Searching for Cuba's Pre-Colombian Roots
A newfound quest for identity has led some to reclaim their Taíno Indian
By Hillary Gulley
SMITHSONIAN JOURNEYS QUARTERLY
Roberto Ordúñez Fernández first began unearthing artifacts in and around
Cuba's eastern tip more than 40 years ago, at the age of 17. He hasn't
stopped since. Ask anyone in the small city of Baracoa for el arqueólogo
and you'll be directed to his narrow row house near the seafront. Most
of what Ordúñez has found was left behind by the Taíno, an Arawak Indian
people that Columbus encountered in Baracoa when he first landed there,
in November of 1492.
Ordúñez is best known for establishing Baracoa's Cueva del Paraíso (Cave
of Paradise) Archaeological Museum, which opened in 2004. Set in what
had been an abandoned Taíno cave at the edge of town, it's the only
Taíno museum on the eastern tip of Cuba. "It was a dream," says Ordúñez.
"When I told people here what I wanted to do, they thought I was crazy."
Ordúñez himself would admit he's relentless—but in Cuba, where private
initiatives are often hindered or blocked by government bureaucrats, he
is also unusually effective. Before founding the museum, he fought to
protect land containing archaeological sites just east of Baracoa, and
won. He has battled for permission to excavate artifacts that are in
imminent danger of being washed out to sea or destroyed by real estate
development. And now he is building another Taíno museum on the second
floor of his house.
Ordúñez is a solitary fighter, but he's not alone in his struggles. His
quest is part of a small yet growing movement to reclaim Cuba's
indigenous culture, and to persuade Cubans to explore their
pre-Columbian Taíno roots.
The Taíno were the most populous of several groups who inhabited Cuba
when Columbus sailed into Baracoa harbor. The explorer described them in
his journal as a friendly and generous people who lived simply, noting
pointedly, "They will make good servants." He wasted no time in erecting
a wooden cross on the shore. Not long after that, he enslaved the Taíno
in the name of Spain.
The Taíno began to die out quickly—from smallpox, violence, and overwork
at the hands of the Spanish colonizers. But despite claims to the
contrary, they didn't disappear completely. Some fled into the
mountains. Others mixed with colonists or Africans fleeing slavery,
sometimes maintaining Taíno customs and farming practices.
The colonial authorities refused to recognize the existence of the Taíno
as a people, assigning their own last names to the remaining indigenous
population. "[They wanted] to eliminate Indian identity so there would
be no indigenous title to the land," says José Barreiro, a member of the
Taíno Nation of the Antilles and director of the Office for Latin
America at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. But
this did not stop some Taíno from asserting their land rights in court,
albeit without success. The last indigenous land claim in Cuba was
denied in 1850.
Researchers who looked for a surviving Taíno culture during the 20th
century failed to recognize what was right before their eyes. "They were
looking for people with loincloths and didn't find any," Barreiro says.
"They didn't see the nuances." Taíno in Cuba can't always be identified
by physical traits, adds Barreiro's research partner, Baracoa historian
Alejandro Hartmann—their customs are often the only evidence of Indian
heritage. "People still believe in mother earth and father sun," he
says. "They go ask for permission from Taíno gods like Osaín before they
Genetic analysis has recently bolstered the case for the continuing
Taíno presence in the Caribbean. A 2003 study in Puerto Rico showed that
61 percent of randomly selected subjects had mitochondrial DNA of
indigenous origin. "You can be looking at a very Afro-Cuban or
Iberian-looking person, but the DNA tells a different story," Barreiro says.
After the 1959 Cuban Revolution, the new leadership tried to foster a
stronger sense of "Cubanness," and frowned upon talk of separate racial
identities. "The government was drastic about it for years and didn't
want it to come up," says Barreiro. But the sudden collapse of the
Soviet Union caused an identity crisis among Cubans, who suddenly found
themselves short on food and basic supplies—and more likely to turn to
traditional knowledge for making goods and medicines they needed. Only
in recent years have the nuances of Cuban identity, including Taíno
roots, become an acceptable topic for discussion in the eyes of the
When I visited Ordúñez at his Baracoa house, he waved me through the
open front door into a living room crammed with bags of cement stacked
to the ceiling and a red 1950s Česká motorcycle. In the narrow corridor
that remained, he had managed to find room for furniture. I squeezed
through and joined him on the sofa, in front of a box fan.
Ordúñez launched into a tutorial on the Taíno, bolting upstairs to
gather a basket of artifacts for me to inspect. For over a decade,
Ordúñez and his partners have been excavating in the nearby village of
Boma, where they found what could be the burial site of Guamá, a Taíno
cacique (chief) who resisted the Spanish colonizers for a decade before
he was killed.
Ordúñez told me that he learned his field from Antonio Núñez Jiménez, a
Cuban revolutionary turned archaeologist who had hidden out with Fidel
Castro in the mountains west of Baracoa. As I turned over clay idols in
my hands, Ordúñez proposed an excursion to Boma later that week.
