Puerto Rico; Taino
Stone; H. 5 1/2 in. (14 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979 (1979.206.611)
The Taino people who inhabited the islands of Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica in Precolumbian times created works of art that are distinctly their own in form and style. Some of the forms are so unusual that it is hard to understand their function. This stone head carved on one side with a plain, rounded back has the deep eye sockets and broad open mouth characteristic of Taino faces on the front. The empty sockets probably once held inlays of gold and/or shell. The object may have been part of a group of objects the Taino called zemis which were central to their religion. Zemis or idols represent deities and ancestors worshipped by the Taino and were used in public rituals and ceremonies. The Spaniards who first came into contact with the Taino in the late 1490s report that the local people considered zemis not simply powerful objects, but spirit beings that behaved like the living: moving about, speaking, consuming food, and partaking of the drug cohoba.