2818 - Chiefly Houses and Ancestral Vitalities: Life as Public Wealth among the Ancient Taino

This paper interrogates the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century historical sources on the Greater Antilles –Hispaniola, Puerto Rico and Cuba– in order to elucidate the notions of “public wealth” entertained by the peoples that came to be known as Taino. This is possible thanks to the copious documentation left by Spanish chroniclers but, above all, to Ramón Pané’s Account of the Antiquities of the Indians, a report on the “beliefs and idolatries” of the Arawak-speaking Taino written around 1498. These sources suggest that, from a Taino perspective, the most important collective asset is life itself. Taino ontological and cosmological understandings indicate that life was conceived as a scarce resource. The task of ensuring abundant vitality for the land, animals and people and of accumulating as many potentialities of life as possible was in the hands of the caciques (“owners of the house”), a hierarchy of village, local and regional leaders who controlled the life-giving knowledge and ritual paraphernalia necessary to ensure the reproduction and well-being of their communities. The most important sources of life were the zemis, ritual effigies that represented in geometric, human or animal shape the vitalities (souls) of ancient chiefly ancestors. With the help of associated shaman-priests (behiques), Taino caciques performed periodic collective ceremonies in which they praised the history and feats of their chiefly houses, while simultaneously beseeching their zemis to bestow their vitality on their followers –manifested in safe parturitions, rapid multiplication, beneficial weather and victory over enemies. As the embodiment of chiefly houses and ancestral vitalities, caciques and zemis were viewed as the most important repositories of life and the main components of public wealth. They were thus the object of much raiding and pillaging in a context of inter-community competition for life forces characteristic of what I call Amerindian “political economies of life.”

Keywords: property, Public wealth, vital force, Taino, Amerindians

Author: Santos Granero, Fernando (Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Panama / Panama)


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