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Talking Taino

Caribbean Natural History from a Native Perspective

Written by William F. Keegan and Lisabeth A. Carlson

Publication Year: 2008

Keegan and Carlson, combined, have spent over 45 years conducting archaeological research in the Caribbean, directing projects in Trinidad, Grenada, St. Lucia, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, Jamaica, Grand Cayman, the Turks & Caicos Islands, and throughout the Bahamas. Walking hundreds of miles of beaches, working without shade in the Caribbean sun, diving in refreshing and pristine waters, and studying the people and natural environment around them has given them insights into the lifeways of the people who lived in the Caribbean before the arrival of Christopher Columbus. Sadly, harsh treatment extinguished the culture that we today call Taíno or Arawak.


In an effort to repay their debt to the past and the present, the authors have focused on the relationship between the Taínos of the past (revealed through archaeological investigations) and the present natural history of the islands.  Bringing the past to life and highlighting commonalities between past and present, they emphasize Taíno words and beliefs about their worldview and culture.

Published by: The University of Alabama Press


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pp. vii-viii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-xi

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pp. xiii-xv

The gray beard (Bill, not Betsy) is telling. Combined, the two of us have spent forty-five years conducting archaeological research in the Caribbean. Bill started in 1978, and Betsy in 1992. Over the years we have directed research projects in Trinidad, Grenada, St. Lucia, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, Jamaica, Grand Cayman, the Turks & Caicos Islands, and throughout the Bahamas. We have also had the good fortune to visit many of the other islands in the Caribbean.

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pp. xvii

There are far too many people to thank for their assistance on our various projects. First and foremost we met a strong and dedicated ally. Kathy Borsuk, managing editor of the International Magazine of the Turks & Caicos Islands, called Times of the Islands, embraced our concept. Most of the chapters in this book originally were published there. Kathy has created a phenomenal publication that reaches well beyond the Turks & Caicos Islands.

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pp. 1-8

They are known today as Lucayan Taínos: an anglicized version of the Spanish “Lucayos,” which derives from the Arawakan words Lukkunu Kaíri (“island men”). The Lucayans share a common ancestry with the Taíno societies of Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Jamaica (the Greater Antilles), who they separated from around AD 600 when they began to colonize the Turks & Caicos and The Bahamas (hereafter called the Lucayan Islands).

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1. The Spanish Translation (2003)

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pp. 9-14

Christopher Columbus is a provocative character. His is not the biography of an ordinary man; his is the story of a symbol whose fortunes have crested and fallen over the past five centuries. He went from the first successful transatlantic voyage, to a penniless death in 1506, to heroic status as a symbol for the United States as it emerged on the world stage with the Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1893), to the murderer of all native peoples during the Columbus Quincentenary.

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2. Starry, Starry Night (2005)

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pp. 15-20

Jacques Derrida is dead. He died on October 9, 2004, at the age of seventy- four. Derrida was a French philosopher who recognized the importance of language in shaping our perception of the world around us. He pioneered a field of critical theory called deconstructionism. The approach argues that all writing has multiple layers of meaning, which even the author might not understand. Written language is thus open to an endless process of reinterpretation.

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3. Sharks and Rays (2003)

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pp. 21-24

When the Spanish invaded the Americas, they quite literally landed in a New World. Like Dorothy in Oz, exotic and unknown peoples, plants, and animals surrounded them, and they struggled to find the words to describe them. One can imagine the Spanish pointing at various things and asking, “¿Como se dice? (What is it called?).” As with all languages, when an object or idea is new, the native term is frequently adopted.

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4. First Documented Shark Attack in the Americas, circa AD 1000 (2003)

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pp. 25-30

Their village was on the north coast of Puerto Rico near the modern town of Vega Baja. The two fishermen left the village as the sun was rising in the east. They pushed their small dugout canoe into the gentle surf and began paddling toward the azure reef line about five hundred meters from shore. Small whitecaps broke on the reef marking their destination. They were probably using hook and line, spears, or a net, or possibly all three, depending on the conditions that day and the ...

