The Caribbean before Columbus: Taíno Icons in the British Museum

3 May – 17 June 2007
Room 3
Admission free

This focused display unveils a group of rare, visually arresting wooden sculptures fashioned by Taíno (AD 1000-1500) artisans in the Caribbean. Their fortuitous survival offers a tantalising glimpse into the world inhabited by indigenous cultures in the Americas before the arrival of Columbus in the hemisphere in 1492. The Taíno have cultural and linguistic roots which can be traced back for well over a millennium and are the outcome of some 7000 years of adaptation to the Caribbean island environment.

The exhibition will include three objects discovered together in 1792 in a cave in Canoe Valley deep in the mountainous interior of Jamaica, including an impressive and powerful male figure, a likely centrepiece in Taíno ceremonies. This will be displayed alongside  a beautifully polished chief’s stool or duho carved from a single block of hardwood from Santa Domingo and a canopied wooden idol, depicting a bird, possibly the Great Blue Heron standing on the back of a turtle. These objects embodied powerful invisible spiritual beings known as çemí’s and played a key role in Taíno rituals and ceremonies.

By the 8th century AD, all the island cultures of the Greater Antilles including Puerto Rico, Hispaniola (later to become divided into Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Jamaica and eastern Cuba – had developed hierarchical societies known as cacicazgos (chiefdoms) led by a caçique (chief). They shared many similarities in their staple crops, social organisation, religion and cosmology, but developed marked political differences as the most powerful Taíno chiefdoms began to coalesce around 1000 AD. As a consequence of the initial Spanish contact and later European conquest which brought a deadly combination of contagious disease and enslavement, this culture was to suffer a catastrophic collapse. These objects offer a rare opportunity to examine Taíno beliefs.

Underlying these beliefs was the fundamental notion of an invisible ‘sweet’ essence or supernatural power that could manifest itself in natural objects such as curiously shaped stones, a particular tree or perhaps stalagmites found in caves. Once it revealed its presence to a human being, a behique (shaman) would be called to perform a ceremony involving the inhalation of cohoba, a powerful hallucinogenic snuff made from pulverised seeds. The object would then reveal its identity, names and titles, gender, social rank, genealogy and its specific powers. Then the rock or wood would be sculpted into an icon called a çemí.

Taíno chiefs ruled by surrounding themselves with these icons that faithful followers believed to be imbued with supernatural power. As the potent invisible force animating these objects, çemí’s had the potential to cause good as well as evil. The power of each çemí could be quite specific, causing beneficial rainfall, bringing disastrous drought or unleashing tropical storms and hurricanes. Like human society, the icons were themselves ranked. Their reputation and prestige would vary considerably as a result of the deeds and impact their powers had on people and nature. Upon the death of the chief, most of the icons would be inherited by his heirs or gifted to political allies. In times of crisis, especially during the Spanish Conquest, some icons were stolen by competing factions. Many were hidden, often in secluded caves.

This array of powerful çemí icons enabled caçiques and shamans to exercise religious authority as well as political power. These compelling icons are not merely objects of mediation, but full participants and causal agents in the turbulent world of Taíno politics, before and even sometimes well after Columbus arrived in the Caribbean.

For further information or images please contact Hannah Boulton on +44 (0)20 7323 8522, hboulton@thebritishmuseum.ac.uk or Katrina Whenham on +44 (0)20 7323 8583, kwhenham@thebritishmuseum.ac.uk