Social life of the indigenous people included their religion, recreation, gender relations, architecture & infrastructure, family life, arts and craft, and education. Political life in the societies involved the political systems that governed their societies, structured format of their geographic/ demographic arrangements. This was also linked to economic activity and rules and sanctions appointed and understood by their authority enforcers and general people respectfully. Economic activity involved the means by which the societies attained their specific and general needs whether it was by subsistence to surpluses farming, by a nomadic approach to hunting, forms of trade, utilization of natural resources (e.g. fishing on small islands and slash and burn techniques for fertilized cultivation). An analysis of economic activity will also extend to the roles and contributions of different gender and age defined individuals, and different racial, ethnic and social classes in the processes of meeting their needs. This study demonstrates substantial similarities but even more differences in the social lives of these people groups, prior to the intervention of the Europeans. From this study I will attempt to prove that although some similarities did exist between the two societies, the vast number of differences far surpasses them.
Misconceptions about the indigenous tribes of the “new world” were spread in European accounts of their history were accepted as authoritative for many years after colonisation. This paper will also seek to clear some of these misconceptions as it dives into the different aspects of indigenous life, firstly beginning with the Tainos.
The Neolithic Revolution was the term given to the first agricultural revolution that saw the transition of the provision of needs from hunting and gathering to agriculture. This revolution resulted in various social changes in Neolithic human societies as they moved from a nomadic to a settlement lifestyle. These changes affected social as well as economic development directly of the prehistoric societies involved and in turn all other aspects of their existence. Out of this revolution, the prehistoric tribe of the Taino descent gained its identity as Neo-Indians and was severely affected by the changes on this transition process. These changes included an alarming increase in population density due to the newly attained settlement patterns, the organisation of a hierarchal society, the emergence of a trading system and the expansion of man’s control over nature. Taino lifestyles were also affected by a great decrease in nomadic patterns and a greater emphasis on domestication of crops and animals, leading to the settlement of the people and the development from one prehistoric stage to the next, providing advancement. These settlement patterns lead to new social, cultural, economic and political concepts in which the Tainos were able to progress. For example, the concept of land ownership led to modifications to the natural environment and the ability to sustain higher population densities. This also led to a change of diet and directly to a prolonging of life. The concept of land ownership brought along alterations to social hierarchies and surplus farming with the vision of personal wealth.
The Mayans were found in the Mesoamerican region and significantly assisted in the molding of the cultural representation that that region holds today. Historian Brinsley Samaroo argues that the Mayan civilization gained most of its advances from the study of the defeated Olmecs, as they had passed through their prime seasons of advancement (c.1000 BC) and was onto their decline. (Samaroo ) It was during this decline that the Mayans invaded and eradicated the Olmecs (a greatly advanced society) and replaced them with their own more primitive societies, all the while learning quickly from the evidence of progress left behind. It was through this motivation for advancement and the fact that the Mayans had been around hundreds of years before the Tainos that lead to the vast differences in development stages (chiefdom – civilization c. 1400 A.D.). Mayan development although seemingly advanced at the time this study is aimed at does not indicate a superior society. In fact, historians have argued that had the Tainos and the Mayans began their process of development around the same period and in the same place and without the assistance of a fallen advanced society (Olmecs) that the Tainos would have surpassed the Mayans in their stages of advancement. That conclusion was derived from an approximation of the amount of time it took the both societies to reach their chiefdom stage disregarding other enabling factors like the inheritance of an empire. But as historical minds would tell us, one cannot assume the outcome of history when a different course of action is taken because it didn’t happen so that assumption has no basis or evidence to support its theory.
Mayan history was organized into two significant eras, the classic Maya period (c. 200 A.D. – 900 A.D.) and the post classic Maya period (after c. 900 A.D.). These two eras for the Mayans marked the most significant change in their history; the change of the impact of religion on their world view and perspectives and in turn how thy reacted to that change. The political systems of the Mayan civilization placed great significance on religion as the basis of their ruling power and therefore were also greatly affected by the changes occurred during the change of eras. This political organization of their society consisted of a hierarchal ruling class with a systematic chain of command similar to the Tainos.
