We went on an hour and a half drive to the Caguana Indian Ceremonial Park in Utuado, located in the central cordilleras of Puerto Rico. The place is considered as the most important Taino Culture archaeological site in the Caribbean.
The Tainos, pre-Columban settlers of the Greater Antilles, were seafarers and farmers who had an elaborate culture centered on the worship of gods, spirits, and ancestors called cemis. The primary god, Yucahu, is the god of agriculture, cassava (staple food of the Tainos), and the seas. This deity is believed to reside in the mountains of El Yunque, a dense rainforest region in Puerto Rico. Yucahu’s evil brother, Huracan, is responsible for worldly calamities, such as earthquakes, storms, and, yes, hurricanes (etymology comes from Huracan).
Where are the Tainos?
The strategic importance of Puerto Rico to colonial Spain however led to the decimation of the native Taino population in the 18th century. Spanish-introduced diseases, colonial subjugation, slavery, and forced assimilation into the colonial plantation economy were the major historical forces that led to the extinction of this indigenous group. Here’s a retelling of the Taino demise:
They committed group suicide as an escape, but it was mainly disease that decimated the Taínos so quickly. In 1516, only eight years later, there were so few Taínos left in the Caribbean that Father Bartolomé de las Casas won a “crown order” to free the Indians. In 1527, a small pox epidemic in Puerto Rico killed one third of the remaining Taíno population. In 1542, a Bishop was sent to Puerto Rico to inform the Indians of their “new” complete freedom.
Others however belie the extinction story, saying that the Tainos thrived in secrecy especially in the mountainous regions of Puerto Rico. Dr. Lynne Guitar added that it may also be due to historical inaccuracies that led to the perpetuation of the “myth of Taino extinction”:
If a Spaniard and a Taína had a child who was raised in the city or a European-style town, spoke Castillian, was baptized Catholic, wore European clothes, received a European education, and “acted” Spanish—then he or she was listed as Spanish on the censuses. If that same child lived in a yucayeque (Taíno village), spoke Taíno, practiced Taíno religious rituals, dressed as a Taíno, and acted Taíno, then he or she was listed on the censuses as Indian. That’s confusing for modern scholars, but it was also confusing for the colonial-era census takers, who had to try to figure out how to categorize people when there were, as yet, no fixed standards.
The ball courts and the batey
Whether the Tainos survived colonization or not, the Caguana ceremonial place is an important archaeological site that allows us a glimpse into the world of the Tainos. The site is built around 1270 A.D., featuring 10 plazas of various sizes and 21 petroglyphs. Archaeologists said that this had been continuously occupied for more than 300 years up until around the start of the Spanish colonization. The central plazas were outlined with river stones and rocks–each rock carved with petroglyphs of cemis (i.e., Taino deities). The plazas were used for areitos (ceremonial dances) and a ball game called batey. It was in this similar plaza that a Taino cacique, Agueybana II, plotted to overthrow the Spanish conquistadores in 1511.
Spanish friars chronicled that the batey was played by two opposing teams using a rubber ball. Neck and elbow collars made from stone were also used by the players as a yoke (i.e. inferred from a similar ball court practice in Mesoamerica).
Game revivalists believe that each opposing team is composed of 12 players, each with a goalie that attempts to stop the ball from going to her/his team’s side. Like football, the ball or the batu cannot be touched by the hand but can be struck by the foot, hip, thigh, or any part of the body. The ball can also be bounced around the stone walls of the ball court. Although the game has recreational value, experts believe that the batey has an underlying religious and judicial significance as evidenced by the petroglyphs circling the ballcourt and its associated artifacts.
As we were about to leave the park, we surveyed the ceremonial site for the last time. With a 3-year old child in tow, we scanned the landscape trying to remember every bit of the place. The reconstructed Taino abode, the bohio, stands on the ceremonial place’s landscape. The expanse of the valley is encircled by karst hills of lush rainforest and giant ferns. In this small valley rests the rectangular ball courts of the Tainos. Here, on this very earth, the Tainos tread the ground, breathed the same air, mystified by the unseen forces of nature, and probably hoped too for a better future for their children.
Fig. 1. Mujer de Caguana. This petroglyph is believed to be a fertility figure or an ancestor-figure from a powerful family.
Fig. 2. A Cemi. Representation of a Taino Deity.
Fig.3. Stone Rings. Once thought to be associated with the ball game, they are now considered as of unknown use. Some scholars speculate that they were distinctive symbols of clans.
Fig. 4. Elbow Stone. Its scarcity in archaeological sites indicate that this might have been used in ritual contexts.
Other photos of the visit: us, ball courts, monoliths, petroglyphs, etc.