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Origins of the Tainan Culture, West Indies

Origins of the Tainan Culture, West Indies

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by Sven Loven

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When originally published in German in 1924, this volume was hailed as the first modern, comprehensive archaeological overview of an emerging area of the world. Yes, the Caribbean islands had long been known and owned, occupied, or traded among by the economically advanced nations of the world. However, the original inhabitants—as well as their artifacts,


When originally published in German in 1924, this volume was hailed as the first modern, comprehensive archaeological overview of an emerging area of the world. Yes, the Caribbean islands had long been known and owned, occupied, or traded among by the economically advanced nations of the world. However, the original inhabitants—as well as their artifacts, languages, and culture—had been treated by explorers and entrepreneurs alike as either slaves or hindrances to progress, and were used or eliminated. There was no publication that treated seriously the region and the peoples until this work. In the following ten years, additional pertinent publications emerged, along with a request to translate the original into Spanish. Based on those recent publications, Loven decided to update and reissue the work in English, which he thought to be the future international language of scholarship. This work is a classic, with enduring interpretations, broad geographic range, and an eager audience.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The book is virtually a requisite for all research in the field of Antillean archaeology. Apparently every work with any bearing upon the subject, especially the oldest historical sources, has been digested, and the footnote references are multitudinous. Each cultural element, tangible archaeological object or trait, is treated exhaustively; its resemblances and possible connections traced throughout the Americas; and conclusions as to its point of origin, development and migration reached." —J. Alden Mason of the University of Pennsylvania Museum, in American Anthropologist

"Lovén [is] one of the principal writers on the prehistory of the West Indies..." —Cornelius Osgood, Department of Anthropology, Yale University, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

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University of Alabama Press
Publication date:
Caribbean Archaeology and Ethnohistory Series
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.70(d)

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Origins of the Tainan Culture, West Indies

By Sven Lovén

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2010 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-8509-5


Immigrations and Indian Elements in the West Indies.

The distance from the Antilles with their southernmost island, Grenada, to Trinidad (and Tobago) and even to the mainland of South America, is not larger than migrations from this continent to the islands could have been established by tribes possessing sufficient good crafts. Farther on there was no difficulty in crossing from one island to another along the range of the Lesser Antilles. Firstly between the northern Leeward Islands and the Virgin Islands there is a gap, which ought to make traffic more difficult.

Of primitive tribes of different culture there remain nowadays in Venezuela only the Warraus in the delta of the Orinoco, another complex in the Raudal district, as well as the remnants of the Otomacos. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries primitive tribes were still found in a district situated between the Serrania del Interior and the Orinoco. Up till now archaeology, however, has not been able to prove that in the West Indies there ever lived any primitive pre-Arawak Southamerican immigrants.

Florida evidently played an important part when the northern West Indian Islands were first invaded by foreigners. It has been proved that a people coming from Florida, the Siboneyes, once settled on the coasts of Cuba from the east to the west. This was a primitive tribe that left Florida at a period previous to the settlement in this peninsula of tribes on a higher cultural stage.

Whether such a primitive tribe also penetrated into Española is a question still open to discussion. Up till now we do not know from Puerto Rico of any finds whatever originating from a primitive pre-Arawak people. Of great interest is HATT'S discovery of a settlement on the Krum Bay in St. Thomas. Its primitive inhabitants who used stone celts cannot be identic with the Cuban Siboneyes, but already the fact that ochre has been found, points to a North American origin. Unfortunately we do not know the part played by the Bahamas in the supposed pre-Arawakan migrations from North America.

The distance to cover for to reach Jamaica from Cuba or Española is so great that it may be questioned if it was possible for a primitive people to do so. Even in a big Jamaican canoe MENDEZ had great difficulty in crossing from Jamaica to Española. No undisputable finds originating from a primitive pre-Arawakan tribe living in Jamaica have hitherto been brought to light.

It is, however, a matter of fact that the Island Arawaks have practically penetrated into all the West Indian Islands. In the following I shall make a distinction between the Tainos, the Island-Arawaks living in the Greater Antilles and the Bahamas at the time of the Discovery, and the Ignéris, the Island-Arawaks inhabiting the Lesser Antilles when the Caribs immigrated. Ignéri, probably the Arawak word eyeri, "men", was a name given by the Island-Caribs to the Arawak Islanders which they conquered and extinguished. I have borrowed the term from the French authors of the 17-th century.