At this stage in Taino development, this tribe was emerging into chiefdom and social structure became more prominent in their society. Taino villages consisted of multiple houses encircling a central plaza, sometime allocated or partially allocated for crop cultivation. They strategically established their villages deep inland near to rivers where they would be better protected from coastal attacks from unfriendly tribes, and near to rivers where they gained fertile soil, a fresh water source and means of fishing. This was not the case with the Maya as they were located on mainland territory and had a structured army for defense. The Taino houses were made of mud with thatched roofs although wooden exceptions did exist. The wood of choice was mahogany and was found in most houses, if not forming the actual walls of a few, it was used as rafters to attach the roofs of many if not all. The mud of the common houses was used to absorb excess water whereas wood would rot over time in the testing climate.
Taino living arrangements consisted of extended families and sometimes multiple houses on one plot of land. There was no segregation of the sexes within the living quarters. These houses were of a particular shape to reflect the social status of their owners from nobleman/chiefs to tribesman/lower class man; the circular houses for the lesser ranked whereas the rectangular houses were for the higher ranked of the two classes. Although houses may have been large enough to accommodate more activities, their purpose was strictly for sleep and rest; all other functions were allocated to outdoor areas. The distribution of people although always increasing was estimated to be about 300 – 500 per village at this period of their development.
The indigenous people also had a system of gender and age roles, according to which persons were expected to perform particular tasks. First to be noted is that Taino society was matrilineal in that Cacique’s and Chiefs passed down their leadership to the mother’s/sister’s side of the family; although they preferred to appoint sons, females caciques did exist. This leads me to the point that in this matrilineal society, the structure was nevertheless decisively patriarchal and men ran the society as the heads. Other than leadership there was also the division of labor according to which the men performed to roles of hunting, fishing, slash and burn and defense of village if need arose, whereas women performed the roles of weaning and weaving, childcare, crop cultivation and handicraft. The roles were never questioned but accepted as norms and this blind obedience was contributed by the acceptance that the appointing of these roles was by a god appointed man; the cacique. The Taino people were placed into arranged marriages at the early age of puberty and women were traded off by their parents as commodities who paid handsome dowries to any suitor that would be willing to take her as a wife. Polygamy was also practiced by nobles and chiefs who were able to maintain a particular lifestyle for each of his wives then he gained a higher status due to the number he accumulated.
Tainos placed great emphasis on religion and could only be performed by males in society whereas religious mythology placed emphasis on women and significant contributors to religion. The Tainos believed in one god with three manifestations. The first of which was the Head God, considered the Supreme Being that controlled volcanoes and cassava (the means of survival). The second was the fertility goddess, said to control the Sea, the moon, menstruation and child birth. She was considered to be the mother of the Head God and this system holds significant resemblance to come present day religions. Her representation lay in three stones worn around the neck of the cacique which represented good crops, painless child birth, sun and rain. From belief in her came the world view that from females came the origin of all life. The final of the three manifestations in the Doglike Deity, he was the overseer of the gate to the underworld and the recently dead. The Tainos placed significance on the communication with their dead ancestors and believe that they were useful in the prediction of the future and out of belief in him resulted in another of their world views that was in a form of life after death. Taino religion although firmly believed was not hermetic but permeable, allowing other belief to be accepted. K. David along with many historians interpreted that to be a principle factor leading to the ease in which the Tainos were overcome by European intruders. Zemis (sometimes referred to as Cemis) were small idols used to communicate with gods and supreme beings. These artifacts were worshiped and places in positions of great reverence as they were representations of Gods. Another world view shared by the Taino was that there was a genesis and in the beginning their ancestors emerged out of a cave and turned into different gods of natural resources for example the sun the moon the sea.
As the Tainos developed definite advancements in technology and education may by identified. Some of these advancements include canoe building. This was done by using metal tools to dig out a hollow space in the centre of a large tree trunk before shaving the bark and painting it with dye. These canoes were then used to travel alarmingly long distances and even exchange people between islands. The Tainos also had methods of weaving as clothes hammocks and other useful luxuries. This method included using string with the cotton to make the woven material stronger and longer lasting. They used methods of slash and burn techniques to prepare the land for cultivation although they would be considered primitive in today’s standards. They also developed a use of fertilizers but their implication of there inventive methods was cut short by European intervention and their recorded method of cultivation was Soil husbandry (exploitation and recuperation; approximately 3 years of each).They had also developed and discovered medicines and poisons made mainly from herbs and natural leaves and plants. The Tainos had also created pottery and ceramics using the coil method, they invented dye and used it as body adornments as well as identification of their own tribesmen. The Taino had also developed a way of sniffing ground tobacco which was called snuff and used it to get a quick high for the production of hallucinations in religious practices.
