At the time of Columbus' arrival in 1492, there were five Taíno chiefdoms and territories on Hispaniola (Dominican Republic), each led by a principal Cacique (chieftain), to whom tribute was paid. Ayiti ("land of high mountains") was the indigenous Taíno name for the island of Hispaniola, which (on the Western side) has retained its name as Haïti in French.
Cuba, the largest island of the Antilles, was originally divided into 29 chiefdoms. Most of the native settlements later became the site of Spanish colonial cities retaining the original Taíno names, including Havana, Batabanó, Camagüey, Baracoa, and Bayamo. The name Cuba comes from the Taíno language, although the exact meaning of the name is unclear. It can be translated as "where fertile land is abundant" (cubao), or a "great place" (coabana).
Puerto Rico was also divided into chiefdoms. As the hereditary head chief of Taíno nation, the cacique received significant tribute. At the time of the Spanish conquest, the largest Taíno population centers may have had more than 3,000 people each.
The Taíno were historically enemies of the neighboring Carib nations, a different group which also had its origins in South America and lived mainly in the Lesser Antilles. The relationship between the rival groups has been the subject of many studies. For much of the 15th century, the Taíno tribe was being driven to the northeast in the Caribbean because of raids by the Carib. Women were taken as captives, resulting in many Carib women speaking Taíno.
The Spaniards who arrived in the Bahamas, Cuba, and Hispaniola (Dominican Republic) in 1492, and later in Puerto Rico, did not bring women on their first expeditions. Since the arrival of the conquistadores, Taíno women were kidnapped and some were enslaved and traded amongst the Spaniards. The rape of Taíno women in Hispaniola (Dominican Republic) by the Spanish was common, resulting in mestizo children. Scholars suggest there was also substantial mestizaje (racial and cultural mixing) in Cuba, and several Indian pueblos survived into the 19th century.
The Taíno became nearly extinct as a culture following settlement by Spanish colonists, primarily due to infectious diseases for which they had no immunity. The first recorded smallpox outbreak in Hispaniola was in either December 1518 or January 1519. This smallpox epidemic killed almost 90% of the Native Americans who had not already perished. Warfare and harsh enslavement by the colonists also caused many deaths. By 1548, the Taíno population had declined to fewer than 500. Starting in about 1840, there have been attempts to create a quasi-indigenous Taíno identity in rural areas of Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. This trend accelerated among the Puerto Rican community in the mainland United States in the 1960s. At the 2010 U.S. census, 1,098 people in Puerto Rico identified themselves as "Puerto Rican Indian," 1,410 identified as "Spanish American Indian," and 9,399 identified as "Taíno." In total, 35,856 Puerto Ricans considered themselves Native American.