SCIENCE

Cave Drawings Suggest Early Harmonious Contact Between Islanders And Europeans: Archaeologists

Researchers say the markings made by Europeans in the caves found on Isla Mona were inscribed as early as the 16th century.
Exactly how old the indigenous drawings are is not yet clear though people have been on the island for 3,000-4,000 years.
Exactly how old the indigenous drawings are is not yet clear though people have been on the island for 3,000-4,000 years.

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.”

More than a dozen crosses, in different styles, were found inside of one cave.
More than a dozen crosses, in different styles, were found inside of one cave.

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.

Researchers noted that Europeans did not destroy the indigenous people's drawings but instead appear to have added to them in
Researchers noted that Europeans did not destroy the indigenous people's drawings but instead appear to have added to them in respectful ways.

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.

One of several inscriptions found in the cave is seen here.
One of several inscriptions found in the cave is seen here.

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.

Some of the caves are much harder to access than others. The view from one overlooking the water is seen.
Some of the caves are much harder to access than others. The view from one overlooking the water is seen.

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. 

Archaeologists spent two years researching and documenting the ancient markings which are believed to be spread throughout th
Archaeologists spent two years researching and documenting the ancient markings which are believed to be spread throughout the island's hundreds of caves.

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.”

One name found on the walls is of Francisco Alegre who emigrated to Puerto Rico from Spain in the 1530s.
One name found on the walls is of Francisco Alegre who emigrated to Puerto Rico from Spain in the 1530s.

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.

Isla Mona, or Mona Island, is located between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. It's not accessible to the public witho
Isla Mona, or Mona Island, is located between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. It's not accessible to the public without a permit.

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.

HuffPost

BEFORE YOU GO

PHOTO GALLERY
New Zealand's Glow Worm Caves
CONVERSATIONS