Lifestyle of Arawak / Taíno
The Arawak/Taíno society was basically a very gentle culture. It was characterized by happiness, friendliness and a highly organized hierarchical, paternal society, and a lack of guile.
Each society was a small kingdom and the leader was called a cacique. The cacique’s function was to keep the welfare of the village by assigning daily work and making sure everyone got an equal share. The relatives of the caciques lived together in large houses in the center of the village. These houses reflect the warmth of the climate and simply used mud, straw and palm leaves. The houses did not contain much furniture. People slept in cotton hammocks or simply on mats of banana leaves. The general population lived in large circular buildings called bohios, constructed with wooden poles, woven straw, and palm leaves.
At the time of Columbus there were five different kingdoms on the island of Hispaniola. The Indians practiced polygamy. Most men had 2 or 3 wives, but the caciques had as many as 30. It was a great honor for a woman to be married to a cacique. Not only did she enjoy a materially superior lifestyle, but her children were held in high esteem.
Housing and Dress
The Arawak/Taíno used two primary architectural styles for their homes. The general population lived in circular buildings with poles providing the primary support and these were covered with woven straw and palm leaves. They were somewhat like North American teepees except rather than being covered with skins they needed to reflect the warmth of the climate and simply used straw and palm leaves.
The caciques were singled out for unique housing. Their house were rectangular and even featured a small porch. Despite the difference in shape, and the considerably larger buildings, the same materials were used. When the Africans came beginning in 1507 they introduced mud and wattle as primary building materials. However, there is no record of the Arawak/Taíno having used these materials.
The house of the cacique contained only his own family. However, given the number of wives he might have, this constituted a huge family. The round houses of the common people were also large. Each one had about 10-15 men and their whole families. Thus any Arawak/Taíno home might house a hundred people.
The houses did not contain much furniture. People slept in cotton hammocks or simply on mats of banana leaves. They also made wooden chairs with woven seats, couches and built cradles for their children.
In addition to houses the typical Arawak/Taíno village contained a flat court in the center of the village which was used for ball games and various festivals, both religious and secular. Houses were around this court. This was a hierarchical society, and while there was only one cacique who was paid a tribute (tax) to oversee the village, there were other levels of sub-caciques, who were not paid, but did hold positions of honor. They were liable for various services to the village and cacique.
Stone making was especially developed among the Arawak/Taíno , but they seem not to have used it at all in building houses. It was primarily used for tools and especially religious artifacts.
The men were generally naked, but the women sometimes wore short skirts. Men and women alike adorned their bodies with paint and shells and other decorations.
Food and Agriculture
The Arawak/Taíno diet, like ours, centered around meat or fish as the primary source of protein. There never were many wild animals to hunt on Hispaniola, but there were some small mammals which were hunted and enjoyed. They also ate snakes, various rodents, bats, worms, birds, in general any living things they could find with the exception of humans. They were able to hunt ducks and turtles in the lakes and sea. The costal natives relied heavily on fishing, and tended to eat their fish either raw or only partially cooked. Since they did grow cotton on the island, the natives had fishing nets made of cotton. The natives of the interior relied more on agriculture and de-emphasized meat or fish in their diet.
The Taíno had a developed system of agriculture which was environmentally friendly and almost maintenance free. They raised their crops in a conuco, a large mound which was devised especially for farming. They packed the conuco with leaves which improved drainage and protected it from soil erosion. One of the primary crops cultivated by the Taíno was cassava or yuca, which they ate as a flat bread. They also grew corn, squash, beans, peppers, sweet potatoes, yams, peanuts as well as tobacco.
(As an aside I would like to comment that many people in the pre-Columbian Americas had virtually work free agriculture. This system meant that people living in these materially simple social systems had enormous amounts of free time and often developed elaborate religious rites which took a lot of their time, but also had highly developed systems of games and recreation. There are some nice advantages to very simple living and diet!)
One of the Arawak/Taíno's primary crops was cassava. This is a root crop from which a poisonous juice must be squeezed. Then it is baked into a bread like slab. The current method of doing this in Haiti produces a flat bread, sort of like a stale burrito or pizza shell. The Arawak/Taíno grew corn (maize), squash, beans, peppers, sweet potatoes, yams and peanuts.
They not only had cotton, but they raised tobacco and enjoyed smoking very much. It was not only a part of their social life, but was used in religious ceremonies too.
The Arawak/Taíno had no large animals like horses, oxen or mules to ride or use for work. But they did have river and sea transportation. They used dugout canoes which were cut from a single tree trunk and used with paddles. They could take 70-80 people in a single canoe and even used them for long travels on the sea. These dugouts allowed fishing the few lakes of Hispaniola as well as fishing out a bit off the coast.
The Arawak/Taíno themselves were quite peaceful people, but they did have to defend themselves from the Caribs who were cannibals. The Caribs of this area were centered at what is today Puerto Rico, but some did live in northeast Hispaniola, an area that today is the Dominican Republic. The Caribs were war-like cannibals. They often raided the more peaceful Arawak/Taíno , killing off the men, stealing and holding the women for breeding, and fattening the children to eat.
Thus the Arawak/Taíno had some weapons which they used in defense. They used the bow and arrow, and had developed some poisons for their arrow tips. They had cotton ropes for defensive purposes and some spears with fish hooks on the end. Since there were hardwoods on the island, they did have a war club made of macana. This was about 1″ thick and reminds one very much of the cocomaque stick used in later Haitian days. They did not develop any armor or specifically defensive weapons (shields, etc.).