The Jamaican coat of arms, one of our country’s national symbols, features a male and a female Taino on either side of a shield, which bears a red cross with five golden pineapples. Other details on the coat of arms is a Jamaican crocodile mounted on the Royal Helmet of the British Monarchy and mantling (JIS 2009). The motto underneath the artwork is “Out of Many, One People,” which is a tribute to the unity of the different cultures that make up Jamaica.
The male and female Taino are the showpiece of our coat of arms. The historical echoes of these the first inhabitants of Jamaica, speaks very loudly to us in this national symbol. They called Jamaica their home long before Christopher Columbus and the Spaniards arrived on May 5, 1494. They called Jamaica “Xaymaca” meaning “land of wood and water”.
Taino or Arawak? What’s the Difference?
Many of us learnt about the Tainos by the name Arawak. So why are they no longer called Arawaks but Tainos? Researchers have found that in fact the term Taino is used to distinguish between the native populations of the Greater Antilles from the Arawaks of South America.
Irving Rouse (1992, p. 185) defines the Tainos as an “Ethnic group that inhabited the Bahamian Archipelago, most of the Greater Antilles, and the northern part of the Lesser Antilles in the time of Columbus” while Arawaks is defined as an “Ethnic group in the northern part of the Guianas, which formerly extended onto the high land around the Orinoco Delta.”
So the indigenous population of Jamaica were the Tainos and not the Arawaks.
Taino Archaeological Remains
What do we know about the Tainos? Unfortunately, the Tainos had no form of writing and so left behind no written records of their existence. However, much of our knowledge about them come from evidence of their existence such as pottery remains, refuse heaps called middens, stone implements, wood carvings, and eyewitness accounts from the earliest European visitors to the country, Christopher Columbus and the Spaniards.
Archaeologists have found much evidence of the Tainos’s existence right across Jamaica. Remains of their lives have been found near the sea coast as well as far inland as Chancery Hall, Long Mountain and Jack’s Hill. The majority of the sites however, have been found near the coast and near rivers, which accounts for the Tainos having a mostly seafood diet. One of the most popular and easily accessible Taino sites is the White Marl midden located near Central Village. This now houses the Taino Museum and Midden managed by the Jamaican National Heritage Trust (JNHT) due to the number of archaeological remains found there, which includes burial grounds with several skeletal remains.
Details about the lives of the Tainos can be found in several publications, such as Clinton Black’s (1983) History of Jamaica so Jamaican Echoes will not go into details about the Tainos’s daily lives today. Suffice it to say that researchers have found that Jamaica was one of the most populated Taino countries in the Caribbean when Columbus arrived. Rouse (1992) argues that this indicates “that the native Jamaicans were more advanced than the rest of the Western Tainos.”
Join us tomorrow as we observe Taino Day,a day to celebrate the lives of the Tainos as the first Jamaicans, as we retrace the historical echoes of the encounter on that fateful day, May 5, 1494, when the Jamaican Tainos met Christopher Columbus and the Spanish for the first time.
Black, Clinton V. (1983) History of Jamaica. UK: Longman Caribbean Publishing.
Jane, Cecil (1960), The Journal of Christopher Columbus. London: The Hakluyt Society.
Rouse, Irvinng (1992) The Tainos: Rise & Decline of the People who Greeted Columbus. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.