On the appointed day, despite heavy rains the night before, Ordúñez and
I set off early on his Česká, heading toward the mountains to the east.
We soon left the paved road for a rocky dirt path and finally came to a
stop where a handful of young children appeared at the top of a hill,
shouting the archaeologist's name. Their numbers grew as we walked up
toward the cave where Ordúñez believes his team recovered Guamá's remains.
The bones have been relocated to the Cueva del Paraíso Museum, in
Baracoa, and today there is only a replica grave in their place, with a
single chain to discourage people from getting too close. "After we
found Guamá here, the kids would come and dig when we were gone," said
Ordúñez, shaking his head. He hopes to conduct more excavations in the
area soon, funds permitting.
Enthusiasm has increased among the children in Boma since Ordúñez
initiated a community project, including archaeology lessons in the
local school. On weekends he teaches kids to perform areítos, a type of
Taíno ceremony. Where possible, the performance is based on
archaeological findings and early colonial accounts. But generally
speaking, he acknowledges, the performance is more fantasy than fact.
Ordúñez wants the kids to perform for tourists, to raise money for the
new museum and educational programs.
The government used to crack down on such inauthentic displays, but with
the increasing demand for indigenous culture from cash-wielding
tourists, authorities have become more tolerant. Many Boma residents
think the activity is harmless. "The kids would be out wasting their
time if they weren't practicing," said a woman whose husband is of Taíno
descent, and who was reluctant to be named.
Farther east along the coastal road, past the sleepy oceanside village
of Bariguá, Ordúñez and I visited two more caves with petroglyphs and
drawings in iron oxide. The Cuban military has partially walled off one
of the cave openings, with a lookout slot and what appears to be a shelf
for a gun.
The drawings inside are scant and simple: faint depictions of people,
sea creatures, maybe a lizard. The caves themselves are small and
accessible to anyone from the roadside. Some of the images have been
irreparably scratched, as if someone has tried to erase them from history.
Back in Baracoa, my search for traces of Taíno culture turned up
questionable leads. Fact and lore competed for attention. I heard
unreliable information about which crops and foods were actually
indigenous. Various sources told me about connections between
contemporary Cuban rhythms and Taíno music, although experts like
Hartmann say there is no relation at all. Most conversations about
ethnic identity showed a marked ambivalence: "I am part Indio," went a
typical comment, "and I learned about the Indios growing up. But I am
I stopped in a tattoo parlor just off the new Taíno-themed pedestrian
walkway, in the city center. Five inked-up men were crammed into a space
the size of a closet. I asked one with a sleeve of patriotic tattoos if
the shop offered any indigenous designs. "Sure," he said. "Aztec,
Mayan—whatever you want."
Just when I was losing faith that I would find anyone in Baracoa besides
Ordúñez and Hartmann who were truly engaged with Taíno heritage, I came
across Mildo Matos's art studio. In his 50s, Matos remembers the Taíno
aspects of his childhood in a tiny village on the arid southern coast of
Guantánamo Province; his grandmother was Taína. As a boy, he ate casabe,
a Taíno bread made from grated yuca (cassava root). His family built
huts called bohíos on their land and grew indigenous crops. "I didn't
realize how different we were from other Cuban families until I went
away to art school," said Matos.
As a student, Matos took up oil painting. But for years before the Taíno
appeared in his work, he painted other subjects. Now his studio walls
are covered with dynamic depictions of Taíno gods, though his style
stems more from 20th-century European traditions than from cave drawings
or idols. "I use a lot of surrealism, because [like Taíno symbolism] it
is also about reinterpreting nature and natural phenomena," he said.
For Matos, exploring his ethnic identity is an active process of
retrieval, reconfiguration, and reinterpretation: "Identity is
personal—everyone has to do the work for themselves." One problem, he
added, is the lack of historical and archaeological resources for Cubans
who do wish to understand their Taíno heritage. "All of the important
artifacts are in Havana," said Matos—"or the U.S."
One significant Taíno artifact that is no longer available to people on
Cuba's eastern tip is the Gran Cemí of Patana, a stone idol that
American archaeologist Mark Harrington removed from the Patana Caverns
in 1915. Harrington was excavating there on behalf of George Gustav
Heye, whose collection was transferred decades later to the Smithsonian
Institution. The Gran Cemí now resides in storage at the National Museum
of the American Indian (NMAI) Cultural Resources Center, in Maryland,
awaiting the outcome of repatriation negotiations between the United
States and Cuba. "The museum and all parties in Cuba are in
conversation," said Eileen Maxwell, director of public affairs at the
NMAI. "We anticipate receiving a formal repatriation request in due course."
My guide to the Patana Caverns was Alexis Morales Prado, a self-taught
archaeologist whose hobby led to a full-time job. Before he founded the
local office of the Empresa Nacional para la Protección de la Flora y
Fauna—a government agency that oversees the preservation of land and
cultural heritage—Morales spent decades as the state prosecutor of
Maisí, Cuba's easternmost municipality. The crime he most prosecuted was
the unauthorized slaughter of cows. Now he works to gain protected
status for land in Maisí that contains Taíno sites.
