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The Philadelphia Inquirer
Marking Three Decades, Shares Facts And Artifacts From A Culture That Predates Columbus
By Edward J. Sozanski
March 17, 2005
Of the major pre-Columbian cultures of Central and South America, you may know something about the Olmecs, Maya, Aztecs and Incas.
But what do you know of the Taíno (pronounced Tay-EE-no), who were living on Puerto Rico when Columbus stopped at the island in 1493, on his second voyage?
Probably not much, because the indigenous cultures of the Caribbean islands haven't received nearly as much museum attention as those on the mainland. This seems odd given the intensive emigration from the Caribbean to the United States over decades.
As part of its 30th-anniversary celebration, Taller Puertorriqueño, the Puerto Rican cultural center in North Philadelphia, has organized what might be the most ambitious exhibition in its history to fill in some of this missing cultural history.
Called "Island of the Burén," it traces settlement on Puerto Rico from the first Central and South American immigrants about 9,000 years ago to when the Spaniards arrived.
Specifically, this collection of about 100 artifacts - equal parts art and anthropology - focuses on the Taíno, who succeeded several earlier pre-Columbian cultures about A.D. 800. They flourished throughout the Greater Antilles, but especially on Puerto Rico and Hispaniola.
Historical accounts portray the Taíno as a peaceful people who lived in theocratic kingdoms ruled by caciques, (ca-SEE-kess) or chiefs. They lived by farming, hunting and fishing, and were said to be skilled sailors and navigators.
About a hundred years before Columbus, the Taíno were raided repeatedly by the warlike Caribs from South America. Some scholars believe that these raids so weakened the Taíno community that they became easy prey for the invading Spaniards.
When the first Spanish settlers arrived in 1508, there were believed to be from 20,000 to 50,000 Taíno on Puerto Rico. In 1544, when they were counted by a bishop, war, disease and slavery had reduced the population to a remnant of about 60.
From "Island of the Burén," visitors to Taller can gain a sketchy portrait of how these Puerto Ricans lived and what they believed.
The word burén offers the first clue - it refers to the slablike ceramic griddles used throughout the island as cooking surfaces. The exhibition, guest-curated by Dicey Taylor and coordinated at Taller by visual-arts curator Anabelle Rodriguez, includes an example of such a neolithic hotplate.
The majority of the exhibition's artifacts were lent by the museum at the University of Puerto Rico, with some from the University of Pennsylvania.
In Taller's elegant installation, they have been placed chronologically and thematically, beginning about 4,000 B.C. with the archaic period. Exhibits for the Saladoid and Ostionoid cultures precede the section on the Taíno, the best-known of the pre-conquest peoples.
Some artifacts speak to the practical side of life, but more represent the spiritual and metaphysical dimension.
Besides the griddle, there are ceramic vessels such as a double-handled bowl and an oval mortar, used for grinding, embellished with a stylized bird's head at one end. The ceramics are low-tech and decorated with slip painting or incising.
Body ornaments of shell, bone and stone - amulets, ear plugs and stamps - constitute a prominent section of the show. The Taíno used the stamps as a kind of instant, and temporary, tattooing to adorn their bodies with designs that resembled old-fashioned postmarks.
The ceremonial objects include some polished, teardrop-shaped ax heads, a stone mask, a miniature chief's stool, and a conical stone covered with petroglyphs that have been interpreted in various ways as possibly sacred animals, deities or ancestors.
The most intriguing ceremonial sculptures are forms I had never seen before from the ancient world. One is the three-pointed zemi in stone or clay, a talismanic object believed to be endowed with supernatural power or sacred meaning.
The zemis look suprisingly like modern abstract sculptures, or perhaps miniature mountains, rather than like objects of religious significance.
The Taíno gave Columbus three zemis - one to ensure good harvests, one for favorable weather, and a third to protect women in childbirth.
Equally intriguing and more imposing sculpturally are several ritual stone "belts" that refer to a ball game played on a court during community ceremonies called areitos.
As with the Maya and the Aztecs, the Taíno game, played with a hard rubber ball, was a serious (but not intentionally deadly) affair. In a general way, the game symbolized Taíno beliefs about natural cycles, such as the movement of the sun and moon.
Players wore a protective belt, of wood covered with hide and cotton, around their hips. The size and detailing of the carved stone belts indicate how important this object was in Taíno cosmology.
The Taíno also believed in spirits of the night, which is why some of their ritual objects incorporate images of owls and bats. Visitors are further reminded of this by the show's most charming feature, a recording of chirping tree frogs.
Like the "spring peepers" of North American wetlands, tree frogs announce the vernal transition with cheerful optimism. One can't imagine a more resonant link to the Taíno world than their squeaky, melodious chanting.
Contact art critic Edward J. Sozanski at 215-854-5595 or email@example.com.
Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/edwardsozanski .
Through April 23 at Taller Puertorriqueño, 2721 N. Fifth St., Phila. Information: 215-426-3311, www.tallerpr.org