Each society has their own concept of beauty and the Tainos tastes involved a very unorthodox approach in our standards. The Taino mothers would strap wooden boards to their babies’ heads to create an elongated shape and a flattened forehead in order to create them more ‘beautiful’. They also placed a very high interest on their hair and the better maintained and length was considered the more beautiful. The Tainos decorated themselves with dye and jewelry made mainly of beads and shells and the rare occasion of gold. Tainos had a ball game called batos in which men and women were allowed to play but were given different roles. This ball game was purely recreational and large courts were found in the village square.
The first major difference to note between the Mayan and the Taino societies is that they are at different stages of development. Mayan social life was the most prominent aspect of their development stage as they contributed to the knowledge and development of the region significantly. To start at the base of their social interactions we must refer to their system of citizen distribution. Mayans’ system resembled a caste system except that their society allowed social mobility. Their socio-political hierarchy was as followed: Royal Family – Nobility and priests – Military leaders – Skilled Artisans – Commoners – Slaves and movement between these classes occurred occasionally.
Another of Mayans achievements at an impressively developed society is their ability to construct magnificent structures thought to be more complex than their period accommodated. The Mayans created large stone building including pyramids, plaza temples and even ornate burial sites. The Mayans lived in large comfortable yet simple houses made of stone or mud with poles for support and peaked roofs of no specific shape. Mayans also supported their houses on elevated foundations that looked like large stilts to protect them from flooding. The Mayans lived in extended family groups and their houses were built in around an open plaza space in a similar pattern to the Tainos, although the space in the centre was used for different purposes. Some of the houses had specialized rooms located on the exterior for particular purposes, for example a kitchen house. The houses were made in different styles and sizes to represent different statuses. Mayan society was both Patrilineal and Patriarchal leading to a more effective society. This effectiveness was due to the concordance to the natural organization of society when the hereditary transfer moved along one line of kinship and each individual accepting the hierarchy in which one family is higher than another and in turn the patriarch in that family is more significant than the other.
The religious aspect of society was structured and significant. Priests were appointed not only through their religious commitment but also thought their literacy level. That indicates the importance that Mayan civilizations placed on literacy whereas the Tainos didn’t. The Halach Uinic was also referred to as the K’uhul Ajaw which refers to Holy Lord/ Ruler which demonstrates the close association between the king and God and in turn State and Religion. The Mayans also believed in ancestor worship and communication performed by the Halach Uinic and Shaman during their hallucinations. Blood letting was also an activity practiced by the Mayans as a means of sacrifice to wards their God and as worship. Firstly it was drained fro captives in war and prisoners as Mayans and then nobles’ blood were more treasured. The Halach Uinic’s blood was treasures to the point where his letting was compared and considered equivalent to the birth of a new heir. Blood letting was also used as a means of hallucinating because with the loss of blood came a weakened state from which visions could be seen and also from the bunt blood of the king visions would appear in the smoke of things to come. The Mayans believed in multiple levels of heaven and hell (13 and 9 respectfully) and that mountains were the steps to heaven and caves were the doors to hell. Therefore temples were constructed in a pattern symbolic of a mountain with steps leading up an incline to a holy sanctum on top. The temples were positioned towards heavenly bodies and a great emphasis was place on which side the entrance and exit should be found. The architecture of the temples closely linked sacred geography and astronomy as the Mayans believed that the actions of the relative planets had to do with the Gods. Temples were actually used as observatories to account for the planet alignments. They also acknowledged that the sun the moon the stars and the earth were interconnected some how which brings historians to question the wisdom of the Europeans who hadn’t come to that conclusion some hundreds of years later. There was also a close link between religion and war; there were prayers and blood sacrifices praying for success in war to get more prisoners for additional blood sacrifices. The Mayans were polytheistic as they believed in many manifestations of their one God Kunabku and these manifestations looked over everything. Their Shamans Rulers and priests all had animal alter egos that represented their position in the society.
