The earliest known inhabitants of Puerto Rico were the Archaic or Pre-Ceramic cultures, which are believed to have lived on the island from 3000 B.C. until A.D. 150. They were loosely organized in small nomadic groups of about 30 who occupied encampments for brief periods. What little is known about this culture has been deduced from a couple of burial sites and a few excavated stone and shell artifacts, such as flint chips, scrapers, and pestles. They are believed to have been primarily hunters and gatherers who did not cultivate crops or make pottery. There are two main theories about the origins of the Archaic culture. It is believed they either originated in South America and migrated to Puerto Rico by way of the Lesser Antilles or they originated in the Yucatán Peninsula and crossed from Cuba and Hispañola.
The Archaic were followed by the Arawak, who migrated from Venezuela. The earliest Arawak were classified as Igneri or Saladoid, and they lived in Puerto Rico from 300 B.C. to A.D. 600. The Igneri were superb potters, whose ceramics were distinguished by white paint on a red background. They also produced small cemis, three-side amulets believed to have religious significance. Their society was organized in villages of extended-family houses situated around a central plaza, under which the dead were buried. In addition to hunting and gathering, the Igneri cultivated crops.
Around A.D. 600, the Igneri culture evolved into two separate cultures that are grouped together under the name Pre-Taíno. The Elenoid lived on the eastern two-thirds of the island while the Ostionoid lived on the western third of the island. The Elenoid culture is distinguished by a coarse, thick style of unpainted ceramics. The Ostionoid produced pottery similar to the Igneri’s, except that it was painted in shades of pink and lilac. Little is known about Pre-Taíno culture. Both cultures continued to hunt, fish, gather, and farm. Although they had centralized villages, there is evidence that many Pre-Taíno split into nuclear families and lived in houses separate from one another scattered throughout the island. It is during this time that many Taíno customs began to appear. The Pre-Taíno were the first to construct bateyes, rectangular ball courts, and central plazas, which were square or round. They produced larger cemi amulets than found in Igneri culture, and they began carving petroglyphs—typically human or animal faces—into stones.
The most significant Igneri and Pre-Taíno archaeological site in Puerto Rico is Centro Ceremonial Indígena de Tibes near Ponce. In addition to seven bateyes and two plazas, a cemetery containing the remains of 187 people was discovered here.
Around A.D. 1200, the Pre-Taíno evolved into the Taíno culture. Of all the indigenous groups that lived in Puerto Rico, the most is known about the Taíno perhaps because they were the ones to greet Christopher Columbus when he arrived in 1493, and several Spanish settlers wrote historical accounts about their culture.
The Taíno society was highly organized and hierarchal. They lived in self-governing villages called yucayeques. Commoners lived in conical wood-and-thatch huts called bohios while the chief, or cacique, lived in a rectangular hut called a caney. They were a highly spiritual culture and would gather on sacred grounds, distinguished by plazas and bateyes (ball courts), to perform their religious ceremonies and compete in ball games.
The Taínos produced highly complex ceramics, as well as wood and stone implements, such as axes, daggers, dujos (ceremonial stools), and stone collars, the purpose of which is unknown. In addition to hunting, fishing, and gathering, they were highly developed farmers. The Taínos were also highly spiritual, and they created many cemi amulets, which were much more complex than those of past cultures, and stone carvings.
The Taínos were a peaceful culture, a fact that was severely challenged by the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors as well as the marauding Caribs, a highly aggressive, warrior culture that originated in Venezuela and roamed the Antilles plundering goods and capturing women. A hotly debated topic in scholarly discussions about the Caribs is whether or not they practiced cannibalism. The Taíno culture vanished around 1500 after the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. Those not killed and enslaved by the Spanish died from a smallpox epidemic.
© Suzanne Van Atten from Moon Puerto Rico, 2nd Edition