When Columbus reached the islands of the Caribbean in 1492, he was entering a region of immense ethnic and cultural diversity. This great variety of pre-Colombian cultures has often been ignored or unintentionally subsumed into a homogenous cultural landscape.

However, new research has transformed the link between cultural diversity and identity in the Caribbean. Terms such as Taíno are being re-visited to explore the diverse origins, varying beliefs, and systems of social organisation that have far reaching consequences for the cultural identities of populations on islands such as Puerto Rico today.

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    Three-pointed 'cemí', 9 – 16 century AD  

    Three-pointed 'cemí'

    When considering what binds together multi-ethnic and multi-cultural communities, it is first and foremost a shared worldview. Cemí figurines like this one were not only representations of deities and ancestors but were thought to be living objects imbued with their own life force. Cemís underpinned an understanding of the environment, landscapes and a way of life that bound people together.

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    Boinayel the Rain Giver, c. AD 1300  

    Boinayel the Rain Giver

    This beautiful wooden figure has tear channels down his cheeks and is thought to represent Boinayel the rain giving deity. He has been found represented on objects and rock art across many different islands in the Caribbean demonstrating the cultural links between the islands of the Greater Antilles.

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    Duho, chief’s stool, 14 century  

    Duho, chief’s stool

    This object is a duho or stool often associated with caciques (or chiefs) who would have sat on them in ceremonies and meeting places. Seats of power were used to mediate with ancestor spirits. The iconography on these duhos reinforced the cacique’s legitimacy to rule.

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    Hispaniola brick, c. 1492  

    Hispaniola brick, probably Spanish

    This European brick was apparently used as ballast on one of Columbus’ ships and then re-used in the construction of the church at Concepción de la Vega, one of the first European settlements of the New World. This commonplace brick bares rare physical testimony to the encounter between the Old World and the New, a moment that would dramatically transform the face not only of the Americas, but of the whole world.