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5. The Age of Reptiles (2003)

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pp. 31-35

The name iguana (higuana) is a Taíno word. The syllable gua begins the Taíno words for gold, parrot, fire, and the names of many caciques. It is possible that gua was a designation for a favored thing, although Granberry and Vescelius translate gua as “our.” Indeed, iguanas were one of the favored foods of the Taínos, but by the time the Spanish arrived, iguanas were so rare they were reserved only for the caciques.

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6. Catch of the Day (2007)

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pp. 36-41

The islands of the Bahama archipelago are truly blessed. The crystal clear waters surrounding the islands contain an abundance of marine life. As Columbus noted, many of these are marvelous to see, while others are marvelous to eat. The Spanish recorded more than sixty Ta

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7. Birdland (2006)

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pp. 42-46

The Taínos kept parrots, traded them and their feathers widely, and gave them to the Spanish as gifts. Upon Columbus’s first landing in the New World, the Lucayan Indians presented him with a parrot. Three years later, Columbus shipped sixty of the birds to Spain. Nowadays, more than five hundred years later, the skies are no longer darkened by flocks of parrots. In fact, if you want to see even a few of the bright green and red Cuban parrots in The Bahamas you have to go to either ...

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8. Gone Fishin' (2004)

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pp. 47-52

Fishing is a social experience. Even if you don’t fish with other people, some part of your day fishing will involve socializing. In our culture we have the bar at the marina, but every culture has some form of this. When working at an archaeological site on a tiny island off the north coast of Haiti, a stream of Haitian fishing sloops visited us each afternoon. The fishermen would tie up to the dock, build a lean- to to shield themselves from the sun, and hang out.

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9. In the Beginning, God Created Fish (2004)

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pp. 53-56

Fishes were a symbol of life and nourishment in Taíno mythology. They were the most important animal food to the Taínos. Oviedo noted that the Taíno caught “fish that range in size from those smaller than sardines to those so large that two pairs of oxen are necessary to draw them in a cart.”

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10. Herbs, Fish, and Other Scum and Vermin (2003)

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pp. 57-60

About 88 percent of the creatures in the sea are animals without backbones— the invertebrates, which include corals, clams, snails, jellyfish, crabs, and sponges, among others. As our title indicates, the Spanish were not always enamored of the local foods that were offered to them by the native peoples. Yet foods that Europeans once considered unsuited for human consumption are today the choicest morsels (such as escargot, crab, conch, lobster, calamari, and oysters).

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11. The Chip-Chip Gatherers (2007)

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pp. 61-65

In 1973, Shiva Naipaul, the brother of renowned author Sir V. S. Naipaul (Theroux 1998), published the aforementioned book in which he used chip-chip gathering as a metaphor for the futility of life. Chip-chips are tiny Donax clams that live in the sand along the tide line and used to be eaten throughout the Caribbean and southeastern United States. They are a delight to watch as they leave the sand with each passing wave, and then burrow furiously back into the sand as the wave ebbs, only to repeat this action with every passing wave.

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12. Eats, Shoots, and Leaves (2004)

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pp. 66-70

The Caribbean islands are a great place to take a vacation. One of the most common vacation activities is lying on the beach and reading a good book. In this regard, let us suggest Lynne Truss’s (2003) book: Eats, Shoots, and Leaves. This runaway bestseller is about, of all things, punctuation. The title comes from a joke about an undereducated nature writer who used the words of the book title to describe the diet of the Panda.

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13. Eat Roots and Leave (2004)

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pp. 71-76

The Ta

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14. If You Like Pi

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pp. 77-80

Pineapple and coconut are an interesting combination. While the former comes from the Americas, the latter was introduced from Southeast Asia (via the Canary Islands). The Spanish believed that coconuts had “the most palatable taste of all things one can fi nd on earth.” They also really liked pineapples, which they called “piña” because they resembled pinecones. The Taíno called them anana or yayagua.

