The Taíno were an ethnic group of Arawak
people, who were the indigenous people of the
Caribbean and Florida.
At the time of European contact in the late 15th
century, the Taíno were the principal inhabitants
of most of Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola (Dominican
Republic and Haiti), and Puerto Rico. They spoke
a separate language, the Taíno language.
Among the Taíno people of the Caribbean, a zemi
was a deity or an ancestral spirit; additionally the
term comprises also the sculpture which houses
Taíno religion, as recorded by the late 15th and
16th century Spaniards, centered on a supreme
creator god and a fertility goddess. The creator
god was known as Yúcahu Maórocoti,
administering the growth of the staple food, the
cassava. The goddess was Attabeira, who
regulated and dominated over water, rivers, and
seas. Lesser deities which ruled over other
natural forces were also zemis.
Spirits of ancestors were also considered zemis
and were highly honored, particularly those of
caciques or chiefs. Bones or skulls were often
incorporated into sculptures of zemis.
Zemis would also be consulted for advice and
healing. During these consultation ceremonies,
images of the zemi could be painted or tattooed
on the body of priests.
Zemis were generally sculpted from a wide
variety of materials including bone, clay, wood,
shell, sandstone and stone. They have been
found in Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti,
Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and other Caribbean
islands. Some are quite large, up to 1m in height.
Some could be effigies of birds, snakes, alligators
and other animals, but mostly are human effigies.
It is believed that the Taíno people hid their
ceremonial objects in caves, away from the
Spanish, or destroyed them as to avoid having
them fall into Spanish hands.