the Taínos and their historical antecedents were have changed and continue to change dramatically-so much so that the 2008 annual meeting of the Society of American Archaeology in Vancouver is devoting a whole symposium to this topic, aiming at reaching some consensus on the matter. This section is also difficult to write because if "Taíno" is, in essence, an inoperative term that refers to nothing of real substance, then what term should archaeologists use, in colloquial speech, to refer to this spectrum of "peoples" inhabiting most of the Greater Antilles? It will not do to forward a long phrase or sentence, full of conditional statements, to replace the term "Taíno."

The native informants encountered by Fray Ramón Pané in Hispaniola spoke two distinct languages: the Macorix language (about which we know only a few words) and the widely spoken, dominant, and elegant Taíno language. The latter is a member of the northern Maipuran subfamily that in turn is grouped in the vast Arawakan linguistic stock spread throughout lowland South America.

The natives inhabiting most of the Greater Antilles have been and are still labeled as "Taínos" ever since the term was first coined by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque in 1836. The Taínos are assumed to have shared a homogeneous culture and language. The term nitaíno, from which "Taíno" derived, refers to an elite stratum or class and not to an ethnic group. Moreover, not a single sixteenth-century Spanish document ever used this noun to refer to the tribal or ethnic affiliation of the natives of the Greater Antilles. True, the term tayno (meaning "good" or "prudent") was mentioned twice in a short account of Columbus's second voyage by his physician, Dr. Álvarez Chanca, in a very specific context, while in Guadaloupe (Chanca, in Navarrete 1922:218-219). This was a response to the Spaniards from natives of Boriquén who had been captured by the so-called Caribes of Guadeloupe, and who wished to escape on Spanish ships in order to return home to Puerto Rico. In other words, with this term they were effectively saying something like "we are the good, prudent guys," unlike those others. After this singular mention, the term was not to be used again until the end of the nineteenth century, first by Daniel Brinton (1871), but only to refer to a linguistic classification and then, as noted, by Rafinesque in a broader, cultural sense.

The Spanish simply referred to them as Indios, Indios de estas Indias Occidentales (Indians of these West Indies). In the repartimiento and encomienda systems (forms of forced labor and slavery) the natives were listed as being such-and-such (personal names or titles) who belonged to this or that place (toponyms; e.g., Juanillo de Caguana, cacique de Caguas), or who belonged to this or that cacique (e.g., Isabel Cayaguax de Humacao). Besides "Indios" there are very few other terms written by the Spaniards that refer to collectivities. There is, of course, the name "Lucayo" for the Indians of the Bahamas. This term is a compound of luku or loko (meaning "person," in singular) and kayo ("island"). Thus, in answer to Christopher Columbus's question, the Bahamian native in effect said he was a "person-[of-the-] island,"-that is, "an islander"; an excellent self-designation, but hardly an identification of membership in a given polity or larger ethnic group. Other designations were given by natives to other natives: such as Cigüayo (in Hispaniola), which makes reference to their peculiar hairstyle, gathered at the back of the head in a pony-tail fashion, or Ciboney, a term that the Spaniards claimed was given to a people from central to eastern Cuba who, to the Spaniards' eyes, were less developed than those originating from Hispaniola. Another term, Macorix (plural, Macoriges), was given to natives who inhabited a region of that name in northeastern Hispaniola who spoke a non-Taíno language and who also had a "Cigüayolike" hairstyle.

In sum, the terms of reference and self-designation that natives used relative to ever higher levels of inclusion (from person to household and from local place level to larger social aggregates and polities) remain unknown. What is clear, though, is that a plurality of social groupings existed, crosscutting both linguistic boundaries and political allegiances, and originating from diverse traditions and places.

A. Rouse's Standard Culture History: A Brief Overview

The late Irving Rouse (b. 1913-d. 2006; Keegan 2007a) is recognized as one of the leading figures in the development of culture history in archaeology in the Americas (Willey and Sabloff 1974), and has had a lasting international impact on how scholars and the general public perceive the pre-Columbian history of the Caribbean and of the Taínos of the Spanish contact period. As Reniel Rodríguez Ramos, Joshua Torres, and I (2008) noted recently, most archaeologists working in the Caribbean "have assumed [the] premises [of Rouse's model] in a quasi-religious fashion, merging culture and society into a single domain and considering that these have changed concomitantly along a unilinear temporal vector." Because it is Rouse's vision of what the Taínos are and how they emerged that prevails in the Caribbean, this section focuses on a critique of his assumptions.

Within a classic culture-historic paradigm, Rouse (1992) defined three Taíno culture areas based on the distribution of diagnostic features (Figure 4): the Western Taíno, which encompasses most of Cuba, Jamaica, and the Bahamas; the Classic or Central Taíno, covering Hispaniola and Puerto Rico; and the Eastern Taíno, extending from the Virgin Islands and those north of Guadeloupe. This core-periphery spatial model is in many ways impressionistic. It is based on what Rouse regards to be manifestations of high-level, elaborate artistic achievements at the core (Classic or Central) versus the much more impoverished achievements of peripheral Taínos (Eastern and Western). Earlier, Rouse (e.g., 1942:165) had used the term "Sub-Taíno" to express the notion of underdevelopment or marginality. The more politically correct geographical designations, Eastern and Western, cannot hide that these variants of Taíno are still grounded on notions of substandard achievements in comparison to the core area.

