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Charcoal drawn face from a cave in Mona, Puerto Rico

Cave Art in the Dark: Thousands of Indigenous Pre-Columbian Paintings Brought to Light

A team of British and Puerto Rican archaeologists claim to have uncovered the long-lost art of a forgotten civilization on a tiny and remote uninhabited island in the Caribbean. Experts suggest that the specific indigenous civilization may have contributed more to modern culture than we originally thought.

Thousands of Previously Unknown Taino Drawings and Paintings Discovered

Almost 500 years after it was severely damaged by the Spanish conquistadors, a team of British and Puerto Rican archaeologists have rediscovered what is considered to be the largest concentration of Taino art on earth, as The Independent reports . Located on a very small and distant uninhabited island called Mona, midway between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, thousands of previously unknown Taino drawings and paintings have been revealed in thirty caves on the island. According to the Independent , it is estimated that over a hundred more caves have yet to be explored, a fact that makes archaeologists believe that many more artworks most likely remain to be found.

Additive and extractive designs from the dark zones of three caves on Mona. A) charcoal drawn motifs; B) finger-fluted motifs and area of systematic extraction (right hand side); C) charcoal drawn face; D) finger-fluted face with limbs and appendages.

Additive and extractive designs from the dark zones of three caves on Mona. A) charcoal drawn motifs; B) finger-fluted motifs and area of systematic extraction (right hand side); C) charcoal drawn face; D) finger-fluted face with limbs and appendages. (Journal of Archaeological Science CC BY 4.0 )

The scientific analysis of the newly found art so far shows that most of the drawings and paintings date from the 14th and 15th centuries. As archaeologists suggest, most of them portray a perplexing diversification of often hybrid animal and human faces, blended and twined together with avowedly conceptual geometric and curvilinear patterns.

The Taino Civilization

Taino Indians, a subgroup of the Arawakan Indians, inhabited the Greater Antilles in the Caribbean Sea at the time when Christopher Columbus arrived at the New World. It is believed that this was the very first major New World culture that Columbus came in contact with. The Arawakan achievements included construction of ceremonial ball parks whose boundaries were marked by upright stone dolmens, development of a universal language, and creation of a complicated religious cosmology.

Finger fluted face with limbs and appendages. These images would have been painted in limited light or complete darkness.

Finger fluted face with limbs and appendages. These images would have been painted in limited light or complete darkness. ( Journal of Archaeological Science CC BY 4.0 )

The Taino peoples lived in theocratic kingdoms and had hierarchically arranged chiefs or caciques. They were divided in three social classes: the naborias (work class), the nitaínos or sub-chiefs and noblemen (which includes the bohiques or priests and medicine men) and the caciques or chiefs, of which each village or yucayeque had one. Both sexes painted themselves on special occasions, they wore earrings, nose rings, and necklaces, which were sometimes made of gold.

Skilled at agriculture and hunting, Tainos were also good sailors, fishermen, canoe makers, cooks and navigators. As The Independent suggests , the European explorers first learnt about rubber, tobacco, sweet potatoes, sweet corn and various fruits from the Tainos, while a number of modern English words such as canoe, hammock, tobacco, hurricane and barbecue among others, derive from the Taino language.

Research Reveals the Techniques of Taino Artists

The research has also “betrayed” the techniques Taino artists used to create the beautiful artwork. “The paintings were made with bat excrement which had over many decades absorbed naturally-occurring yellow, brown and red minerals from the cave floors. Sometimes plant resin was added to help the bat excrement (guano) paint adhere to the walls of the caves. Other images were created merely through the use of charcoal crayons,” academics write in the paper titled ‘ Artists before Columbus: A multi-method characterization of the materials and practices of Caribbean cave art .’

Many of the paintings were made with fingers and paint.

Many of the paintings were made with fingers and paint. ( Journal of Archaeological Science CC BY 4.0 )

The researchers also noticed that the vast majority of the paintings were made by the artists dragging their fingers across the soft surface of the cave walls. “Scientific analyses from the team have provided the first dates for rock art in the Caribbean – illustrating that these images are pre-Columbian made by artists exploring and experimenting deep underground,” Dr. Alice Samson of the University of Leicester and co-director of the archaeological project on Mona said as The Independent reports . By doing so, the artists detached the darker-colored thick surface layer of naturally corroded calcite, thereby exposing the caves lighter-colored solid rock. The technique may sound primitive to most Western artists, but it was undeniably effective, given as these finger drawings have survived for more than five centuries.

Sampling A) charcoal from cave paints; B) indigenous paint samples (note the finger marks in this paint “palette”, sample 130); C) surface sediments, red ochre from the Vereda del Centro, sample location 998; D) calcite accretions on top of cave art.

Sampling A) charcoal from cave paints; B) indigenous paint samples (note the finger marks in this paint “palette”, sample 130); C) surface sediments, red ochre from the Vereda del Centro, sample location 998; D) calcite accretions on top of cave art. ( Journal of Archaeological Science CC BY 4.0 )

The Cultural Significance of Mona’s Cave Art

Caves were very important to local culture, as they were thought to be the places from where the first humans came, according to Taino folklore. Taino peoples also believed that caves were the places where the sun and the moon were originally born. Furthermore, caves were often used as human burials and were seen as locations where ancestral spirits and deities could be communed with. Researchers suggest that Mona’s cave art is not just the largest concentration of Taino art in the world, but it could also reveal much about the role of this remote island in pre-Columbian time, “For the millions of indigenous people 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,” British Museum archaeologist, Dr. Jago Cooper said as The Independent reports .

Finger-fluted motifs and area of systematic extraction (right hand side)

Finger-fluted motifs and area of systematic extraction (right hand side) ( Journal of Archaeological Science CC BY 4.0 )

Ultimately, researchers note that understanding Taino culture is very important from an archaeological point of view, as they appear to believe that this unappreciated civilization has contributed more to the modern world’s culture than we previously thought.

Top image: Charcoal drawn face from a cave in Mona, Puerto Rico ( Journal of Archaeological Science CC BY 4.0 )

By Theodoros Karasavvas

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