Wood and cotton sculpture within Caribbean pre-history
Taíno wood and cotton sculpture took many forms, from the characteristic duho (ceremonial chair, left) carved in dense woods (Quai Branly duho), to elaborate cotton reliquaries (right) (Turin cotton cemí).
We know from the archaeological and ethnographic record that wood sculptures played a key role in Taíno cacicazgos (chiefdoms), which developed in intensity around AD 1000-1500 in the Greater Antilles. By the time of Christopher Columbus’ arrival to the islands in 1492, large sculpture was central to Taíno social and religious practices. It took on a wide variety of forms, including free-standing cemís, canopied stands which held hallucinogenic snuffs during ceremonies and duhos (ceremonial seats) reserved for the use of caciques (chiefs) and other elites during important occasions. Reliquaries were made in both cotton and wood. The Spanish described all these sculptures in their accounts, and sent examples back to Europe, while others were subsequently recovered from caves and waterlogged sites.
Many surviving examples are now recognised as among the most significant and dramatic achievements of the ancient Americas. Yet, to date, little is understood about Taíno wooden and cotton sculpture: their stylistic range, regional variation and changes over time.