I found Morales at his home near the village center. He is tall, with
expressive blue eyes and graying hair. Cuban flag patches ornamented one
of his shirtsleeves and his khaki vest. A small machete hung in a
leather sheath at his waist. "I work in facts, not fantasy," he said.
"Language. What I can see. Some people are nothing more than
intellectual jineteros (hustlers)."
According to Morales, many people in Maisí have Taíno blood and follow
Taíno customs by virtue of their inherited relationship with the
land—but not all of them identify as indigenous. Morales is working on a
new museum to house Taíno archaeological finds from the region, set to
open at the end of 2016. He also teaches in the local schools, where his
students learn how their current way of life is part of a living past.
"They still use some of the same hunting and fishing methods. They'll
bring in Taíno mortars they found in their backyards that their families
use to prepare food," Morales marveled. "They use Taíno words."
Morales teaches children how to distinguish real artifacts they may
find—like a mortar with subtle but intentional carvings for different
grips—from unadorned rocks. He took me out to the future museum to show
me examples, but guards turned us away: no visitors allowed, no
explanations given. "They won't even let me in—and my stuff is in
there," Morales said. But he had another solution: "Let's stop by my
His parents weren't home, but there was a hungry cat waiting inside with
her newborn litter of kittens. Morales rummaged through the fridge to
find something to quiet them, then opened a glass display case in the
living room. He turned and passed me a large earthen Taíno bowl. I
cupped its rounded edges firmly, eyeing the concrete floor and imagining
the worst. The bowl was about a thousand years old, Morales said. I was
relieved to hand it back to him after he emerged from his parents'
bedroom dragging two plastic storage bins of Taíno artifacts that had
been underneath their bed. The bins contained rocks with coral fossils,
mortars, graters—probably for yuca—picks, hatchet heads, ceramic
fragments, miniature stone and clay idols, all of it in earthy browns
and grays, except for a single contemporary artifact: a white plastic
Morales and I later drove in a 1959 Land Rover to La Patana, situated at
the end of a red-dirt road best traversed on a horse or in a four-wheel
drive vehicle. The local school has only eight students. The village was
all but deserted when we arrived, so we continued our hike to the Patana
Caverns down a precipitous trail of jagged rock.
To remove the Gran Cemí from its cave, Mark Harrington's team had to cut
the idol into five pieces with a two-man lumber saw. The pieces were
then packed in cedar boxes and hauled by mules to Maisí, where they were
loaded onto a boat headed for Baracoa, and later transferred to a
Norwegian freighter making a stop in New York City.
Before its removal, the idol must have been an imposing sight; it had
been carved into a four-foot-high stalagmite with an even wider base.
Still, Harrington nearly failed to see it. The cave's mouth opens wide
to a high-ceilinged antechamber, tempting anyone who enters to look
upward past the idol's former resting place, toward an enticing
passageway that disappears into the darkness. This leads into a rotunda
filled with bats, whose presence thwarted all three of Harrington's
attempts to thoroughly explore the deeper space. He noticed the idol
only while recovering from his third try.
I did not read Harrington's account of his Patana expedition until after
I had visited the cave, and don't recall seeing the millions of roaches
he witnessed on the floor of the corridor leading into the rotunda. But
that's probably because I was too preoccupied with the thousands of bats
that formed a funnel cloud when Morales and I entered their space in the
two-tone glow of my smartphone and his flashlight.
In pursuit of the more mysterious chamber, I, like Harrington, had also
failed to note the petroglyphs that still remain at the cave's entrance,
and now I too was sweating through my clothes and suffocating in the
rotunda's foul air. By the time I thought to ask Morales what marvels
awaited us, I could hardly hear myself over the beating wings and
piercing cries. "None," he shouted back over his shoulder. "I wanted to
show you the heat trap!" Frenzied bats clipped my arms and legs. Warm
guano clotted in my hair. Head down, I turned and sprinted back to the
entrance as fast as I could manage on a soft floor of droppings.
Only when I was back at the cave entrance, alone and breathless, could I
finally appreciate the space. Petroglyphs stared out from the walls. The
spot where the Gran Cemí used to stand came into focus, a haunting stump
of a rock remaining in place of a figure once infused with life. The
Taíno may be destined to be defined, at least in part, by their absence.
I remember the first Taíno idol I held, as I sat in Roberto Ordúñez's
living room: a three-sided clay figure called La Muñequina (the little
doll). As I turned each of its sides to face me, it became a frog, a
skull, and then an owl. For the Taíno, this idol was an indivisible
symbol of life, death, and wandering souls—though not necessarily in
It was a Taíno belief that the dead had their own spirits, and that
these could pass back into the world as people, animals, even objects.
Their presence wasn't regarded as a haunting, however. It was simply as
if those who had died had taken a new shape in order to exist again
alongside the living.
Source: Searching for Cuba's Pre-Colombian Roots | Travel | Smithsonian