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Department of Anthropology

Mexican Masks in storage




More than thirty stone celts of varying sizes are in the collection.





The collection includes more than a dozen anthropomorphic figures. These stone pendants have holes drilled through the back corners or straight through their center, usually at the shoulder level of the figure.





The term “zemi” describes both a spiritual being and the likeness of a spiritual being. Zemis like these had a platform or bowl on top of the head that was used to hold snuff during Taíno religious rituals. The snuff was taken to induce hallucinations – the channels through which zemis communicated with the living.



The Taíno were part of a complex mosaic of native cultures inhabiting the islands of the Caribbean. The Taíno were the first indigenous people of the western hemisphere to meet Spanish explorers. When Christopher Columbus landed on Hispaniola in 1492, the native inhabitants of the island identified themselves as Taínos – a term that meant “good,” “prudent,” or “noble.” Collected in the Dominican Republic, the artifacts in the newly-accessioned M.H. Sanborn and Keriakou Family Collection provide information about the same cultural group that first encountered Columbus--the Taíno.

The Taínos were bordered by other groups in the Lesser Antilles, sometimes called the Island-Caribs, although they probably did not constitute a unified ethnic group. More recent studies of the indigenous people encountered by Columbus have revealed a complex cultural mosaic (Wilson 1993). The Taíno, however, did have substantial contact with the people of the Lesser Antilles. These people were in contact with both the Greater Antilles and South American Mainland, and were heavily involved in trade and raiding both to the North and South.

The Taíno organized themselves socially and politically into regional, district, and village chiefdoms (Rouse 1992). The Taíno believed that a chief, or “cacique,” the highest ranking member of the society, provided a conduit for communication between the physical and spiritual world (Wilson 1990). Like the societies of many mainland Mesoamerican groups (Rouse 1992), Taíno society consisted of two fundamental social classes – the nobility and the common people. Commoners, also called “naborias,” hunted, fished, and grew crops, and they frequently used stone mortars to pound manioc, the staple food, into cakes. The Sanborn and Keriakou Collection includes many of these stone mortars. The nobles, or “nitaínos,” worked as craftsmen, creating both ceremonial art and everyday utilitarian objects (Alegría 1998). The Taíno played a ballgame similar to those played by groups in mainland Mesoamerica. Ballcourts have been found in Puerto Rico and on the island of Hispaniola (Wilson 1990).

The M. H. Sanborn and Keriakou Family Collection, recently donated and accessioned into the Department of Anthropology collections, is comprised primarily of stone and ceramic objects, but also of objects made from shell and bone, such as beads and chopping and digging tools. The stone artifacts include drilled beads, adzes, mortars, pestles, and zemi figurines. The ceramic objects include both complete vessels and broken adornos and other decorative elements.

M.H. Sanborn

Beginning around 1925, MacCleary Hobbes Sanborn Sr. worked as the assistant chemist of the Central La Romana Sugar Factory in the Dominican Republic. During the 1920’s, he developed an interest in archaeology and began scouring the country for native artifacts. Sanborn collected and documented objects from a wide range of sites, predominantly along the coastal areas in the northern and eastern regions of the Dominican Republic. He also carefully documented the locations of burial caves and pictographs that he discovered during his travels. Mr. Sanborn personally donated artifacts in 1911 and expressed his wishes to donate a large part of his collections to the Smithsonian Institution before his death. His wife, Rosa Pabón Sanborn, began donating these artifacts to the Smithsonian in 1963, and Sanborn’s granddaughter, Mrs. Linda Keriakou, donated the main collection of 263 objects in 2003. Mr. Sanborn also donated a collection of native artifacts from Puerto Rico, including a substantial assortment of native pottery vessels.

Other Taino Collections

Acquisition of the Sanborn collection continues an interest in Taino archaeology at the Smithsonian Institution that dates back to the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Other Taino holdings in the Department of Anthropology include artifacts collected in Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic) by George Latimer prior to the 1870s and in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic by Jesse Walter Fewkes (1903-4) and by Herbert W. Kreiger (late 1920s).

Stephanie Cauble
Sarah Kurnick
J. Daniel Rogers


Learn More about Taíno Art and Culture

Alegría, Ricardo, José Juan Arrom, and Dicey Taylor, eds.
1998. Taíno: Precolumbian Art & Culture from the Caribbean. New York: El Museo del Barrio.

Fewkes, Jesse W.
1907. The Aborigines of Porto Rico and Neighboring Islands. Twenty-Fifth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, pp. 7-214.

Keegan, William F.
1992. The People Who Discovered Columbus: The Prehistory of the Bahamas. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Kreiger, Herbert W.
1931. Aboriginal Indian Pottery of the Dominican Republic. US National Museum Annual Bulletin, pp. 1-65.

Mason, Otis
1876. The Latimer Collection of Antiquities from Puerto Rico in the National Museum at Washington, D.C. Smithsonian Annual Report, pp. 372-393.

Rouse, Irving
1992. The Taínos: Rise and Decline of the People Who Greeted Columbus. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Wilson, Samuel M.
1990. Hispaniola: Caribbean Chiefdoms in the Age of Columbus. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press.

1993. The Cultural Mosaic of the Indigenous Caribbean. Proceedings of the British Academy 81:37-66

1997. The Indigenous People of the Caribbean. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.


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