Petroglyphs Reef Bay Trail St. John USVI

Food and Agriculture

The Tainos placed great importance on the production and distribution of food for the community. Planting, gathering, fishing and hunting were cooperative efforts and everyone, including the caciques, shamans and nobility, contributed their labor, the fruits of which were shared equally among the people.

In stark contrast the Europeans viewed agriculture as a lowly profession performed by the bottom strata of society while the upper classes were the primary consumers. Land use and labor were geared more to the production of commodities rather than food.

Hunger, which was non-existent or at least extremely rare in Taino society, was all too common in Europe. This was one of the reasons why so many Europeans were motivated to relocate in the Americas ultimately displacing the Taino.

Chroniclers, who arrived in the Caribbean along with Columbus, were impressed by the abundance of foods available to the Taino. They wrote of entire valleys covered with fruit orchards and large circular fields planted in yucca, beans and corn. They described specially constructed storage sheds, built so that the interiors were kept in total darkness, packed full of cassava bread, grains, herbs and dried fish.

Father Bartolomé de Las Casas reported that the Tainos had "vineyards that ran for three hundred leagues," and hunted "game birds {which were} taken by the tens of thousand." Columbus wrote in his diary that flocks of fowl "darkened the sun" and that around every bohio were flocks of tame ducks, which the people roasted and ate.

The Taino farming techniques were environmentally friendly. They did not resort to the destructive slash and burn method of agriculture so commonly used in the tropics. Instead they employed a unique system whereby large mounds of soil, approximately three feet high and four feet in diameter were laid out in regular rows. These mounds were called conuncos, and this technique improved drainage and prevented erosion. The soil stayed softer providing greater aeration, easier weeding and longer storage of the root crops in the ground. To keep the soil fertile the Tainos practiced crop rotation.

Yucca was the staple food and principal crop of the Taino. It was so important to the survival of the people that the Taino communities, themselves were called Yucayeques, meaning the place where yucca is grown.

Moreover one of the two supreme deities of the Taino is the zemi, Yúcahu, the lord of the yucca and god the sea. (The other supreme zemi is his mother Atabey, goddess of fresh water and human fertility.)

Yucca is also known as cassava, manioc, mandioca, and aipim. The tuberous root is about two inches in diameter and ten inches long. The outside skin of the yucca is brown and bark-like; the inside flesh is white.

Cassava produces more calories in the form of complex carbohydrates per unit of land than any other crop in the world. The leaves provide vitamins and some protein and they can be eaten as a vegetable or fed to livestock.

The cassava root can stay in the ground for as long as three years without spoilage. This provided an easy and reliable means of storage during times of plenty and ready availability during times of need.

The most common use of the cassava for the Taino was in the preparation of cassava bread. The roots would be harvested, washed, peeled and grated. The juice would then be squeezed out and stored in a separate container. The remaining pulp was dried and sifted and cooked on an open fire into a cracker-like bread.

Although the juice of the cassava is poisonous unless cooked or fermented, it is also nutritious. (After the arrival of the Spanish and the subsequent suffering of the Taino people, some Tainos purposely ate raw cassava and died rather than face submission to the invaders.)

The Taino would often keep large pots of boiling cassava juice into which seasonal vegetables, meat and fish were added. The resulting stew could be added to or consumed at any time. This procedure was the origin of the "pepper pot" which has remained a traditional food in many parts of the Caribbean.

Until the arrival of the Europeans, cassava was only found and cultivated in the Americas. Slave traders carried cassava to Africa where it had a profound effect on the destiny of that continent. Cassava could withstand long periods of draught and was resistant to pests such as the locust. It can grow in poor or severely eroded soil or on unterraced hillsides. The plant will regenerate if the leaves or stem are destroyed by phenomena such as pests, natural disasters, grazing animals or war. The proliferation of this reliable food source touched off an African population explosion with a myriad of consequences.

Cassava is now the staple food of around 500 million people and it is the main source of income for some of the world's poorest farmers.

Taino farmers also planted sweet potato, beans, pepper, peanuts and squash. Fruits such as the pineapple, guava, mamey apple and papaya were cultivated while other foods such as palm nuts and guavaberries were gathered from the forests.

Since Taino villages were usually set up in coastal areas and in river valleys, fish and other seafood comprised a significant portion of their diet. Fishermen caught fish with nets, as well as with spears, and hooks and lines. The Tainos also hunted turtles and harvested conch, whelk, lobster, and crab. Underwater pens made of reeds were used to store live fish and turtles for future consumption. Poisons extracted from plants were also used to stun fish so they could be easily gathered.

Another unique method of catching fish and turtles was observed in what is now Cuba. Remora were tied up by the tail and then placed back in the sea. When they attached themselves to a fish or turtle, the fisherman would haul both creatures into his canoe.

On land the Taino hunted wild boar, manatee, birds, lizards and small animals. They used tamed parrots as decoys to entice wild birds to come within range of hunters.

It is interesting to note that although the population levels of the Taino were, on most islands, similar to the population levels of today, the Taino had no problem feeding all their people, nor did they resort to the degradation of their environment to achieve short term goals. However, in today's "modern and advanced" culture, many Caribbean islands are presently experiencing devastating environmental problems as well as difficulty in providing enough food for all their inhabitants.

by Gerald Singer