The Taino were the indigenous — the first — people of Puerto Rico. Taino is classified as an Arawak language. These languages are or were spoken in the Caribbean, and in more than a dozen South American nations. Some of the words English has borrowed from Taino are “hammock,” “canoe,” and “hurricane.” While Taino is officially a “dead” language (since it has no native speakers), there is a movement to revive the language by teaching it to children.
The Taino people had also been declared extinct, but DNA research has shown that modern Puerto Ricans are more closely related to the Taino than to any other indigenous American population. Researchers estimated, based on data from the 100 Genomes project, that modern Puerto Ricans may have 10-15% Taino DNA.
Oral history in Puerto Rico has long held that the Taino did not die out, but were in fact among the ancestors of the modern inhabitants of the Island. The DNA research provides scientific confirmation.
More than 75% of Puerto Ricans identify themselves as white, according to the most recent census data. All the genomes tested in the DNA research showed European and usually African descent as well. There is no current research identifying modern people who are of primarily Taino heritage. However, 9,399 people in Puerto Rico identified themselves as Taino on the 2010 census.
South American connection
Similarities in language and in DNA show a relationship between the Taino and people of the Amazon basin in South America. It is generally believed that the Taino people moved from South America to what is now Puerto Rico thousands of years ago. They lived on other islands such as Haiti and the Bahamas, too.
Over time, the Arawak people on different islands and in different parts of South America developed different languages and cultures.
Puerto Rico’s Taino people were the ones who welcomed Columbus in 1492. They were a matrilineal society, living in large villages built around a central plaza used for public events. Their economy relied on agriculture, hunting, and fishing, but there is evidence that they traded with the Maya and other South American and Caribbean civilizations.
How does this affect Puerto Rico now?
One possibility is that the Taino could achieve federal recognition as a Native American tribe. The Taino at present are not a federally recognized tribe.
Dr. James Rhodes of the Coweta Creek Confederacy reached out to PR51st claiming that the prehistoric relationship between the Taino and Coweta Creek is also supported by this DNA evidence. Dr. Rhodes invited Puerto Ricans to join the Confederacy, saying “Our only requirement is an ancestral relationship; blood quantum is not a factor as we are an inclusive, not exclusive, organization.”
Rhodes believes that federal recognition for the Taino would lead to opportunities for Puerto Rico. “We believe it is our common destiny that the Taino and the Coweta be reunited at this point for a common good,”he wrote. Dr. Rhodes can be reached via email.