ancient antilles



Taíno phallic-mammiform (i.e., male/female) vessel with bat or owl adorno, Hispaniola
(c.1200-1500 CE)

Overall the Pre-Columbian art of the Caribbean is characterized by a great concern with design and symbolism. Arts such as sculpture, ceramics and cave paintings were used by the various groups inhabiting the Antilles to communicate narratives, topics, and themes about specific, traditionally inculcated subjects. Art therefore constituted a kind of visual language, iconography or pictorial ‘text’ that the people, or perhaps in some cases certain trained or privileged people, could ‘read’ for content.

From the great Ceramic expansion of the Saladoid into the islands to the pre-Conquest Taíno era, Antillean art dealt with religious and mythological subjects. Thus many art objects might be considered ritual objects, or zemís.[1]

Taino ritual objects from Hispaniola: (left and left centre) wooden cohoba stands (atop which the hallucinogenic cohoba powder was placed) bearing the likeness of shamans in grimacing, cohoba-induced trance; (centre right) cohoba spoon (carved from a manatee rib) with handle in the form of an entranced shaman; shell amulet bearing the likeness of a skeletal, grimacing shaman or a goeíza/opía (spirit of the living/dead).
Image sources: photos by author (left and left centre: Metropolitan Museum of Art and American Museum of Natural History); Altos de Chavón Museo Arqueológico Regional Quincentennial Commemorative Catalog (right centre and right)

Adorned pottery as well might be seen as having partial zemí status since the adornos themselves seem to have represented important symbolic zoomorphs (animal forms), shamans, folk heroes and perhaps even ancestors while also performing a utilitarian function (see figures below).

Ceremonial ceramics: (left) Saladoid effigy vessel with anthropomorphic spout with removable stopper ‘hat’ (c. 3rd-5th c. CE, Trinidad); (centre) Taíno ceramic effigy vessel of deified folk hero Deminán Caracaracol, featuring prominent dorsal pregnancy (c. 1200-1500 CE); (right) Saladoid bat censer with open eyes and mouth for releasing smoke (another pot may have sat atop the flange on top) (c. 300-500 CE, St. Vincent)
Image sources: photos by author (left and right) National Museum and Art Gallery, Trinidad and St. Vincent and the Grenadines National Trust Museum; (centre) Taíno: Pre- Columbian Art and Culture from the Caribbean,1998

Ritual imagery in stone: (left) Saladoid pumice stone sculpture apparently with the tearing eyes of an entranced shaman or the rain deity Boinayel (Barbados); (centre) Taíno petroglyph showing sheathed being with crown, Cueva del Indio (Puerto Rico); (right) Taíno sculpted pestle in the form of an ocular figure (shaman or spirit) (Jamaica).
Image sources: photos by author (left) Barbados Museum, Barbados; (centre) Cueva del
Indio, Puerto Rico; (right) Taino Museum, Jamaica

Adorned pottery was used for ceremonial purposes, while unadorned, more robustly made pots were used for the daily cooking and serving.

The surfaces of Pre-Columbian Antillean sculpture and ceramics were often densely inscribed with motifs, often recurring, scrolling or repeated in some other way. These often create a complex field of figure-ground reversals that make it difficult for the untrained eye to know just which is the figure (i.e., the ‘positive space’) and which the background (i.e., the ‘negative space’) (see figures).

Ancient Antillean design aesthetics: (left) Saladoid white-on-red (WOR) painted everted bowl, St. Croix; (centre) Huecoid zone-incised crosshatched (ZIC) snuff bowl (ceramic), Vieques; (right) Taíno shell amulet with dense incised designs, Hispaniola.
Image sources: photos by author (left and right, Yale Peabody Anthropology Collection and Metropolitan Museum of Art); (centre) Cultura La Hueca, 2005

Since many figure-ground reversals show an interactive and harmonious relationship between ‘opposing’ fields, it is possible that these motif sets expressed themes such as the harmonization of opposing forces; complementary genders; diametric or competing professions, clans or other social subdivisions.  Sets of harmonized motifs often resolved themselves into a kind of ‘staggered symmetry’ on opposite sides of a pot or sculpture, whereby, say, what was sculpted or painted on the left was also put on the right, but facing in the opposite direction. Again, this symmetry seems to refer to the resolution of opposites, but with the staggering, there is a suggestion of continuance or possibilities through deviation. Indeed the ‘staggered symmetry’ aesthetic of ancient Antillean art suggests a complex understanding of geometric principles and advanced notions of diversity within unity and vice versa.

