The “Bird-man” symbol, which appears on all official business of the ACH, has an interesting history. It was adopted as the organization’s emblem during the 1976 meeting in Martinique. Then President Woodville Marshall first encountered “Bird-man” during a visit to the British Museum, where it was displayed as a Taino artifact. The ACH undertook to learn more about the object, and asked Professor Jerome Handler, an ACH member, to conduct the research. Handler presented his results at the 1977 meeting:
“Carved from a solid piece of heavy and hard dark wood, perhaps mahogany, and having a high polish, the “Bird Man” stands upright and is close to 35 inches high. It has the head of a long‑billed bird and the body of a human male, including genitalia (see illustrations). The lower part of the bill rests on the upper part of the chest and contains shell inlay that apparently represents teeth. The head has what appears to be a flat headdress, with an ornament represented by incised lines. Bands or bracelets are carved around the knee and upper arms, and these probably represent the cotton bandages that the Tainos characteristically wore on their arms and legs. The hands and arms of the figure are outstretched from the body, forming the rough shape of a cross, and the legs taper towards the bottom and are joined together.”
It appears that the British Museum acquired the original between 1799 and 1803. As Professor Handler further reported:
“In 1803, the following notice appeared in Archaeologia (vol. 14, p. 269), the journal of the Society of Antiquaries of London: April 11, 1799. Isaac Alves Rebello, Esq. F.A.S. exhibited to the Society Three Figures, supposed to be of Indian Deities, in wood, found in June 1792, in a natural cave near the summit of a mountain, called Spots, in Carpenter’s Mountain, in the parish of Vere, in the island of Jamaica, by a surveyor in measuring the land. They were discovered placed with their faces (one of which is that of a bird) towards the east.”
The “Bird-man” is symbolic of Taino art and of how Amerindian peoples represented the supernatural world in the forms that were familiar to them. Thus birds, whistling frogs, iguanas and other animals common in the Greater and Lesser Antilles were used to represent the spirit world. The idols they made were known as “zemis.” Professor Handler concluded:
“Zemi idols were made from a variety of materials, including pottery, shell, bone, cotton, and wood. According to the noted Caribbean archaeologist Irving Rouse, zemis were “highly regarded because of the powers they were thought to give to their owners” as well as the powers they held over the universe and aspects of it. However, the nature of their powers varied. Some zemis controlled the food supply and agricultural practices; particular ones may have been responsible for the fertility of specific plants such as cassava. Others controlled the rain and other aspects of the weather; still others brought luck in hunting and fishing, controlled human fertility, facilitated childbirth, and were able to cure the sick.
Zemis were consulted in order to foretell the future and for aid in war or to achieve peace. The Taino attempted to absorb and use the powers of the zemis by communicating with them through ritual, prayer, and food offerings. Each zemi had an associated story (what anthropologists would call a “myth,” that is, a sacred tale), which related its origin and accounted for its personality and powers; each had its own name, and some had several names. The names and histories of some of the more important zemis are known primarily through the writings of Father Ramon Pane, who accompanied Columbus on his second voyage.”
The “Bird man” artifact housed in the British museum is a unique and authentic representation of one aspect of Taino culture, more so since there are relatively few remaining wooden artifacts of Taino origin. While its full cultural significance is not yet known, the ACH selected this emblem to express its commitment to the region and to the process of ongoing historical enquiry.