Mother and Child, Taíno/Arawak

    Caribbean Basin, circa 9001500 CE

    Mother and Child, Taíno/Arawak, Caribbean Basin, circa 900–1500 CE
    Carved stalactite composed of hardened bat guano, 13 x 24 ½ x 3 ½ inches (33 x 62.2 x 8.9 cm)
    Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Early Americas, Exploration and Navigation,
    MDC PC 2020.3.7

    The origins of this small and exceedingly rare object depicting a mother and child is unknown. It almost certainly comes from the Caribbean Basin, most likely the Greater Antilles Islands. It may have been created by the indigenous people of the area, the Arawak, or by the Taíno, an Arawak subgroup and the first native people that Christopher Columbus encountered upon landing on Hispaniola. The terms Arawak and Taíno are often used interchangeably, depending on location, and many recognized subgroups also speak related Arawakan languages. Also unknown is the source of the carving's material, a hardened substance that could be a piece of stalactite or cave accretion (bat guano), which is so fossilized that it appears to be stone.

    The Taíno people believed in the worship of nature deities known as zemis. There were two supreme deities: Yúcahu, the lord of casava and the sea and the source of sustenance, and Atabey, his mother, who was the goddess of fresh water and human fertility. Women prayed to her for safe childbirth. The term zemi was applied not only to the deities themselves but also to idols and fetishes that represented them, which the Taíno made from the remains of ancestors or from natural materials believed to be inhabited by powerful spirits. Zemis have also been found in caves and made of cave elements. Caves were sacred locations and were also painted and carved with petroglyphs and the outlines of natural spirits who lived within.

    This unique carved figure represents a form of fertility deity, possibly related to Atabey and to her dwelling in a cave, where worship could occur. Her form is highly abstracted and simplified, maintaining the shape of what we assume to have been a stalactite, while its size makes it portable, perhaps for women to keep in their possession and use in fertility rituals.

    Exhibited: Culture and Change in the Early Americas, Kislak Center, Miami Dade College, May 20, 2018–January 31, 2021.

    Photos by Lynton Gardiner. © Kislak Center at MDC.