While the archaeological record has yielded far more stone and ceramic sculpture than wood, a case can be made for the popularity of wood sculpture in the ancient Antilles. Even ceramics received much of their details when the clay was at the leather-hard stage of drying, when it is most like wood and therefore requires a woodcarving technique (see figure). Between the need for statues, and the construction of canoes and houses (both of which likely had been adorned with sculptural and incised designs), sculptors probably spent more time carving wood than any other material.

Wooden objects have just not survived the centuries in damp, mineral rich Caribbean soils crawling with hungry invertebrates. In fact the more archival materials are privileged in today’s museum collections giving perhaps the false impression that the ancient Antilleans favoured stone, bone, shell and ceramics over wood, featherwork, textiles, basketry (see figures).

Material resilience: (left) Taíno exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art featuring approximately 30 objects, all made of relatively ‘permanent’ materials such as stone, bone and shell except the wooden cohoba stand at far left; (right) Kalinago (Carib) telescoping waterproof basket of larouma, one of several important plant fibers that survive only a few centuries in tropical conditions (photos by author)

The materials of which artworks were made may have carried specific meanings for artists and religious specialists alike, including different species of wood,[2] shell, animal bone, plant fiber and bird feathers; and different types of stone. All of these may have embodied their own unique symbolism or may have had traditional narratives associated with them (see figures).

The most unique, and perhaps most mysterious, of all ancient Antillean art objects is the trigonal zemí. This class of objects varies greatly in size from as little as an inch to a foot wide at the base. These zemís originate in the Caribbean and have seldom been encountered outside of the region. Early trigonoliths (Spanish: trigonolitos) from the later Saladoid Eastern Caribbean [3] are often not lithic (i.e., stone) at all but in fact made of the whorl tip of the conch (Strombus gigas) shell. But lithic trigonal zemís have been found from as far south as Saladoid Tobago to Taíno Hispaniola. The function of these particular zemís is unclear, though their link to agricultural fertility rituals is briefly mentioned in Pané’s 15th century account and their resemblance to islands on the horizon is obvious. In either case, they are symbols of the land as home and place of sustenance (see figures).[4]

Trigonal zemís: (left) Saladoid carved conch whorl zemí, Antigua; (centre) Saladoid stone zemí with carved restricted base and notched ‘spine,’ Tobago; (right) Taíno zemí with anthropomorphic features and elaborate abstract and zoomorphic incisions, Puerto Rico.
Image sources: (left and centre) photos by author; (right) Taíno: Pre-Columbian Art and Culture from the Caribbean, 1998

In the Taíno era trigonal zemís graduated from incised whorl tips and diverse, beautifully flecked metamorphic rock objects to sculpted stone objects, often bearing anthropomorphic and zoomorphic features that loaded them with perhaps even more mythological significance. As personifications of the land, they may have represented revered ancestors, folk heroes or deities in the Arawakan pantheon. 

The gender divisions, if any, among artists in the Pre-Columbian Antilles are uncertain. But the male-dominated sphere of dugout canoe travel and canoe-making suggests that sculpture too might have been practiced mostly by men with tools and skills handed down by male ancestors. And in many Amerindian arts today, including traditional Taíno (Arawakan) ceramics in the Greater Antilles and Kalinago (Carib) basket weaving in the Lesser Antilles, the women maintain dominance in ceramics and basket weaving as a tradition handed down by their female forebears (see figure).

Contemporary Antillean arts: (left) pots in the workshop of Taíno master ceramicist, Alice Chéverez, Puerto Rico; (right) Kalinago basket weavers (only one of whom is a young man) in the Carib Territory, Dominica (photos by author).


[1]Zemí: a sacred icon or devotional object of the Ceramic Age Pre-Columbian Antilles.
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[ 2] For example, there are indications in Taíno-era mythological accounts (reported by Ramón Pané) and the archaeological record that specific kinds and species of trees may have been favoured for certain types of zemí. See Nicholas Saunders and Dorrick Gray, “Zemí’s, Trees and Symbolic Landscapes: Three Taíno Carvings from Jamaica,” in The Earliest Inhabitants: The Dynamics of the Jamaican Taíno, edited by Lesley-Gail Atkinson (Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2006) 187-197.
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[3] Circa the first five centuries of the Common Era.
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[4]See Fatima Bercht, ed. Taíno: Pre-Columbian Art and Culture from the Caribbean (New York: El Museo del Barrio/Monacelli Press, 1997), 25-27, 92-105; Osvaldo García-Goyco, “ Nuevas Interpretaciones en Torno a la Iconografía de los Taínos: Posibles Representaciones del Árbol de los Alimentos,” in Proceedings of the XX International Congress for Caribbean Archaeology (Santo Domingo:
Museo del Hombre Dominicano and Fundación García Arévalo, 2003), 49-58.
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