Pre Columbian studies have
primarily focused on Mesoamerican and Andean cultures since the dawn of
New World archeology. Magnificent lost cities emerging from remote
jungles of Mexico and Guatemala revealed a wealth of precious artifacts.
Such wonders stimulated archaeological examination and public
imagination. In contrast Taíno sites seemed ordinary, featuring little
more than refuse middens and stone lined plazas. This, and an
archaeological mind-set on mainland discovery left little impetus for
Antillean excavation. Meanwhile local collectors gathered “prehistoric
curiosities” as man and nature exposed them.
Around the middle of the
19th century news of finely carved stone idols and beautifully made petuloid celts began reaching the U.S.
Under the auspice of the
Smithsonian, Jesse Walter Fewkes, director of American Entomology,
started preliminary surveys to develop a collection of Greater Antillean
artifacts. Although most of the specimens acquired were through
donations or purchases from private collectors, he did conduct
excavations when feasible.
In 1907 Fewkes published his research, “The
Aborigines of Puerto Rico and the Neighboring Is-lands”. To date his
exhaustive study, including illustrations and photographs, remains one
of the definitive books written on Taíno stone sculpture. This burst of
inquiry stalled however, as scholars focused on colonial history rather
than the pre Columbian past. The 1980’s brought a revival in indigenous
research. Irvin Rouse became the voice of progressive studies with his
publication “The Taínos, Rise and Decline of the People Who Greeted
Columbus”. Using pottery, a universal marker for developing
chronological data, Rouse established the Antillean cultural series
commonly used today. This tried and true methodology continues to be
tested and in some cases challenged as advanced analytical technologies
are developed. One such development is the study of lithics. A closer
look at knapping techniques used in the manufacture of stone tools and
the use and procurement of semiprecious stone for ritual goods has added
a new dimension to understanding Caribbean Island cultures especially
helpful in my research.
Numerous books have been written on the various
cultural aspects of social structure, politics, and religion with a
limited view of the remarkable art produced by island artisans. The
relative isolation of Taíno sculptors from contemporary Amerindian
motifs resulted in numerous artistic innovations. Many are so unique
they stand alone in the field of pre Columbian art while exhibiting
cross-cultural designs that have universal appeal.
The focus of this
reference is on ceremonial stone, bone and shell carvings and the
animals that were important to the Taíno creative impetus. Hopefully the
unique pieces presented will offer new insight into the interpretive
dialogue. After all art replaces the written word in non-literate
The observations I offer are based on the physical nature of
the artifacts and related reading. However, the intent of this book is
not to present an archaeological exposé, but to introduce the reader to
a rare and wonderful art form and the motivation for its creation. It is
time to move Taíno art from the shadows of the Mesoamerican megaliths
and recognize its visual legacy, not only for the incredible artistic
achievements but the insights that help us define a lost civilization.
The majority of sculptures represented here are from Puerto Rico and the
Dominican Republic, the “Classic” centers of Taíno culture and religious