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Notes on Trade between the Taino and Mesoamerica:

The Evidence

By
Francisco J. Gonzalez
(original piece was posted on the official discussion group of
Caney Indian Spiritual Circle,
a spiritual community inspired by the ancient ways of the
Taino Indians of the Caribbean.)
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/sobaokokoromo2/message/3195

The issue of what was traded, and how, between the Taino and neighboring peoples is a
fascinating topic, because the goods exchanged and the mechanisms of trade can tell us
so much about the culture and their society of the all the participants in this process.

I will be the first to admit to my limited knowledge of the Taino and their likely trade
partners. However, I have examined the evidence at hand and research both what did the
Taino IMPORTED and what did they EXPORTED to their neighbors.

Taino IMPORTS:

One of the facts that had baffled scientists trying to find proof of Taino-Mesoamerican
contact is the absolute absence in the Taino islands of typical artifacts commonly found
across Mesoamerican archaeological sites. The Maya, for example, exchanged fine
painted ceramics, obsidian blades, cotton and feather-embroidered textiles, jade and even
some metal jewelry, salt and foodstuffs. See link below:
Seaborne coastal obsidian stone trade between Guatemala and Yucatan
(in Spanish)
http://www.famsi.org/reports/95004es/index.html

Logically the organic materials such as textiles would not survive in the tropical weather,
but this does not explain why not a single ceramic bowl of Mesoamerican origin has
never been found in the Taino lands.

I think a partial response to this is that the Taino may simply had no need or desire for
Maya/Mesoamerican ceramics. The Taino, as well all know, were master ceramists
themselves, and perhaps they were not attracted to Maya pottery. Similarly, there is
evidence that other people that did trade with the Maya and other Mesoamericans
were very particular about the products that they acquired, and also did not import
Maya/Mesoamerican ceramics (see reference to the Anazasi/Hohokam below)

So, the Taino must have traded exclusively on perishable organic goods and/or in raw
materials that were then transformed into tools, jewelry, etc. following Taino, not

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Mesoamerican, patterns. The evidence is conclusive about the later: presence of
Taino/Saladoid jewelry, celts, etc. made using Mesoamerican raw materials. However,
the quantity is fairly small compared to the amount of jewelry, tools, etc. that were made
using local materials. Then we must conclude that these imported materials were used to
craft special tools and jewelry, either for small elites or for specific religious practices,
and not for every-day use by the general Taino population.

Regarding the organic imports: honey and beeswax were, as mentioned already, observed
first-hand by the Spanish in Cuba and even then identified as likely imports from
Yucatan, so it is safe to conclude that these were indeed Mesoamerican/Mayan imports.
See link below:
Maya beekeeping in Cozumel Island, off Yucatan.
http://www.famsi.org/reports/02016/index.html

However, it is hard to envision that these were the only, or even the most important,
organic products imported by the Taino. I think it is almost certain that leather and pelts
(deer, jaguar, tapir, monkey and others) were imported by the Taino. Besides the small
jutia (rodent about the size of a modern domestic cat) and manatees, the islands of the
Caribbean lacked large indigenous species of animals whose hides could be used to make
leather. Jaguar teeth were discovered at La Hueca in Vieques, and although these most
likely came from South America as opposed to Mesoamerica, this is still evidence that
the Taino/Arawak people did import these animal parts.

The Maya and other Mesoamerican peoples were masters at the use of feathers in textiles
and for adornment. The Spanish chroniclers do mention that the Taino, especially the
cacikes (chieftains), wore colorful feather headdresses; the Mesoamerican mainland had
far more species of birds with attractive feathers than were available in the Caribbean
islands, so it is likely that the Taino did imported these as ornaments.

There have been finds of macaw feathers from southern Mexico and Mesoamerica
imported by the Anazasi and Hohokam people of Arizona and New Mexico, so we know
for a fact that these goods were traded across hundreds of miles in pre-conquest America.

The Maya also produced colorful textiles for garments; while the Taino wore few clothes,
they may had used the colorful Mesoamerican textiles for cemis, for adornment by elites,
or for clothing worn by the common folk on special occasions. See link below:
Analysis of Rare Textiles from Honduras Ruins Suggests Mayans Produced Fine Fabrics
http://www.newswise.com/articles/view/539875/

Other products perhaps imported from Mesoamerica may include copal resin, used as
incense; dyes and medicinal herbs.

Taino EXPORTS

While it is relatively easy to review the many products from the advanced civilizations of
Mesoamerica that the Taino may find attractive, it is a bit harder to speculate on what

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products would the sophisticated Maya, Aztecs and Totonacas may want or need from the
Taino lands.

The Maya and other Central American peoples most likely first received food stuffs like
yucca/manioc from the Taino lands, but there is no evidence that they imported these
products in large quantities. Instead, the recent discoveries in El Salvador show that
the Maya grew their own yucca after learning how to cultivate the plant.

