Inverted Beings: Taino Art and Its Origins

October 18, 2004 @ 10:00 am – 11:30 am


by Peter Roe

Reviewed by Winfield Coleman

Amerindians perceive art with a very dynamic worldview: life and death are two sides of one coin. Key to understanding this worldview are the altered states that result from taking Anadenanthera peregrina seeds, ground into snuff (cohobo). Blown into the nostrils, it produces copious amounts of green mucus, which the Amerindians consider to have semen-like qualities. Under the influence of the snuff, the Amerindians experience overwhelming, kaleidoscopic visions—first geometric, then animal or human forms. The world of empirical reality is considered an illusion: the Real World is what one sees in visions. There, one talks to animals, shape-shifts, and sees beings walking upside down.

Deminán Caracaracol, a Taíno god, is depicted with an ornamental belt around his waist and a pronounced hunchback. When he pestered his grandfather, who had been taking cohobo, his grandfather took some of the mucous from his nose and flung it at Deminán, hitting him in the back and causing a painful swelling. His brothers cut open his back, and out jumped twins, the first humans. Thus, males give birth via an artificial womb, induced by hallucinogenic consciousness.

The shaman is the conduit of fertility from the spirit world of ancestors to those being born today through reincarnation. The shaman fasts up to six months, using a vomiting spatula to eject any residual food. He then smokes much tobacco. Shamans are therefore depicted with protruding bones, sunken eyes, and erect male members. The one person who contacts the dead, the shaman, assumes their appearance in order to do so.

Such a culture produces unusual art. One finds anatropic images (can be viewed upside down to reveal another image), various forms of rotation, and figures with two sides, one living, one skeletal. The result is a dynamic art that must be handled and viewed from different perspectives. The images are always inverted and always dualistic, with life and death aspects.

Around 450 BC, the Huecan Saladoid peoples reached Puerto Rico from the Amazon. They cultivated manioc and produced a unique form of monochromatic pottery. They also produced elaborate pectorals, representing the king vulture, carved in semiprecious stones. Some of the vultures carry trophy heads.

Within fifty years a much larger group from the same cultural area, the Cedrosan Saladoid, settled in huge, isolated villages along the Puerto Rican coast. They are the ancestors of the Taíno. Adept at working wood and stone, they also introduced polychrome pottery.

Opía are spirit beings who inhabit the night. Unnatural beings, they lack an umbilicus. If you meet one, it seduces you, leaving you to waste away and die.      Cohobo snuff containers are sometimes made in their likeness, with legs inserted into the nostrils and an opening in place of the navel. The hips and other joints are depicted as circles or eyes, because one butchers a carcass by cutting through the joints, and therefore they are perceived to be portals into the body.

The succeeding Ostionoid culture emerged around 800 AD, populating the interior, planting cassava, and incising large boulders with petroglyphs. It’s a very playful art style, with multiple and inverted imagery.

From around 1300 on, we see an elaboration and enlargement of scale. Society is organized into chiefdoms. A two-tiered structure emerges, with nobles, Taíno, on top, and commoners, Naboria, on the bottom. This allowed for full-time occupational specialists, resulting in some of the most elaborate stone carving and  ceramics known.

At this time the body of a ceramic pot was divided into two segments, the bottom segment decorated with geometric designs, the top half with representational motifs, most of them anatropic. The art is kinesthetic, changing as one used the vessel.

The Caribbean version of the ball game received its greatest elaboration in Puerto Rico. Three-point emblems were worn on large, elaborate collars presented to winners as religious symbols. They are based on the shape of the top of the columella of the conch shell. The iconography engraved on menhirs surrounding the ball courts is Amazonian. Prominent among the symbols are representations of the mother goddess, depicted as a member of the nobility. Women are associated with  water, so the goddess takes the aspect of a frog. In representing her, the circle of the navel is bracketed by triangles representing the interbreast and the pubis. Putatively abstract designs refer to real, anatomical details.

All of the designs came from a mythic time when a tissue of designs covered everything: trees, faces, landscapes. When the three worlds (Sky World, Earth World, Under World) split apart, those formlines were ripped asunder, and disease and contagion entered the world along with sex and the regeneration of life. Under the influence of hallucinogens, shamans were able to see the designs, and weave them together over the body, restoring health. Humans do not create designs; designs exist in eternity. The art is essentially a three-dimensional, concrete mythology. ♦