Leaving Trinidad aside, we know four distinct races in the West Indies properly speaking, from historical sources. The names are given in the order in which they must have immigrated.

1. Guanahatabeyes (Siboneyes)

2. Island-Arawaks.

3. Maçoriges (Ciguayos).)

4. Island-Caribs.

The Guanahatabeyes.

Only in the extreme western part of Cuba can we establish a pre-Arawak race in the Antilles at the time of the Conquest with any degree of probability. These Guanahatabeyes are mentioned in the Mission Report by LAS CASAS) and also in 1514 in VELASQUEZ' report to the King of Spain. LAS CASAS pictures them as "unos indios al cabo de Cuba, los quales son como salvajes, que en ninguna cosa tratan con los de la isla, ni tienen casas, están en cuevas contino, sino es cuando salen á pescar". Llamanse guanahacabeyes.) The report of VELASQUEZ states that a Spanish brigantine had visited the western part of Cuba. The inhabitants were described as living in the following manner: "Poniente están la una (that is provincia) se llama Guaniguanies é la otra Guanahatabibes,) que son los postreros indios dellas; y que la vivienda destos guanahatabibes es á manera de salvajes, porque no tienen casas ni pueblos, ni labranzas ni comen otra cosa sino las carnes que toman por los montes y tortugas y pescado.")

Dr. Pedro Garcia Valdes has shown that the discoverers and conquerors of Cuba were never in Pinar del Rio, that without exception none of them at any time had ever seen Guanahatabeyes, so that consequently the Spanish informants of that time lack authentic knowledge of that race. In this he is indisputably right, as well as in the assumption that the numerous finds in Pinar del Rio prove that Tainos must once have lived there. All the same, we must except the San Antonio district. The existence of a strange, primitive pre-Taino race with extension at one time over the whole island of Cuba is brought to light through Harrington's extensive investigations, and even established in Pinar del Rio. If the remnants of that older, primitive people still lived in the most western part of Cuba at the time of the Conquest, is another question. Not only did none of the conquerors have the opportunity of seeing these Guanahatabeyes, but also the information obtained from the Cuban Tainos about the general cultural standpoint of this race, does not harmonize with their proper character as established by the conclusions to which Cosculluela and Harrington came, through their excavations of the Cuban dwelling-sites. The traditions that Guanahatabeyes were still now and then found living in Pinar del Rio, as late as the middle of the nineteenth century, I cannot find confirmed by any document.) But I will mention that accounts of wild Indians killing the cattle of the colonists of Pinar del Rio with their arrows and the rewards offered for their extermination on this account, can be traced back to the beginning of the seventeenth century. It is to be assumed that they have been destroyed since then. Unfortunately I have not succeeded in finding any information about this.

MARTYR and OVIEDO, have cited troglodytes, similar to the Guanahatabeyes also in Guacayarima, the long southwestern peninsula of Española including Mornes de la Hotte. MARTYR says: "It is said that there is a district of a savana in the most westerly province of Guaccaiarima inhabited by people who only live in caverns and eat nothing but the products of the forest. They have never been civilised nor had any intercourse with any other races of men. They live, so it is said, as people did in the golden age, without fixed homes or crops or culture; neither do they have a definite language. They are seen from time to time, but it has never been possible to capture one, for if, whenever they come they see anybody other than natives approaching them, they escape with the celerity of a deer.")

The first part of the description has an indiscutible similarity to that of Velasquez of the Guanahatabeyes of Cuba; and furthermore as in its continuation information follows about bitumen "on the reefs of Hispaniola,") Cuba and not Española must have been meant.

OVIEDO says) that a very savage race lived in caves in the province of Guaicayarima. They neither sowed nor cultivated the fields, but lived from hand to mouth. All property was held in common, with the exception of their wives. "Aquesta gente fué la mas salvaje que hasta agora se ha visto en las Indias." It must be remarked that this refers to the place to which Obando advanced in Xaraguá in 1503, and that at this date, which was before his arrival to Española, Oviedo had a very limited knowledge of the island.