For Rouse (1992:32-33), the "Taíno people who greeted Columbus" were the culmination of a process of continuous historic divergence from a single phylum, from a common ancestral culture. For Rouse, all closely related styles (that shared a set of ceramic norms or a modal complex) are indicative of a common ancestral style and hence form a series of styles. In principle, all of the norms shared between closely related styles would be elicited from the set of diagnostic modes characterizing the posited ancestral style, much in the same way that historical linguists (e.g., Noble 1965; Payne 1991) reconstruct protolanguages on the basis of a shared or cognate lexicon (phonemes, morphemes, words) found in a set of living or recorded languages. Rouse's "series" is archaeology's analogue of the linguists' protolanguage (see Raymond Gordon's Ethnologue [2005] for the latest Arawakan family tree classification).

By 1980 Rouse introduced the subseries (Figure 5), an intermediate taxonomic level between style and series. This taxon was introduced by Rouse (via a suggestion from the late Gary S. Vescelius) to acknowledge that within a series, a subset of styles appears to share more norms (modal complex) among themselves than with other member styles of that same series; thus, their divergence from the posited ancestral style (series) was more recent. To distinguish a series from a subseries, Rouse added the suffix"-oid" (e.g., Ostionoid) to the former and "-an" (e.g., Ostionan) to the latter. Differences between styles of the same subseries and series were primarily the result of cultural divergence (or fission), a process that Rouse (1989, 1992) identified as analogous to biology's founder's effect: after fission, daughter communities will carry only a part of the parental genetic stock (i.e., a part of the parental norms and modes that make up a style). Rouse, like Gordon R. Willey, was a great synthesizer. His description of the entire developmental history of the Taínos takes but one paragraph:

All the Historic-age Taínos made pottery belonging to a single Ostionoid series [A.D. 600-1500] of local styles. The ancestry of the Classic Taínos can be traced back into prehistory through a Chican Ostionoid subseries, the ancestry of the Western Taínos through a Meillacan Ostionoid subseries, and the ancestry of the Eastern Taínos through an Elenan Ostionoid subseries. The three ancestries converge in the Cedrosan Saladoid subseries of Puerto Rico and the Lesser Antilles. From there the trail leads back to similar deposits on the Guianan and Venezuelan coasts [Rouse 1992:32-33].

In other words, the cultural traits of the Taíno peoples and their regional variants (Western, Eastern, Classic or Central) all derived from the spread of the Saladoid series of peoples, and their ceramic styles, from their original homeland in the Orinoco Valley (2300-900 B.C.), reaching the West Indies between ca. 400-250 B.C. In Rouse's model the Lesser Antillean Ortoiroid series of cultures (Archaic age) were either quickly decimated or rapidly acculturated to the civilizing forces of the advancing Cedrosan Saladoids, who brought and imposed a sedentary lifeway, ceramic technology, and a subsistence based on agricultural production to the "hapless" nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers. Even in Hispaniola, where Rouse (1992) recognized a greater degree of interaction between the Archaic populations (El Porvenir and Courí cultures) and the early Ostionoid cultures (Anadel and Macady cultures) spreading out of Puerto Rico, the effect was the same: the Archaic hunter-gatherer groups became very rapidly "Ostionized" (i.e., Rouse's Meillacan subseries). The presence of non-Saladoid (and non-Ostionoid) pottery in Archaic sites such as El Caimito and El Porvenir in southern Hispaniola and of Caimanes III in Cuba, for Rouse, were essentially a brief instance of copying Saladoid ceramic technology (not the style) even when the dates cited (ca. 400-300 B.C.) are more than three centuries older than the earliest Saladoid presence in Hispaniola or Meillacan in Cuba (Figure 5). In any event, the Archaic cultures with pottery in Hispaniola were also to perish under the weight of colonization by the early Ostionoids-that is, the direct descendants of the Saladoids. These were the early Ostionan Ostionoid cultures (Ostiones to Arroyo del Palo) that spread from Puerto Rico westward into Hispaniola, the Bahamas, eastern-central Cuba, and Jamaica, starting around A.D. 600. Only the westernmost region of Cuba was spared. Rouse argued that at the time of Spanish contact, western Cuba was entirely inhabited by hunter-gatherer bands designated as Guanahatabeyes or Guanahacabibes. In the sixteenth century these bands were described as troglodytes (cave dwellers), who lacked agriculture and settled village lifestyles, a description that fostered the illusory image of a surviving Archaic population that remained culturally ossified in time (Rodríguez Ramos 2006).


Excerpted from Caciques and Cemí Idols by José R. Oliver Copyright © 2009 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

José R. Oliver is Lecturer at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London.

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