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15. Boat Trips (2006)

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pp. 81-87

Not just anyone can go out and colonize an isolated, oceanic island. The most important factor is the colonizer’s voyaging ability, which is not always linked to how accessible oceanic islands may be to a population. Madagascar lies close to the east coast of Africa but was colonized by people from Indonesia (four thousand miles away!). A similar situation occurs in the Caribbean. It has long been assumed ...

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16. Partying, Ta

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pp. 88-93


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17. Caves (2006)

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pp. 94-99

The first physical evidence for the native peoples who inhabited the Bahama archipelago was discovered in caves. When Julian Granberry wrote the first summary of Lucayan archaeology in 1956, he noted that 45 of the known sites were in caves and only 16 were in open- air settings. All but one of those 16 open- air sites was in the Caicos Islands. Today, there are about 111 cave sites and almost 400 open- air sites recorded for the Bahama archipelago.

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18. Birds of a Feather (2005)

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pp. 100-104

The Spanish recorded about forty Ta

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19. Cannibals! (2006)

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pp. 105-110

Pané’s account illustrates just how quickly Taíno attitudes changed. In the diario of his first voyage, Columbus reported that the Taínos thought that he was a Canibale. The fact that he took people aboard his ships and they never returned, that he was clothed and had exotic vessels and weapons, convinced them that he had arrived from some supernatural realm. The Taínos soon realized their mistake when Columbus established a permanent colony. Supernatural beings may arrive from ...

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20. Obeah and Zombies: The African Connection (2005)

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pp. 111-116

Whenever we visit the Turks & Caicos Islands we try to get together with our old friend, Chuck Hesse, founder of the Caicos Conch Farm on Providenciales. And every time we see Chuck he promotes his belief that Africans were living in the Caribbean islands prior to the arrival of the Spanish.

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21. The Stranger King (2007)

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pp. 117-120

The tale of the “stranger king” is told in some version in virtually every culture in the world. It is the tale of an immigrant king who deposes a ruler, then solidifies the takeover by marrying the daughter of the former king. The basic story line is as follows: The heroic son- in- law from a foreign land demonstrates his divine gifts, wins the daughter, and inherits half or more of the kingdom.

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22. Anatomy of a Colony: A Ta

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pp. 121-125

The Turks & Caicos Islands and Hispaniola were intimately connected during the Ta

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23. Columbus, Hero or Heel? (1991)

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pp. 126-129

Christopher Columbus— Admiral of the Ocean Sea, The Great Navigator— was renown as the champion of the belief that the earth was round. He sought the riches of the Far East by sailing to the west, and he happened instead upon a New World. The man who discovered America was removed from Hispaniola in chains in 1500 and wrongly persecuted in his later years. His story typifies that of a tragic heroic figure.

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24. One Small Step for a Man (1991)

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pp. 130-133

To read Columbus’s daily log (diario de a bordo) you would think that his small fleet was never very far from land. For thirty-two days after leaving Gomera in the Canary Islands on September 9, the diario makes repeated reference to signs of land. Sailing in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, more than one thousand miles from the nearest land, Columbus observed “river weed” (sargassum seaweed), a live ...

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25. A World on the Wax

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pp. 134-136

Following the cycle of the moon, interest in the native peoples of the Caribbean has waxed and waned. At the time of the Columbus Quincentennary, the consensus among scholars was that the native peoples were extinct. The Ta

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Introduction to the Appendices: Words (Between the Lines of Age*)

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pp. 137-138

When we began writing these essays our premise was to use Ta

Appendix I: Ta

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pp. 139-141

Appendix 2: Ta

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pp. 142-144

Appendix 3: Other Ta

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pp. 145-148


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pp. 149-152


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pp. 153-160

E-ISBN-13: 9780817380762
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817355081

Page Count: 188
Publication Year: 2008

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Taino Indians -- Antiquities.
  • Taino Indians -- Social life and customs.
  • Taino Indians -- First contact with Europeans.
  • West Indies -- Antiquities.
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