Episode Transcript – Episode 65 - Taino Ritual Seat

Taino ritual seat (made between thirteenth and fifteenth century). Wooden stool; from the Dominican Republic

This week we've been talking about high-status objects that belonged to leaders and thinkers around the world about seven hundred years ago. Objects that reflect the societies that produced them, in Scandinavia and Nigeria, Spain and China. Today's object is a stool from the Caribbean, from what is now the Dominican Republic, and it too tells a rich story - in this case of the Taino people who lived in the Caribbean islands before the arrival of Christopher Columbus.

In the history of the world that we've been telling, this stool is the first object in which the separate narratives of the Americas on the one hand and Europe, Asia and Africa on the other, intersect, or perhaps more accurately, collide. But this is no ordinary domestic thing - it's a stool of great power, a strange and exotic ceremonial seat carved into the shape of an otherworldly being; half-human, half-animal, which would take its owners travelling between worlds, and gave them the power of prophecy. We don't know if the seat helped them foretell it, but we do know that the people who made this seat had a terrible future ahead of them.

"It hides a lot more information than you might suspect, and it's eliciting that information that really is thrilling." (José Oliver)

"These objects, for those of us who grew up here in New York, were almost like objects of veneration, in the sense that we were rediscovering our culture - culture that we didn't know existed." (Gabriel Haslip-Viera)

Within a century of the arrival of the Spanish, most of the Taino would have died of European diseases, and their land would have been shared out among the European conquerors. It was a pattern that we repeated across the Americas, but the Taino were in the front line, and they suffered more than perhaps any other American people. They had no writing, and so it's only thanks to a small number of objects, like this stool, that we can even begin to grasp how the Taino imagined their world, and how they sought to control it.

The term Taino is generally used to describe the dominant group of people that inhabited the larger Caribbean islands: Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico - and Hispaniola, now divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, where our stool was found. Across the islands, ritual artefacts have been found that give us some idea of Taino life and thought. There are face-like masks designed to be worn on the body, wooden statuettes, and inhalers for sniffing - or perhaps better, snorting - a mind-altering substance. The most evocative of all these surviving traces of the Taino are the carved ceremonial stools known as 'duhos'. The duho is the physical expression of a distinctive Taino world view.

The Taino people believed that they lived in parallel with an invisible world of ancestors and gods, from whom their leaders could seek knowledge of the future. A duho would be owned only by the most important members of a community, and it was the vital means of getting through to the realm of the spirits. It was in one sense a throne, but it was also a portal, and a vehicle to the supernatural world.

It's about the size of a foot-stool, a small curved seat, carved out of rich dark wood, highly polished and gleaming. Carved at the front is a grimacing, goggle-eyed creature, which looks almost human, with an enormous mouth and wide ears. It's got two arms planted on the ground, and these two arms form the front two legs of the stool. From there a broad curve of wood sweeps upwards, like a wide beaver tail, supported at the back by two more legs. This creature looks like nothing on earth, but one thing is certain - it's male. Underneath this strange composite being, and between the hind legs, are carved male genitals.

This is a seat for a leader, for the chief of a village or a region. Taino leaders were both male and female, and the duho embodied their social, political and religious power, and it was crucial to the functioning of their society. We know that in at least one instance a leader was buried sitting on his duho. Here's Jos� Oliver, an archaeologist who's been doing new work on the Taino, and has studied how duhos would have been used:

"The use of the duho... you have to think of it not as a piece of furniture, but rather as a symbolic location of where the chief would stand. This particular object is too small for actually a human being sitting on it. Therefore just the fact that you're sitting, or crouching, on top of it, already - like the thrones of the monarchies - distinguishes this individual from everybody else. What is interesting is, all the wooden seats that we know of in the Caribbean, including this one, tend to be male, or they are marked with the male gender. And like in this case, they sometimes show the male genitalia under the seat. And that's because this seat is actually an anthropomorphic personage. Think of it as a human being on four legs, and what you sit [on] is on the back of this personage. And that's why the genitalia are on there, and you sit on top, almost like if you were sitting over a donkey or a horse, and so on. So the chief is mounting this object, which happens to also be a sentient being. In other words they thought of these things as having 'cemi', that is, a soul."

And so the gaping, boggle-eyed figure at the front of our seat - humanoid but not human - is the link to the cemi, to the spirit or the ancestor.

