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Updated: Jun 25, 2023

Close up shot of two girls who's faces are in their twenties. They painting on their faces signifying native american traditions
A Taino reenactment in Barranquitas PR

The Taino Indians owned all the islands from Cuba to Aruba. They called the territory Borinken. The midpoint for a meeting place was Puerto Rico. The ceremony held for the meeting of all the island chiefs was called "Sik'ar". The actual Indian word for "cigar" was "Tobak”! When Columbus came he didn't understand he was witnessing a 2,000 year old culture of Indians cultivating tobacco rolling & smoking cigars. The Spanish picked up on "Sik'ar" and called the rolled tobacco tubes "Cigarro". The French picked it up during the crusades as "Cigarette". Came back into modern Spanish as "Puros or cigarillos" the latter commonly referring to any smoked tobacco product. During the first 400 years after Columbus more than one half the shipping tonnage between the whole new world and Seville Spain was tobacco from Puerto Rico...we have the records. The Puerto Rico Tobacco Corporation started as "Porto Rico Leaf Co." , then became "Porto Rico American Leaf Co.", next came Puerto Rico American Tobacco Co." and now Puerto Rico Tobacco Corporation. Would you like to know about the tobacco wars?

Painting of taíno tribes smoking tobacco through a pipe
A Woodcut by Columbus's cartographer

The Taino Indians depicted in the woodcut presented here gathered in Puerto Rico. they came from all the "Borinken" islands from Cuba to Aruba. These are the people who created the style of all current outdoor summer celebrations. They invented BBQ, Cigars, their own versions of Beer, and Rum. Here, the Tainos are seen gathering for "Sikar". The men would trade and sell their tobaccos, review treaties, land inheritances, marriages, legal contests over boats, houses and farms. They also made maps of the stars and the oceans. It is most likely that these Arawak tribes were migrants from the nearby Yucatan peninsula, however they stayed in the Borinken Islands of Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, the US and British Virgin Islands occupying the land chain as far southeast as Aruba.

The Taino Indians have had a pervasive effect on Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, many other native populations, and are certainly descendants of the peoples who came from the Yucatan Peninsula. The disheartening thing is that while the Taino Indians made a major contribution to the traditions we enjoy so much (BBQ, Rum, Cigars and other enjoyable aspects of Caribbean life), no one really gives the Taino people due credit for figuring out ocean currents, mapping the winds and waves, mapping navigational trade paths (they traveled from Cuba to Aruba and back on a regular basis) and the Taino written language and number system which was used to establish social order through the implementation of laws. They were also responsible for a well known accounting system used in trade which inherently means they had contracts. No one even recognizes their existence today. A 2001 study at the University of Puerto Rico found that more than seventy percent of the population of Puerto Rico has mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) that has been traced directly back to the Taino Arawak People. How really upside down is that?

taíno smoking tobacco through a pipe

Nice places to visit: Herminio Torress Cigar Museum & Taino Indian Museum, Caguas; Museum of the Americas (Amer-Indian Exhibit), San Juan; African Heritage Museum, Old San Juan, Taino Cultural Village, Juyuja.

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