Chapter IV – Tainos

The Agricultural Society

The original farming system that the Arawaks brought to the Antilles was called slash-and-burn cultivation, which consists in cutting and burning trees in a designated area which is later fertilized the with the trees' ashes. As well as lands dedicated to a single crop, the natives utilized smaller plots of land that were called conucos, where they would simultaneously grow the principal staples of their daily diet: root crops like yautia, mapuey, batata, and the beloved yuca (Manihot utilissima).

As expressed by historian Bernardo Vega, "the combination of slash and burn and conuco, both with Taino roots, has been the most common agricultural technique in our country's history."1 and further expresses "this creates the problem that, after the plot has been used, it is abandoned for a new plot." In Pre-Columbian time, the great abundance of forests with a prudent amount of cultivators, made it possible for nature to reclaim the used plots naturally. Presently, after centuries of indiscriminate logging exploitation, the farmer tradition of the slash and burn farming without any planning contribute to a terrible deforestation problem for the Dominican Republic.

A great advance in the cultivating techniques of the Taino period was the use of mound cultivation system, known as mounds system, which consists of using the piles or mounds formed from years of conch and other food debris to cultivate in.
If they didn't have the shell mounds, they would create one by piling quality dirt until it measured approximately, around 12 feet in diameter and 4 feet high.

Farming in this way, they obtained a significant yield increase, since the earth didn't erode, maintained the humidity for a long time and was fertilized with animal and vegetable scraps which made an excellent fertilizer. Some mounds were moved at the end of the harvest which facilitated the recycling of the soil, making this cultivation system one of the few with some semblance of environmental conservation.

It is important to mention the importance of the mound system in the productive emancipation of the Taino, so much so, that as Prof. Roberto Cassa points out, "the large yield of this system made it so that the Taino population had to invest very little time to worry about nourishment and was left with plenty of leisure time to dedicate to other activities."2

The Tainos also used an irrigation technique, found specially in some South western areas of the island. Their farming instruments included the axe made from stone and the "coa", a kind of wooden trowel with a sharpened point used for digging.

Like the majority of agricultural cultures, planting was done during the new moon cycle, which is believed to induce faster growth. The harvest was collective in nature, as described by Hernando Columbus when he sites "As soon as they entered in the home some of the Indians that the Admiral had taken with him to the Isabela, they grabbed whatever they liked best, without the owners showing any sign of discord, as if it was all common."3

D4: Design: J. Arvelo Drawing: B. Arvelo

RELATED SOURCES

Link to BBC article about the influence of the Taino language to the rest of the world.

BBC Caribbean Indigenous Legacies Project