The Taino were skilled weavers of cotton, and surviving examples of their art gives us an
idea of the quality of their work. See link below:
http://www.elmuseo.org/taino/zemi.html

The Mesoamericans may have imported these to supplement their own production of
cotton textiles, or to be used by the non-elite population. A modern recent example of this
type of trade would be the 19th century trade between the English and the Ashanti
Kingdoms of West Africa, in which cheap cotton textiles manufactured in England were
highly valued and traded for gold and slaves, even though the Ashanti themselves
produced their own textiles and also obtained other kinds of textiles from neighboring
African nations.

Another Taino export could be raw (not worked) gold. The Spanish found that the Taino
were panning for gold in Kiskeya-Dominican Republic and Boriken-Puerto Rico, which
the Taino then worked into adornments for elites and to add to sacred objects such as
dujos and some of the cotton cemis. The Maya and other Mesoamericans also valued gold
to be used in jewelry. It is my understanding that gold and other metals such as copper
became more important commodities during the Post-Classic period amongst the Maya
and also for the Aztecs and other later Mesoamerican peoples.

There is evidence that South American gold artifacts were imported into Mesoamerica as
part of a well-developed seaborne trade route along the Pacific coastline. See link below:
Oceangoing sailing rafts plied the waters of the equatorial Pacific
http://www.innovations-report.de/html/berichte/verkehr_logistik/bericht-105942.html

There are few, if any, native gold deposits in Yucatan and most of the Maya lands, so gold
had to be imported form what is now central Mexico or elsewhere. Perhaps the Maya
imported raw gold nuggets from the Taino lands, which then they crafted into objects on
their own. This would also explain the absence of a single Taino made piece of jewelry in
Mesoamerica.

Other types of goods that perhaps were imported by the Mesoamericans may include sea
animal parts used for adornments and for ritual purposes. The Mesoamericans, specially
the Maya, used stingray spines and shark and barracuda teeth in bloodletting ceremonies;
shark teeth were also popular adornments to be used in jewelry. While the Maya, of
course, lived next to the Caribbean Sea and had direct access to the same marine species
of sharks, etc that the Taino captured; it seems that, at least until the Late Classic and

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the Post-Classic periods the main centers of Maya (and Mesoamerican) populations were
deep inland; the coasts fairly empty of settlements. Perhaps the Taino, skilled island
seafarers, were able to step in and provide the shark teeth, stingray barbs, shells, and
other sea products in the quantity and quality that the inland Maya needed and that their
own coastal settlements were unable to produce. See link below for more information on
examples of these items found in a Maya burial:
http://www.famsi.org/research/dacus/bones.pdf

The Taino may also have exported cohoba and other hallucinogens to the Maya; this is
more speculative since different scholars give different explanations as to what really was
the hallucinogen know as cohoba; in any case, if cohoba was made using a combination
of plant materials and the Taino were the only ones that knew of the "secret recipe", this
would be another product for export, since the Maya and other Mesoamericans also used
a variety of hallucinogens on their religious ceremonies. Related to this, tobacco may also
been exported by the Taino to Mesoamerica. There is no doubt that the Mesoamericans
smoked cigars and used tobacco, and we all know that the finest tobacco in the world
comes from the Taino island of Cuba!

One last item of trade, which was already mentioned by others, is that of slaves. The
Maya and other Mesoamericans required large numbers of captives to be used as
sacrificial victims. The later Mesoamerican civilizations such as the Aztecs and the Post-
Classic Maya practiced large-scale human sacrifice, and the need for victims drove, at
least the Aztecs, to create the Flower Wars or ritual conflicts with other kingdoms in
order to gather captives for sacrifices.

The conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo described how he found a Taino woman from
Jamaica amongst the Maya of coastal Yucatan, and the woman explained to him (Diaz del
Castillo had lived in Cuba for several years and spoke Taino) that she and her
companions had left Jamaica and a storm took them to Yucatan, where her male
companions were sacrificed by the Maya.

While it is possible that the Taino did trade in slaves with the Maya (slaves could be
captured Caribs, or the non-Arawak peoples that the Spanish found living next to the
Taino, such as the Guanahatabeyes of Cuba or the Macorix in Kiskeya-Dominican
Republic), the logistics of this travel would raise some issues as to plausibility.

For example, transporting unwilling captives by a canoe across open water, a trip that
would last several days, could be problematic: since the canoes were driven by oars, the
more captives you bring in the less space for paddlers; allowing the captives to paddle
may not be an option as they may attempt to mutiny. If captives were in fact traded by the
Taino, then each trip could have involved just a few individuals per canoe. It is hard to
see how the Taino could have provided anything close to the number of captives required
by the Mesoamericans.

In conclusion, there is so much that we still do not know about our ancestors and how
they related to their neighbors around the Caribbean Basin. Hopefully, with new research

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and better appreciation of the interconnections between pre-conquest civilizations, we
may begin to fill the gaps!