British Museum blog

New discoveries of cave art in the Caribbean

New cave art discoveries in the pre-Columbian CaribbeanJago Cooper, curator, British Museum

At the end of May, I returned to the British Museum from an exploratory research visit to an uninhabited national park on the island of Mona in Puerto Rico. My colleague Dr Alice Samson, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, and I had found more than we planned or expected when we flew to the Caribbean two weeks earlier.

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There are hundreds of caves on Isla de Mona many with entrances like this one on cliff faces overlooking the coastline below.

Alerted to the potential presence of archaeological sites dating to the pre-Columbian period (prior to AD 1492 when Christopher Columbus first arrived in the Americas) by National park manager Tony Nieves, we went to take a look. We discovered extensive pre-Columbian mining and artistic practices deep inside caves, with an astonishing abundance and diversity of new rock art including pictographs and finger-incised designs representing abstract, human and animal images.

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The pre-Columbian iconography found in many of these cave systems extends through galleried chambers covering large portions of the walls and ceilings.

Designs, which cover the walls and ceilings of hundreds of metres of the darkest caverns and tunnels across the island were executed by the application of pigments to cave walls, and by previously undocumented techniques such as incising and dragging fingers through the very soft, plaster-like deposit on the cave walls. This particular technique left white trails of surprising freshness, complexity and elaborateness.

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Many of the representations are clearly identifiable. This figure with the swirling arms represents Guabancex, the pre-Columbian deity associated with the destructive force of the hurricane.

Strikingly the technique also appears to have been a way of harvesting the soft deposit on the cave walls as is attested by the vigorous finger scratching across large expanses of cave surfaces in all of the sites we visited. These extractive activities, or evidence for ancient mining, rather than being indiscriminate movements, were systematic and deliberate actions leaving complex designs.

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This figure is identical to the famous Puerto Rican Sol de Jayuya rock art image found in central Puerto Rico.

Alongside Dr Samson I’m working in collaboration with the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources and the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture to develop a project to study the pre-Columbian archaeology of the island and protect this unique Caribbean heritage. Many of the caves we explored have not been visited since guano (essentially bat excrement, a very effective fertilizer) miners working there downed tools 120 years ago, leaving the ruins of railway tracks, wagons and sometimes their initials on the cave walls.

The caves are incredibly well preserved sites, but are at very high risk of future destruction due to the soft texture of the walls and confined spaces for visitors to gain access. A glimpse of this archaeology is shown in our project gallery page.

The evidence we found not only dramatically expands our repertoire of pre-Columbian iconography, but has the potential to change understandings of past cave use in this area at this time, as well as traditional definitions of rock art.

The fieldwork discussed in this blog was consequently reported in detail at the International Association of Caribbean Archaeology in San Juan, Puerto Rico on 17 July 2013 and more information can now be found on the Antiquity Journal website. Samson, A., Cooper, J., Nieves, M. A., Rodriguez Ramos, R., Kambesis, P. N. and Lace, M. J. 2013 (Dec). Antiquity. vol 87. Issue 338 (http://antiquity.ac.uk/projgall/samson338/).”

Filed under: Archaeology, Research, , , ,

25 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. ritaroberts says:

    Fascinating project would love to be there.

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  2. Capt. Richard Barone says:

    I was shipwrecked their with a friend over 20 years ago. We explored these caves and I took many pictures but lost them in hurricanes. Incredible treasures in the middle of the sea that beckon to be remembered yet left unspoiled. Mona and other islands like Vieques and Culebra contain secrets to the past that may reveal our common roots in the stars and alien civilizations that possibly nurture us.

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  3. stvl33 says:

    Another reason to return to Puerto Rico!

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  4. Walter A. Cardona Bonet says:

    Old news in the New World, discovery for the Old…. The literature on this subject is abundant since the early 1970s… we need to read before claiming irrelevant revelations. In fact, one of those depicted is of dubious origin, believed to be created by a resident of the island, now residing at Cabo Rojo. Archaeologist Ovidio Davila Davila has written extensively on the subject, even has a book on the Island. I, and others have submitted reports on other sites of the island of Mona. Presently Angel Nieves Rivera and I are preparing a book on these drawings which should be out at the start of 2014.
    Its nice to report things, but let’s do research before divulging misleading information and accreditations of discovery.

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  5. Jalil Sued Badillo says:

    Many of these pictogaphs were recorded and publish in Ovidio Davilas PhD Dissertation published by Editorial Puerto in 2003.

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  6. Serge says:

    Please provide credit where due.
    All of this was formally documented over 10 years ago by Ovidio Davila (see:
    http://books.google.ca/books/about/The_Archaeology_of_Mona_Island.html?id=ZV9WOAAACAAJ&redir_esc=y).

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  7. Lorena says:

    Went last week and walked different caves. They are Amaizing.

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  8. Ovidio Davila says:

    Evidently you are not aware that I, Ovidio Davila, Ph.D., who worked for over 34 years with both the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources and the Institute of Puerto Rico Culture (being the Director of the Archaeology and Ethnohistory Program) carried out an intensive archaeological survey and research of the Mona Island from 1981 to 1991, and that in 2003 the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture published my 483 page book “Arqueologia de la Isla de la Mona”. All your “discoveries”, some of which are fake inscriptions made by visitors, are mentioned or reported in my book.

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  9. Javier Oliveras says:

    These caves are well known by locals, biologists, archaeologists, historians, guides, boy scouts, and many other people from Puerto Rico. The island is considered the Galápagos Island of the Caribbean.

