Artwork from an ancient Caribbean civilization is giving fresh insight into the world of the Taino people, who once inhabited Puerto Rico’s Mona island.
During the 14th century, long before Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the Americas, the island was already inhabited by the Tainos. Ancient artwork in 70 caves across Mona island is now providing researchers with a new glimpse into their culture.
Etchings and paintings of animals and faces, as well as a number of abstract patterns, line the inner walls of Mona’s caverns. The discovery was made by a research team of archaeologists from Cambridge, the British Museum, and the Center for Advanced Studies of Puerto Rico.
“Most of the precolonial pictographs are in very narrow spaces deep in the caves. Some are very hard to access; you have to crawl to get to them, they are very extensive and humidity is very high, but it is extremely rewarding,” said Victor Serrano, a member of the the student research team at the University of Leicester, in a statement.
Commissioned by National Geographic, the scientists published their findings from the years 2013 to 2016 in the Journal of Archaeological Science. According to their study, carbon dating shows the oldest artwork to be around 800 years old.
“For the millions of indigenous peoples living in the Caribbean before European arrival, caves represented portals into a spiritual realm, and therefore these new discoveries of the artists at work within them captures the essence of their belief systems and the building blocks of their cultural identity,” the study notes.
Some of the more primitive pieces seem to have been created by simple scratches on the surface from human nails, revealing stripes of lighter calcinogenic stone beneath. For others, the indigenous people used charcoal or bat excrement to create their masterpieces, painting in hues of red, yellow and brown.
The researchers say the discovery of artwork across the island, which now serves as a nature reserve, reinforces the important role caves played in Taino culture. It proves the spaces were the center of their communities, serving not only as the origins for traditional mythologies, but also as sacred spaces and burial sites.