Ramón Pané, chaplain to Christopher Columbus on his second voyage, arrived in Hispaniola in 1493. Instructed by Columbus to investigate the "antiquities" of the Taíno, who inhabited the Caribbean islands, Pané wrote one of the earliest accounts of their religious practices, describing objects and rituals that bound the human world to that of ancestors and otherworldly forces. His work is striking for its choice of indigenous vocabulary when, for many Spaniards, such objects and rituals were dismissed as "idols", "idolatry" and "deviltry." Because the Taíno were decimated by epidemic disease and the consequences of forced labor, much of what is known about their pre-Hispanic beliefs and practices comes through surviving objects, archeology, and historical accounts like this one.
In this account of Taíno religion, Ramón Pané centers on zemis--objects inhabited by supernatural powers. Some zemis held bones of revered ancestors, yet others were created of specially endowed materials. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Spaniards sent some zemis back to Europe as "curiosities"and "specimens" and the zemi included in the Vistas gallery is one such work, but they destroyed others (seeing in them deviltry). Even so, because zemis could be present in natural objects, and took a multitude of forms--wood, stone, even elaborate beaded works--Spaniards had a difficult time identifying and then eradicating all of them. In the passage here, Pané makes it clear that the sculpting of a zemi was "enlivened" by prayer and ritual drinking. Thus it was not merely the object or material form of a zemi that was powerful, but the intersection of object, force, and ritual gesture. See the front view and the back view of a zemi in the Vistas Gallery.