'Zemis,' Trees, and Symbolic Landscapes: Three Taino Carvings from Jamaica

By Saunders, Nicholas J.; Gray, Dorrick | Antiquity, December 1996 | Go to article overview

'Zemis,' Trees, and Symbolic Landscapes: Three Taino Carvings from Jamaica


Saunders, Nicholas J., Gray, Dorrick, Antiquity


Taino zemis

In 1495, during his second voyage to the Caribbean, Christopher Columbus was one of a handful of Europeans to observe a religious rite of the indigenous Taino (Arawak) inhabitants of Hispaniola (Bourne 1906: 171-2; Columbus [1969]: 192). Central to this ritual was the role of wooden 'idols', zemis, which the Taino appeared to worship, and which the Spanish regarded as evidence of pagan idolatry (Columbus [1969]: 154). Wooden image-zemis have been found throughout the Greater Antilles, notably in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Cuba (Fewkes 1907: 197-202; Loven 1935: 598-602).

In 1792, three figures carved of a dark polished wood were discovered in a cave in the Carpenter's Mountains of southern Jamaica (Anon. 1803; 1896; Joyce 1907: 402-7; Lester 1958). In 1992, three further wooden objects came to light, said to have been discovered originally in a cave in north-central Jamaica (Aarons 1994; Weintraub 1993).

This new discovery, a major find of Taino wooden carvings, is the most important in Jamaica for 200 years.(1) In studying these new images we realized they afforded an opportunity to re-examine the issue of wooden zemis in Taino religion, rather than simply 'fit' the pieces into the accepted hierarchy of putative Taino deities which themselves are known imperfectly from a fragmentary and often ambiguous ethnohistorical record; they had a more complex symbolic importance. Here we consider these new discoveries as well as the generality of wooden zemis from the perspective of their material - wood, the trees from which the wood came, and the conceptual association of the objects with the animated landscape of Taino world-view.

The new discoveries

In June 1992, the Jamaica National Heritage Trust (JNHT) heard that three Taino wooden images had been discovered near the small village of Aboukir in the northern central highlands. The images, apparently discovered originally during the 1940s in a near-by cave, had subsequently been returned. They allegedly remained in the cave until 1972 when they were once again removed, this time by a Mr Clayton, and kept in his house for 20 years. These events, and the circumstances which led to the images finally coming to the attention of the JNHT, appear to have been associated with obeah, Jamaican voodoo (Abrahams & Szwed 1983; Schuler 1979). The three objects, acquired by the JNHT in September 1992, are currently on display in the National Gallery (1994) in Kingston.

Each object is of a different type - an anthropomorphic figure, a bird and a small 'utilitarian' spoon-like object with an anthropomorphic handle. On the basis of photographs, Arrom & Rouse (1992), seeing the aged and cracked nature of the wood, judged them authentic.

The anthropomorphic figure [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURES 1 AND 2 OMITTED] is 168.4 cm in height with a maximum width of 28 cm. The form of the bent legs suggests the presence of ligatures - a practice well known amongst the Taino in general, and documented for the Jamaican Taino by Columbus ([1969]: 196). It has prominent male genitals, and thin arms with hands reclining on the chest. Arrom & Rouse (1992) consider these features characteristic of Taino representations of Baibrama, the deity identified with the cultivation and consumption of cassava (Arrom 1989: 68-73), and not to be confused with Yucahu, the supreme Taino deity, whose name means 'spirit of cassava' (Arrom 1989: 17-20). The eye-sockets, ears and mouth would probably originally have held inlay, possibly shell, but conceivably gold or guanin, a copper-gold alloy.

According to Arrom & Rouse (1992), the projection at the top of the figure may have supported a table or 'canopy' (see below), and the pole upon which the figure is perched may have served as a support, replacing the circular base upon which such figures normally stand. Aarons (1994: 17) regards this figure more speculatively as the ceremonial 'staff of office' of a paramount cacique (chief). …

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