Fewkes cites Las Casas and Velasquez unreservedly in regard to the Guanahatabeyes in "Prehistoric Culture of Cuba", and also mentions the assertion of Martyr, that a similar race of people existed in the extreme western part of Haiti at the time of the Conquest.)

Fortunately Las Casas has lived in the towns of the province of Hanyguayabá, which includes the extreme peninsula in the southwestern part of the island of which Guacayarima is the very point. For this reason he is able to confirm that the inhabitants there were Tainos, having the same economical conditions and manner of living as the others on the island. He contradicts Oviedo and says: "mal supo lo que dijo, porque no vivian sino en pueblos y tenian sus señores que los regian, y á su modo como los demas, (namely the rest of the Haitian Tainos) su communal policía; porque áun la misma tierra, por ser como un jardin, aunque quisieran vivir selváticmente, no se lo consentiera; y ni habia cuevas ni espeluncas como él dice, presumiendo demostrar que sabe nominativos, sino muy graciosos campos y arboledas, donde tenian sus asientos de pueblos y sembraban y cogian, é yo comí hartas veces de los frutos del pan y de otras cosas que su industria y trabajos procedian. La Guacayarima, que dice ser otra distinta provincia (lo que no es) porque tiene punta della (that is, Hanyguaybá), junto á la mar, ciertas entradas o peñas, que llaman Xagueyes los indios, como en la provincia de Higuey, que los habia tan grandes, que podian vivir en ellos muchos vecinos pero no vivian sino en sus grandes pueblos; allí se escondian cuando la calamidad de los españoles los perseguia, y porque huyendo dellos, algunos allí escondidos hallarian.")

Indeed, Martyr mentions a tradition, according to which the former inhabitants of the islands (the Greater Antilles) lived on roots, palms and magueys.) But in truth this tradition could also have had a mythological significance, explaining a condition which existed before a hero of the race had discovered yuca and maize, in this manner making a myth fit the conditions in Española.)

I can cite reasons for this opinion, based on Arawak myths from the continent of South America. Among the Tarumas, an Arawak tribe in the interior of British Guiana, the legendary brothers, Ajijeko and Duid, ate only nuts and fruit in the beginning, until the first woman cut off the tail of their father, the anaconda, and out of this obtained the seeds, cuttings and fruits of the first plants to be cultivated for food.) The Paressis, also Arawaks, in ancient times ate jatoba fruit, biriti nuts, edible fungus wood and earth, until their progenitor found wild manioc roots deep in the woods and brought home the roots.)

If we turn to archeology and take into consideration HARRINGTON'S finds in Pinar del Rio, it is very obvious that he found there an exclusively typical Siboneyan culture in the San Antonio district, indeed a karstland, but whose eastern lowland has layers of soil, also surface waters and is covered with a rich overgrowth of forests and jungles. The only objects of Taino,—or perhaps rather sub-Taino—, culture which Harrington found in the San Antonio region, consisted of "two large pieces of undecorated aboriginal pottery", in Cueva Funche, a cave of otherwise pure Siboneyan culture.) They only prove that the Siboneyes lived here contemporaneously with the Tainos farther to the East. Then too, archeology does indicate that the last of the Siboneyes took refuge in the almost inaccessible forests and jungles in the northern part of the San Antonio region, and that this district was never Tainan. In other parts of Cuba, as far as has been investigated, Siboneyan as well as Taino sites exist. Indeed, occasional objects of Taino workmanship are found in sites with pure Siboneyan culture, showing that in some regions at one time the Siboneyes dwelt alongside of the Tainos. But at the time, of the Conquest, the greater part of the island had come completely made Tainan. The sites investigated by Harrington in the San Antonio region with one exception lie some distance inland, but near the Enseñada de Guadima. In regard to the settlement itself, the Siboneys were above all things dependent on near access to fresh water. The largest of these Siboneyan sites in the San Antonio district and the one that yielded the greatest abundance of finds, "The Great Midden", lies near the little lake with crystal-clear water in the Valle San Juan. Good water is also found in the caves of this region. Although the Siboneyes of the San Antonio district lived inland, they nevertheless procured their food from the sea. Their refuse contains snail and mussel shells and among them are found as well oyster and crab shells, bones of turtles and hutias; but on the other hand, Harrington does not mention the presence of fishbones) finding however beads of three kinds of fish-vertabras, more or less ground. Cosculluela calls the Siboneys veritable fish-eaters, but brings into prominence the fact that in their refuse, above all, the shells of molluscs are found.) In the San Antonio region, they seem to have been collectors of food along the shore rather than fishers. However, I do not know if access to fish was more difficult in the Enseñada de Guadima than along various other parts of the Cuban coast. As to boats, material for them could easily be procured in the forests of this region.

