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These Taino gods were carved at the Ponce site at least 500 years ago.

The last traces of the Taino: Puerto Rican ceremonial sites stand as testament of a rich culture


An ancient ball court, a midden mound and about 400 burials that date back to before Europeans arrived in the Caribbean were found on the Portugues River in Puerto Rico several years ago. The site was considered so important that plans to build a dam there were called off and the historically important site has been preserved. It is one of last material vestiges of a Caribbean people who may have numbered in the millions until the Spanish arrived in the 15 th century.

The major occupations of the site were from 600 to 900 AD and from 1300 to 1500 AD, according to Chris Espenshade, the lead archaeologist who excavated it. He wrote about his pottery findings in a paper that is available at Pottery tells archaeologists something about the people who lived at a site.

Espenshade wrote that the site, which is in south-central Puerto Rico in Municipio Ponce, was apparently an important ceremonial site during both occupation periods. The Taino apparently considered it what he called a “sacred landscape” where people came from far away and played ball on the batey, possibly danced and conducted public festivities and feasting.

Taino ceremonial ball court in Puerto Rico

Taino ceremonial ball court in Puerto Rico (Wikimedia Commons)

“The presence of apparently extra-local pottery made by many different potters, the presence of extra-local faunal resources (including marine shellfish), the presence and use of pine resin from an off-island source, the strong representation of medicinal and ceremonial plants, the presence of suspected highstatus foods, and the evidence for gathering and properly preparing porcupine fish are consistent with the expectations of public ceremonies rather than everyday domestic activities,” Espenshade wrote.

There were a large number of dwellings in the earlier period. The limited number of dwellings in the later era suggests a shaman or sorcerer lived there with his family, Espenshade wrote, and he speculated that pilgrims or sojourners came to visit. Much of the pottery differs in style, which Espenshade said indicates people came from off-site to make some of it. This is further evidence that the site was a place of pilgrimage.

At one end of the ball court or batey were petroglyphs carved into granite and sandstone, possibly just before the arrival of Spanish people in the late 1400s.

At one end of the ball court or batey were petroglyphs carved into granite and sandstone, possibly just before the arrival of Spanish people in the late 1400s. (National Geographic photo)

The batey or ball court measured 50 by 40 meters (160 by 130 feet). The archaeological team also found an artifact-laden garbage mound, as many as 400 prehistoric burials and postholes indicating ancient dwellings. There was also a 60-foot-long row of granite and sandstone petroglyphs that the people apparently carved just before the Spanish arrived in the late 15 th century.

At the time the site was first being excavated, Puerto Rico State office of Historic Preservation Director Aida Belén Rivera-Ruiz said: “This is a very well-preserved site. The site seems to show two occupations: a pre-Taino and a Taino settlement.”

The people called Taino emigrated from South America or Mexico to the Caribbean in pre-Colombian times. They are considered related to the Arawak of South America. Others say the Taino came from Mexico.

Arawak women by John Gabriel Stedman

Arawak women by John Gabriel Stedman (Wikipedia)

Columbus described some Taino Indians he met in the Bahamas in 1492: “They will give all that they do possess for anything that is given to them, exchanging things even for bits of broken crockery. They were very well built, with very handsome bodies and very good faces....They do not carry arms or know them....They should be good servants.”

The Taino, it's estimated, may have numbered 3 million on Hispaniola alone.

“Very few Indians were left after 50 years,” the late Ricardo Alegría, a Puerto Rican anthropologist told a Smithsonian writer in 2011. “Their culture was interrupted by disease, marriage with Spanish and Africans, and so forth, but the main reason the Indians were exterminated as a group was sickness. By 1519, a third of the aboriginal population had died because of smallpox. You find documents very soon after that, in the 1530s, in which the question came from Spain to the governor. ‘How many Indians are there? Who are the chiefs?’ The answer was none. They are gone.' Some remained probably … but it was not that many.”

Initial reporting on the batey site in 2007 said bodies had been exhumed that were buried face-down with their knees bent. Some experts said this burial posture was unique, but others said it was rare but not unique.

Espenshade and the company he worked for, New South Associates of Stone Mountain, Georgia, United States, used bulldozers and mechanical diggers to excavate the ball court and environs.

“This is a textbook case of what they shouldn't do” said Miguel Rodriguez of Puerto Rica's archaeological council. “They are using mostly diggers and bulldozers and they must stop.”

Rivera-Ruiz, however, said New South Associates had been working quickly under deadline because of the dam project, but once the importance of the site was identified and the dam called off less-intrusive methods were employed.

"Once preservation became an option, the scope and invasive nature of the project was shifted in favor of the more low-key, less intrusive hand excavation of already exposed features,” she said at the time.

Featured image: These Taino gods were carved at the Ponce site at least 500 years ago. (David Diener photo)

By Mark Miller



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Mark Miller has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and is a former newspaper and magazine writer and copy editor who's long been interested in anthropology, mythology and ancient history. His hobbies are writing and drawing.

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