Another of the Mayans’ most significant inventions was the development of two calendars. One was religious and the other was bases on the movement of the moon in relation of the earth. One of the calendars as called haab and consisted of 365 days. This was the religious calendar and represented religiously accurate days for planting and harvesting, marriage and births. The other calendar consisted of 260 days and was used to name children. This was similar to our present day horoscope. Mayans also placed very high emphasis on time recording. Every 52 years the calendars coincide and at that time he Mayans stated over time with a new genesis. Alongside the calendars, the Mayans initialized the concepts of a comprehensive proficient mathematics system. They utilized the concept of zero and also place value. They also had proficient methods of writing which like calligraphy utilized the use of symbols like hieroglyphics. To further their praise the Mayans were able to voice the hieroglyphics into comprehensive phrases that were standardized despite the different dialects between city states.
Mayans also had their opinionated concepts of beauty that they placed a relatively high interest on. They encouraged body painting, jewelry made of gold and precious metals for both men and women, they preferred cross eyed people so they would practice to make themselves so. They also created lavish murals of events and occasions that were not worthy. They also played ball games called Pokatok of which there were sometimes stakes of death to the leaders if the city needed sacrifices. Soldiers and nobles were given privileges above the regular man. They were buried with maize drinks and tools of their trade which was believed would guarantee their position in heaven.
Political structure in the Taino society was ruled by a leader called a Cacique. This leader was believed to be god’s living representative on earth and for many years his views and opinions were not queried but accepted blindly. A cacique was occasionally female and followed the blood line of the matrilineal family in accordance with the Taino beliefs in the female origin world view. Caciques held ceremonial positions over their specific chiefdoms and used those positions to oversee his people ‘in the name of their God’. Chiefdoms varied in size and detail and they were further divided into districts over which subordinate caciques oversaw, then further divided into villages over which headmen governed. The socio- political hierarchy was as follows: Cacique – Sub-Cacique – Nitanos (nobles) and Behiques (priests) – Naborias (commoners/ laborers). This shows that a cacique played no significant role in the everyday activities of the people he ruled over but held more of a ceremonial power and made large scale decisions affecting entire chiefdoms while leaving the smaller issues to his officials under him. The Cacique was a civic leader with responsibilities for judicial, cultural, political and religious functions over chiefdoms but in a study of Morosco’s, he contends that he was an administrator and distributor focused on economic activity and assigned these tasks to individuals. Morosco then goes on to state that the Cacique settles disputes presiding over cultural religious and ceremonial rights.
Taino societies had no need for the development of armies with the sole purpose of maintaining individuals for war because of their level of development as well as they resided on islands which were considerably secluded from threats as well as they saw no emphasis on resisting individuals that sought to bring change to their way of life. They were open minded and accepting of societies that came peacefully; yet hostility was returned with hostility as everyday men would pick up a weapon and change roles to trained warriors in defense of their greater well-being.
The matrilineal, hereditary transfer of leadership was passed down through the son of the caciques favorite wife the then the son of his sister and if neither was able to take the position the son of his bother was then considered. According to Beckles and Shepherd, Caciques were not determined by their achievement in war like the Kalinagos chose to do but rather by their achievement in maintaining peace as an organizer and a civic leader. Whereas according to Jalil Sued-Badilla the election of a new Taino cacique was done based n their manliness in both war and maintaining peace. The only crime that existed in Taino society, during the periods of the Caciques being god’s representative, was stealing. Taino caciques used to steal other caciques wives and flaunt them as prizes and on occasions it stimulated a war.
Caciques, sub-caciques, headmen and priests, due to their positions, held systemized privileges that they ordained onto themselves. Firstly they have their tribute system; one can interpret this to be a method of taxation but it was given voluntarily and became an expectation of that society. Tributes included the best of the produce, food, ornaments, and labor. Secondly the have the right and the privilege to have multiple wives. This practice of polygamy is still practiced today in some regions of the world and some religions as well. Thirdly they had the power of religious control which is the basis o the Cacique’s influence over his people. Through this basis of power the Cacique was ranted the ability to decide life and death situations and he exercised this right in his one-man judicial system. Fourthly they perform the role of Economic overseer as stated above and re-distributor of goods. They also perform the task of being the Principle Ideologue maintaining the spoken history of the entire society as lyrics of the Arêtos (epic poem) and becoming the collective memory of the people. They also held prestige among their fellowmen; they were obviously esteemed as they were given larger different shaped houses, they were the custodians of the Caney (keepers of the community house), they sat on a Duho (see illustrations), they were always surrounded by a council at all times and they were given large grand funerals at their passing with the burial of their favorite wife and some of their belongings for the afterlife.