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  10. Cynthia Rivera Quiñones, Ph. D. says:

    Dr.Ovidio Dávila Dávila, author of “Arqueología de la Isla de Mona.”, among many other Puertorrican archeologists, would beg to differ on this “discovery”. Get your facts straight. http://www.worldcat.org/title/arqueologia-de-la-isla-de-mona/oclc/657029594

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  11. Thatsmyname says:

    You’re late. All of that had been previously discovered and catalogued years and years ago. Read “Arqueología de la Isla de Mona” by archaelogist Dr.Ovidio Dávila Dávila.

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  12. Carlo says:

    this is not true. the art was descovered a long time ago by puertorican archaeologists. many books have been published about Isla de Mona. you need to be more respectful and responsible.

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  13. Hello everyone,

    Many thanks for all your responses to the blog. Yes we are very aware and have extensively delved into Ovidio Dávila’s publications who has indeed conducted an excellent and systematic survey of the island’s archaeology. We went to the island at the invitation of the Departamento de Recursos Naturales to work in collaboration with people who have been involved in these projects over many years. The blog is just a very quick highlight of some of this work looking at cave use particularly the line incised iconography from a number of cave systems that have not been documented. This is building on some recent work by a team from West Kentucky University and DRNA who have been mapping some of the cave systems on the island.

    A brief blog isn’t the place to go into all the details but fortunately we will be presenting this work at the International Association for Caribbean Archaeology next week and there we will be able to provide the details of all the cave locations (both published and unpublished) which I don’t want to put on an open access blog, and hopefully there will be an opportunity to meet many of you in person to discuss this further.

    Below is an abstract and link to the paper that will be given at IACA in San Juan next week that should hopefully answer many of these questions and queries. http://www.iacacongress2013pr.com/en/programa.htm

    Name: Dr Alice V. M. Samson (1), Dr Jago E. Cooper (2), Antonio Nieves (3)
    Affiliation: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge (1), Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, British Museum, London (2), Oficial de Manejo, Isla de Mona, Departamento de Recursos Naturales y Ambientales de Puerto Rico (3).

    Title: New discoveries of pre-Columbian cave use, Isla de Mona, Puerto Rico

    Abstract: This presentation reports on recent discoveries of pre-Columbian cave use on Mona island, Puerto Rico, including mining activities and intensive ritual and artistic practices deep inside caves.

    Previously unreported designs cover the walls and ceilings of hundreds of metres of the darkest caverns and tunnels in more than half a dozen caves across the island. Designs were executed by the application of pigments to cave walls, and by incising and dragging fingers through the very soft wet plaster-like deposit on the cave walls leaving white trails of surprising freshness, complexity and elaborateness. Strikingly these finger incisions and the large surfaces witnessing vigorous finger scratching appear to have been related to harvesting the soft calcite deposit on the cave walls in all caves visited. These extractive activities, or evidence for ancient mining, rather than being indiscriminate movements, were systematic and deliberate actions leaving astounding designs imprinted in the walls of the cave. The evidence for pre-Columbian activities builds on the work of Ovidio Dávila, not only dramatically expanding our repertoire of pre-Columbian iconography, but integrating cave use into other indigenous fields of action, with the potential to transform understandings of past cave use, as well as traditional definitions of rock art.

    These caves are incredibly well preserved sites, at high risk of future destruction due to the soft texture of the walls and confined spaces for visitors to gain access. Collaborative research to analyse and date the archaeology of the caves and document and protect this unique Caribbean heritage is underway.

    Also, anyone who wants to have a copy of a full report and future publications please email my personal account jcooper@britishmuseum.org

    I will also endeavour to reply to all of you personally as soon as I can,

    Un saludo cordial,
    Jago

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  14. Interesting article. Like the pictures. Thanks.

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  15. T. Haddock Haddock says:

    In his publications about Mona Island archaeology, Dr. Ovidio Dávila Dávila discusses the drawing technique used by the aborigines of this island, of finger-incised designs. He specifically documented the technique of dragging fingers through the dark-soft-humid walls of the caves, uncovering the white mineral residues of calcium under the wall surface, thus creating bright color line drawings on these walls. However, he did not connect this extractive drawing technique with the act of harvesting mineral products or with evidence of ancient mining, like you suggested in the British Museum Blog. Hopefully, your next presentation during the International Congress of Caribbean Archaeology will provide the necessary details of your “new discoveries” in Mona Island.

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  16. Ivan Colon says:

    These are not new discoveries. It is common knowledge for the residents of Puerto Rico of the existence of these pictographs. Please give credit to hard working scientists that have previously described these findings. It is not fair to claim a discovery when it is not.

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  17. Jose A. Acevedo says:

    Hi, nice article, but is not your discover of pre- Colombian art. Our archeologist , for more than 5 decades are studing those caves, as a matter of facts I have my own photos because in 1990 I travel to the Mona Island and I investigate all caves ,El Nuevo Dia newspaper have my photos too.Now you can add bibliography to yor article, thanks.

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  18. I think Mr. Cooper should make a correction of his writing and take out or change the phrase ‘discovered’ because in truth he has not found anything. The cave has been extensively studied for decades. If I he finds a single fossil, then it would have made ​​history.

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  19. Edwin says:

    Amazing! Have you also discovered that we (Puerto Rico) has made that discovery before, during the 70’s and that it is very well documented? A few british playing at conquerors to claim a prize! 3, 2, 1… Backfire…

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  20. This is incredable.

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  21. Dr. Deborah Arus says:

    By NO means this has been a new discovery!! This hieroglyphics were discovered many years ago by Puertorrican anthropologists and registered at the Institute of Puertorrican Culture.

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