Archaeologists exploring a remote Caribbean island near Puerto Rico have returned with photos capturing never-before-seen cave drawings ― ones said to reveal a previously untold relationship between the indigenous people and European explorers.
In a series of photos, published this week in the journal Antiquity, limestone walls of caves on the Isla Mona, also known as Mona Island, are seen covered with inscriptions ranging from indigenous stick figures to Christian symbols.
“There is no other cave like this in the Caribbean that has been discovered until now,” Dr. Alice Samson of the University of Leicester, who co-authored the report with a team of researchers, told The Huffington Post of their exploration. “These are definitely the earliest inscriptions commenting on indigenous religion.”
The researchers estimate that many of the markings are from hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago. And the researchers point out that the newer markings, dated the 16th century, appear to have been placed in a way that wouldn’t ruin what was already there.
“The Europeans were not destroying the inscriptions,” Dr. Jago Cooper, curator of the Americas at the British Museum who led the research team with Samson, told HuffPost.
Instead, Cooper described the colonists as having placed their markings around those of the indigenous people “in a respectful kind of way — opposite of them or above them.”
In one such area of the cave, for example, a Christian cross is seen placed directly across from an indigenous artist’s human figure.
Europeans also preserved another area of the cave featuring indigenous finger engravings, called finger-fluting. Samson suggested that a Christian phrase written in Latin and carved near the engravings was placed there to compliment or add to the previous artists’ work.
The phrases detailed in their report included “dios te perdone,” which translates to “God forgive you,” and “Plura fecit deus,” which translates to “God made many things.”
Samson noted that the research team spent hours debating the exact meaning and intentions of the inscriptions.
“You could interpret it from so many different ways,” she said.
Ultimately, Cooper believes that the Europeans’ Christian messages honor the islanders and indicate that they accepted them as their equals.
“It’s saying that the indigenous people are God’s people,” he said.
The lack of desecration by the Europeans is particularly noteworthy, the researchers point out, as religious intolerance and cultural destruction was common.
Researchers believe the explorers were likely from Spain, and arrived on the island during the Spanish Inquisition, a period during which many indigenous peoples were forced to convert to Catholicism.
Samson believes the explorers weren’t missionaries, but traders, merchants and sailors.
“They’re just regular people,” she said. “Rather than their primary motivation being a religious motive, which happened later … I think it’s a different demographic coming to the Caribbean and I think that’s why they’re a little more open.”
Researchers believe that when the Europeans arrived on the island, indigenous people led them to the cave. The researchers think the cave was considered a religious place, in part because of its fresh water source.
There, they added to the cave’s many drawings and some people even inscribed their names.
One such name found was that of Captain Francisco Alegre, who emigrated to the island from Spain in the 1530s. He later settled in nearby San Juan and oversaw the royal estates, which included Isla Mona, according to the researchers’ report.
The researchers estimate the island has around 200 caves, many of which have never been explored in the modern age.
Today, Isla Mona remains inaccessible to most people, as visitors require a permit and it takes three to four hours to reach it by boat.
For the drawings’ preservation, that’s a good thing.