Taino Duho / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar

Taino ritual seat known as a "duho". Source: Britishmuseum.org
Taino ritual seat known as a “duho”. Source: Britishmuseum.org

14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 24 February 2016 — A magnificent book, The History of the World in 100 Objects, published by the British Museum and BBC Radio, includes an article dedicated to the tuho, the Taino ritual seat. It appears in Part XIII under the caption Status Symbols. The Taino were the pre-Columbian indigenous people of Cuba and other Caribbean islands.

The text makes particular reference to an object originating in the Dominican Republic carved from a single piece of dark wood, extremely polished and shiny, representing a supernatural being, half human, half animal. It has four legs and functionally is a small chair. The card describes it this way:

“In the front there is a carved creature with a grimace on his face and bulging eyes that seem almost human, with a enormous mouth, big ears and two feet planted on the ground which in turn are the front legs of the chair. From there a wide piece of wood curves up and back, similar in form to that of a wide beavertail, supported from behind on another two legs. This creature is unlike anything that exists on Earth, but one thing is for sure, it is a male, as under this strange hybrid being between its hind legs appear carved male genitals.”

Anthropologists discuss whether there was a belief that these objects were possessed by a certain spirit that had to be rendered respect and admiration. But it is widely documented that cemis, spiritual guides of the aboriginal peoples of the Caribbean, used a duho to perform the cohoba ritual. With the help of inhaled dust and great powers of concentration, they entered the world of communication with the gods. Some scholars have interpreted the duho as, rather than a chair, a horse for travel to other dimensions.

Another important function of these “low benches,” as Don Bartolome de las Casas calls them in his chronicles of the New World, was as a seat for living leaders who were meditating. Every important visitor was accommodated on one of these chairs, an honor that, it hasbeen said, was enjoyed by Christopher Columbus himself.

In the Montane Musueum Collection at the University of Havana there is a duho carved in guayacan wood which was found in the peat on the banks of the Santa Ana River in the town of Santa Fe, west of the capital. This example, which it is prohibited to photograph, has no genitals.

As the Tainos were preliterate, there is no written testimony that tells us whether any cemis mounted on this or another duho foreshadowed the future of the island after the arrival of the European conquerors.

Perhaps now is a good time for someone with the necessary inspiration to sit in or take a ride on this museum piece.