One of the chief's key roles was to access the domain of the sacred, the realm of the cemis. Seated on the duho he sniffed a hallucinogenic snuff, made from the charred seeds of the cohoba tree. Within half an hour it begins to work, and the resulting effects last for two to three hours, creating colourful patterns, strange sounds and voices, leading to full dream-like hallucinations.

One of the early Spanish recorders of the Taino culture, and probably the most sympathetic, was Bartolomeo de las Casas. He arrived on Hispaniola in 1502, and he described the rituals in which the duho had its role - he calls the chief a Lord:

"They had the custom of convening meetings to determine arduous things, such as mobilising for war and other things that they thought important for performing their cohoba ceremony. The first to start was the Lord, and while he was doing it the rest remained quiet, and were absorbed, while seated on low and well-carved benches they call duhos. Having done his cohoba, which is inhaling through the nostrils those powders, he remained for a while with his head turned sideward, and with his arms resting on his knees. He would give them an account of his vision, telling them that the cemi spoke to him, and certified the good or adverse times to come, or that they would have children or that they would die, or that they would have conflict or war with their neighbours."

The Taino world was run by chiefdoms - centres of power whose leaders fought, negotiated and allied among themselves. They generally lived in settlements of a few thousand people, in large circular houses, each accommodating perhaps a dozen families, clustered around a central square. Some distance away would stand the chief's house, which would also double as the local sacred space or temple, and it's here that the duho was put to work.

We don't know who would have made these duhos, but certainly the materials were very deliberately chosen. The wood of the duho is native to the Caribbean, and it fascinated the Europeans who encountered it. They called it 'lignum vitae' - the 'wood of life' - because of its remarkable qualities. Its resin was used to treat a wide range of ailments, from sore throats to syphilis, and when combined with alcohol it turns blood blue. It's also one of the few woods that won't float - it's so dense that it sinks in water. One Spaniard wrote admiringly of the duhos: "They are made of such beautiful, smooth and perfect wood, that nothing else more beautiful was ever made of gold or silver."

And there is in fact gold on our duho as well. The wide, gaping mouth, and the straining, boggling eyes of the humanoid head at the front, are emphasised by being inlaid with gold discs, and they add enormously to the frightening power of the object. It was gold like this that made the Spaniards believe that they might find in Hispaniola the treasure they'd been hoping for. But in fact gold like this is found only in the rivers, in small quantities accumulated over many generations. Like the special wood, this rare precious gold marked out the duho as an exceptional object, something able to mediate between the earthly and the supernatural worlds.

It could also mediate between living leaders. Important visitors would be ceremonially seated on duhos, and Christopher Columbus himself received this honour. But of all the futures that could have been foretold by the Taino chiefs sitting on their duhos, nothing could have matched what actually happened. The Spaniards brought with them smallpox and typhoid - and even the common cold was catastrophic to the Taino communities, who had no immunity. Those that survived were resettled by the Spanish, so kinship groups were torn apart, and then African slaves were brought in to replace the vanishing local labour-force.

In the Caribbean today Taino identity is the subject of much public debate, but it's a contentious subject. In his book 'Taino Revival', the author Gabriel Haslip-Viera considers the claims of those who say they are of Taino descent:

"The Taino people as a pure ethnic group - shall we say 'uncontaminated' with other populations - that population essentially came to an end by 1600, about a hundred years after the arrival of the Spaniards. The small number of survivors essentially mixed in with the Spanish colonists and the Africans that were bought into the Caribbean to replace them as the main labour-force. Because primarily the mixture in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean is an African-European mix, that's what has been coming out in the recent studies that have been done. The so-called admixture tests that geneticists have been doing in recent years, those tests have demonstrated overwhelmingly that the peoples of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, of the Greater Antilles, are people of mixed background and that the mixture is primarily European and African."

The Taino may have been virtually wiped out hundreds of years ago, but we still have echoes of the lost Taino world in a few words familiar to us, words that reflect Taino experience and culture. 'Hurricane' is one, and so are 'barbecue', 'hammock', 'canoe' and 'tobacco'. These are prosaic, everyday things, but the physical survivals of the Taino world, like the duho stool, speak of the universal human need to connect with what is beyond the mundane, with the world of spirits and gods. Next week is all about this constant human need. It's about religion across the world, from Constantinople to Easter Island . . . and we'll be beginning with the Crown of Thorns.