The political organization of the Mayan civilization is based on independent city states that instead of collaborating they would war against each other making the conquering state stronger. These city states were governed by a hierarchal system of which at the head of this ladder was the Halach Uinic (K’uhul Ajaw). This leader was understood and accepted to be God’s representative on earth and his ceremonial roles suited this position. The Halach Uinic ruled over entire city states and under him he commanded a council made up of both noblemen called batabs who held administrative and ceremonial duties over their individual districts (municipalities) and local administration(ah cuch cab) who held governance over wards within the districts. The council also supervised trade, commerce and tax collection and kept records of the citizens of their society. The position of the Halach Uinic was hereditary and unlike the Tainos it was passed down through patrilineal lineage and must always be male. The hereditary motion of the Halach Uinic was from ruler to little brother and when he was out of little brothers it went to his son. The socio-political hierarchy of the Mayans was as followed: Royal Family – Nobility and priests – Military leaders – Skilled Artisans – Commoners – Slaves as stated above.
Mayans being located in the Central America, where the need was greater, had a functioning army with military leaders and advisors who planned battle strategies and commanded the forces. Tainos on the other hand did not have any sustained military force because of the reasons listed above.
Economic Activity of the Tainos in itself was quite diversified. The chiefdoms utilized a method of provision referred to a Conuco Cultivation. This was a large scale cultivation system where they provided crops such as manyok (cassava), maize, potato, and tobacco in surplus proportions. In preparation of the land for this cultivation the Taino men would practice primitive methods of the slash and burn techniques that exist today. This brings me to another point that the economic activities were divided into roles based on gender and/or age. This division of labor was ordained by the caciques or his subordinates and was accepted as ordained by God. The division included the felling of trees and clearing of lands, manual labor (plowing of land) were processes expected to be done by the men whereas the maintenance of the land and growth of the crops including the seeding and planting of the seeds were practiced by the women. Women were specially trained in techniques of growth and maintenance. For example, they practices methods of Soil Husbandry; exhausting and recuperation, Crop Rotation; allocation of appropriate areas for appropriate crops to maximize soil nutrients, Animal Fertilizer and Irrigation methods; both of which were being initialized in the time of Spanish intervention, and Terracing; planting on hilly plains where soil may be untainted. These techniques assisted with their aspects of specialization. After this gender division is exercised both the men and he women come together in the reaping and harvesting of the produce. Their division of labor varied not only in the cultivation fields but also in the personal provision of needs. Women had kitchen gardens and personal animals grown and raised to be eaten whereas men exercised the hunting and fishing and gathering of the green turtle (staple food).
Economic activities practiced by the Mayan civilization were quite diverse and complex as complicated methods of irrigation and unique methods of natural complementation were exercised. The Mayas practiced a method of cultivation called Milpas cultivation as they sowed and reaped on plots of land called Milpa. Crops gown in surplus amounts were maize, cassava and cocoa beans used for chocolate, for fruit, and even as a currency and was considered a desired commodity of the Mayans. Their methods of farming was called swidden farming as they exercised slash and burn methods with consideration for the natural surroundings. This meant that they did not cut everything but left some trees standing for the natural process of nature to maintain its course on that plot of land and sustain the nutrients for longer periods despite the planting of crops. They also planted in agreement with nature as they would place particular crops only in places and settings where that crop grew well with its surroundings instead of the approach of making the surroundings suit the crop; this maintained natural harmony. Due to their geographic location the Mayans were able to plant in appropriate areas that suited the natural flow of nature in that area; directly sue to the availability of land. In the areas that the Mayans allocated for a particular crop, historians noted that little satellite community would surround that crop with the sole purpose of the cultivation of that crop in order to pool the resources later and bring it to the Halach Uinic. Therefore in this decentralized system a satellite community found around cassava fields would be there to cultivate cassava and they would be trained in methods of which were best to do that.
