The Taino Indians: The Original Puerto Ricans

When Christopher Columbus landed in what is now called Puerto Rico on November 19, 1493 he was surprised to find that the island he named San Juan Bautista was already inhabited by a Native American tribe called the Taino. It’s estimated that as many as 50,000 Taino lived on Puerto Rico at the time of Columbus’ arrival. They seemed to have led an idyllic existence, hunting and fishing from dugout canoes and growing crops of cassava, sweet potato, and garlic among others.

Until the arrival of the conquistadors, the only threats the Taino faced were from the Caribs, a warlike and cannibalistic people who would sail to the islands of the Greater Antilles on raiding and pillaging expeditions. In fact, the word “Taino” is a native word that means “good”, as opposed to their “bad” Carib enemies.

Although the Taino were weakened by the attacks of the Caribs, it was the arrival of the Spanish colonists that led to their ultimate downfall and rapid extinction. European diseases for which the Taino had no resistance quickly swept through the population and those who survived suffered miserable lives as slaves on sugar cane and other agricultural plantations.

By about 1515, a mere seven years after Spanish colonists led by Governor Ponce de Leon settled on Puerto Rico, the native Taino population had been reduced to 4,000 and by the middle of the 16th century only a few dozen remained.

The Taino had no system of writing or advanced mechanical aptitude but they did manage to evolve a complex culture. Weaving using natural cotton and palm fibers was employed to make ropes, clothing and fishnets. Taino dugout canoes on average could hold up to 20 people, with the largest war canoes able to accommodate 150 warriors. The word “canoe” itself has Taino roots, coming from the Taino word “canoa”. Other Taino words that have passed into modern English and Spanish usage include barbacoa (barbecue), hamaca (hammock), huracan (hurricane), tabaco (tobacco) and yuca (yucca).