'Treasures ... of Black Wood, Brilliantly Polished': Five Examples of Taino Sculpture from the Tenth-Sixteenth Century Caribbean

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Introduction. Taino wooden sculpture

Taino carvings were among the first visual art forms from the New World to reach the shores of the Old after 1492: from ceremonial duhos (chairs) and sculptures to masks and belts of 'admirable artistry ... and other things never before seen or heard of in Spain' (Las Casas in Parry & Keith 1984: 66). Wood was the main component of many of these objects, whether hidden or featured: it could form the framework of a mask, the foundation around which cotton was woven to create the central figure on a belt, or quite simply--and most significantly--as the lustrous surface par excellence of indigenous 'treasures'. For the Taino, wrote the contemporary historian Martyr D'Anghera (1530 [1970]: 125), 'treasure did not consist of gold, silver or pearls, bur of utensils necessary to the different requirements of life, such as seats, platters ... and plates made of black wood, brilliantly polished; they display great art in the manufacture of ... these articles'. A study of this versatile material, used for everything from house posts to feast platters, can offer insights into indigenous concepts of value, aesthetics and belief (Helms 1986; Saunders & Gray 1996).

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Taino, derivative of nitaino, meaning 'good' or 'noble' has become a convenient term to refer to the people inhabiting the Hispaniola (Haiti/Dominican Republic), Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Cuba, the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos islands (TCI) at the rime of European contact (Figure 1). The name, however, masks the cultural complexity and diversity that was present in the region at this rime, and should be viewed more as a 'spectrum or mosaic of social groups with diverse expressions of Tainoness' (Oliver 2009: 27-8). As Peterson et al. (2004: 19) note, Taino is a 'supra-cultural entity at a level well above ah individual culture ... [and] refers to a widespread Antillean set of cultural practice and norms shared by several or more localized cultures in the Greater Antilles and beyond.'

The ancestral roots of the Taino can be traced back in the archaeological record to a sequence of rapid migrations by horticulturalists travelling up from the South American mainland through the Lesser Antilles to finally settle in Puerto Rico and Hispaniola by about 400 BC. Their descendants prospered, interacting with local inhabitants who had occupied the Greater Antilles for centuries, and both ancestries contributed to the culture most archaeologists refer to as the Taino (Wilson 2007: 138). Populations expanded quickly and people began to explore and settle other islands, reaching Cuba, Jamaica and the Bahamas by about AD 600 (Wilson 2007:102-110). The following centuries until the invasion of European powers saw the expansion of settlements, the construction of monumental ball courts, escalating socio-political complexity as caciques (chiefs) rose to power and, concomitantly, an artistic florescence.

By the time of Columbus' arrival in 1492, wooden sculpture is documented as being central to religious and social practices, taking a wide variety of forms, including cemis (depictions of spirits, deities or ancestors), canopied stands which held hallucinogenic snuff during ceremonies, and duhos reserved for the use of caciques and other elites during important ritual and social occasions. The Spanish described these pieces in their accounts, and sent examples back to Europe--others were preserved in caves for centuries: some 300 have survived in museum and select private collections (Ostapkowicz 1998). Some of these have become seminal examples of Taino artistry, the highlight of museum displays and catalogues.

But despite such prominence, little is understood about the stylistic range of Taino wooden sculpture, its regional and temporal variation or use within the complex chiefdom-level societies that produced them. The reliance on the same key pieces in exhibit catalogues and displays has in many ways rendered static our perceptions of Taino carving, overshadowing the wide diversity of styles known from the region and instilling an impression of greater stylistic unity than actually exists. …