Mayans through their advancements were able to discover many techniques which vastly assisted in their cultivation, for example: the use of Fertilizers, one of which was called night soils and consisted of the use of human fetal matter mixed with rich surface soils. They also used raised fields, these were drained swampy areas with irrigation pools around them forming moats and plowed land in the center of such. The moats were also used for fishing. They had relatively complex hydraulic systems used for irrigation, reservoirs and dams, these methods included the paving of the ground into large smooth bowls to collect clean rain water. Some city states also used canal systems for various purposes such as water storage, transportation, irrigation, defense and artificial lagoons for fish rearing. The Mayans used a method of Terracing for crops that needed those specific conditions. They also planted in Lime stone areas called rejolladas which were generally sink holes in karst (limestone) regions with drainage systems to prevent drowning of produce. The Mayans also exercised Arboriculture which was the exploitation of timbre from trees grown for that purpose. Trees used in arboriculture included Paw Paw, Zapote, Avocadoes, and cocoa and they were used for food, spices, craft, construction material, saps, resin for binding, incense, insect repellant, ale, and wood for heating and fuel.
Alike the Tainos the Mayans had methods of specialization when it came to the division of labor to do their economic duties. The decentralization method of cultivation of one crop per community was exercised and the entire community would collaborate in the gathering of that crop then they traded between the different satellite communities. The specialization was in a wider sense than the Tainos as it was based on family, community and state but this method lead to an improved quality of goods alongside their other considerations in their cultivation process.
The Mayans also had their own smaller methods of producing for themselves and this included household gardens with personal fertilizers (including swamp muck), animal husbandry of turkeys and fishes (in ponds), and Apiculture (bee keeping for honey). The honey gained from the Apiculture was used to make an alcoholic drink called Balche which was similar to the Taino Cassareep (alcoholic beverage derived from cassava). The Mayans also fished and hunted animals for meat and used their bones for ornaments and tools. One of their common targets was deer that they let eat on their pastures the hunted them in return. Mayans also captures frogs and toads to use their chemical releases as a hallucination mediums in religious ceremonies. They also domesticated aquatics animals such as turtles and fishes for food. Turtle shells were used for bowls, tools and shields. This emphasizes that the Mayans found use for every part of their kill, therefore nothing was wasted.
Throughout this analysis of the detailed conditions that existed in the Taino and Mayan societies up until late 1400’s one can blatantly notice that there are very clear similarities between the two. These similarities are on a functional basis as they are the necessities that most societies in their time would have needed to ensure their successful survival, although the similarities are so numerous the differences are also blatantly prominent. Due to the differences between the stages of development of the two societies differences have identified in: Political structure- both hierarchal systems of appointed leadership but transfer of leadership differs (patrilineal, Matrilineal) as well as function of leaders differ, Political systems- the collaboration between districts in Taino society as opposed to the war between city states in the Maya society, Military force- Army of soldiers as opposed to arbitrary, spontaneous warriors, Authority figures- Woman may be a Cacique even in a patriarchal society, although both patriarchal, a different authority and emphasis is appointed to the women in the two societies, Hierarchy- Mayan hierarchy is more complex with more categories/classes in the caste-like system, Agricultural proficiency- Fertilizers, irrigation and techniques differ but more importantly that Mayan society plants in accordance with nature whereas Taino plant to suit their own needs, Economic Specialization- entire communities working on one crop, leading to more proficient approach then trade to share profits, Social Specialization- Tainos focused of Gender and Age specialization whereas Mayan focused on family community and state specialization, Religion-Vast number of obvious differences example: literacy levels being necessary for appointing of a priests, Recreation- ball game meant life or death for Mayans in particular circumstances, Architecture and Infrastructure- Various blatant difference, the most prominent of which is the use of stone as opposed to wood demonstrating a drastic difference in development, Family Life- Men and women separation in the home of Taino societies, Arts and Crafts- The Mayans designed lavish murals to show historical events whereas the Tainos were limited to their weaving and dye, Education- this aspect of the two societies actually don’t coincide as some of the others have, as the Mayans education levels were extremely more advanced in most aspects of their existence; but to draw quick example we can refer to the production of writing, reading, mathematics and calendars understandable and acceptable by our standards all of which exist in only one of the two societies studied.
Therefore to conclude this focus on the similarities and differences between the Mayan and Taino societies I will reiterate the accuracy of my hypothesis that some similarities did exist between the two societies but the vast number of differences far surpassed them and were a direct effect of the development stages of the two accounts.