The differences between the Siboneyan and Taino cultures are radical and show themselves generally to be the same over the whole island. This is brought out clearly by Harrington's extensive investigations.) The Siboneyan culture is far poorer than that of the Tainos. It was a veritable shell culture. They made "the gouges" out of conch-shell, as well as vessels.

If a race uses shell as material for axe-blades, this in itself does not prove them to be primitive. Such a thing has been known to have occurred on many of the islands that once had an Island-Arawak population, which entirely lacked suitable material for the production of axes. For the same reason axes of conch-shell are very common on Barbados, where axes of stone could only be imported. One would expect to find axes of shell more general on the Bahama Islands, where suitable stone is non-existant, but because of the lively trade which the Lucayos carried on with Cuba and Española in tle period before the Discovery, they seem to have succeeded in bringing about the importation of the far more effective greenstone celts from those islands. Both upon the Greater and Lesser Antilles, where there is suitable rock for making celt and axe blades, axes of shell are found in regions along the coast where semifossil Strombus gigas occur. Evidently they are Tainan because they are found on Taino sites. The same is true on St. Croix,) on Santo Domingo,) and on Jamaica.) Scattering finds of axes of shell are made on several islands, which for the rest have rock suitable for axe blades. I can cite in addition Guadeloupe) and St. Kitts.) Only two types of axe-blades of shell are to be distinguished among those which belonged to the Tainos, Igneris or possibly Island-Caribs. On Barbados they retained a part of the spiral of the conch.) Im Thurn called this the "shoe-horn type." But otherwise everywhere, and particularily on Barbados, they have produced a flat petaloid celt type by striking off the whorl and grinding the sides.) A specimen of this type of petaloid celt, made of shell, has been excavated by Harrington from a cave at Obando, in Oriente, Cuba, which contained principally Siboneyan culture, and he is of the opinion that the celt is Siboneyan, also.) The possibility can be suggested that although the Siboneys made such axes of conch-shell, the type is also Taino and intended to imitate the petaloid axe-blades of stone. The West Indian petaloid shell celts of Strombus gigas are flat and the whorls are not very conspicuous. The diverging sides are often ground straight. The edge is not so sharp as in the Siboneyan gouges and as a usual thing it is only ground from the inside of a piece of conch-shell. On Barbados, the island which is most pointed out as having axes of shell, their development had reached so far, that with only shell for material they produced celts resembling in form the customary petaloid celts of stone of the Island-Arawaks.) Celts of shell occur also on Curaçao and Aruba, and here even with sides ground straight.) Celts or hoe blades of shell, of different forms, poorly chipped and badly ground are found in Yucatan,) where suitable material for axes is lacking except when the limestone contains flint.) But in Yucatan they seem never to have made it their aim to work out the form of the shell celts as carefully as in the Antilles or in Florida. Their principal care was that the edge should be ground quite sharp.

Florida's western and southwestern Keys lack stone and they have made large axes or hoes of the entire Fulgur Perversum. But in Florida, as well as in other of the Southeastern States, they copied stone axeblade types in shell.) They made use of this material in Florida because there is no suitable stone accessible. Certainly no stone celts were found in the shell-mounds investigated by WYMAN in the St. John's River district in Florida. But there they treated shell exactly as if it were stone. Therefore, knowledge of stone-axes was not lacking.


Excerpted from Origins of the Tainan Culture, West Indies by Sven Lovén. Copyright © 2010 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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Meet the Author

Sven Lovén (1875-1948) was a Swedish anthropologist.

L. Antonio Curet is Associate Curator of Archaeology at the Field Museum, Chicago, and coeditor of Islands at the Crossroads: Migration, Seafaring, and Interaction in the Caribbean and Tibes: People, Power, and Ritual at the Center of the Cosmos.

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