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Cave Graffiti Shows Natives and Europeans Had Early Dialogue in the Caribbean

Cave art from both Taíno people and Spanish explorers in a cave on Mona Island shows the two had some early cultural understanding

A researcher examines inscriptions by 16th century Europeans in a cave on Mona Island (Jago Cooper)
smithsonian.com

The arrival of Europeans in the Western Hemisphere was not a particularly peaceful venture. Not only did early explorers bring virulent diseases, they also enslaved native peoples and forced them at sword point to convert to Christianity. Indeed, the Spanish Requerimiento of 1513 gave explorers the legal and “divine” duty to subjugate native populations.

But a new discovery in a cave on a small Caribbean island reflects a moment when the two cultures shared knowledge and ideas. According to a press release, researchers from the British Museum and University of Leicester have found cave art on Mona Island 40 miles west of Puerto Rico that includes native Taíno iconography along with 30 European inscriptions including dates, names, Christian symbols and phrases in Latin and Spanish, such as “dios te perdone” (“may God forgive you”) and “verbum caro factum est” (“and the Word was made flesh”). Radio carbon dating and the dates place most of the European graffiti in the mid-sixteenth century.

The site is significant A.R. Williams at National Geographic points out, because Europeans would have needed Taíno guides to access to the cave, part of the 19-square-mile island’s elaborate system of caverns.

“It is truly extraordinary,” Jago Cooper, curator at the British Museum and lead author of an article on the cave in the journal Antiquity tells Mark Brown at The Guardian. “It is proof that the first generation of Europeans were going into caves and being exposed to an indigenous world view.”

Williams reports that Mona Island has around 200 caves, and over the past few years researchers have explored 70 of them, finding many examples of indigenous art. It is believed that the Taíno population inhabited the island for 5,000 years before Columbus’s second voyage in 1494. By the end of the 15th century, the Taíno population may have reached three million on Hispaniola alone, in addition to settlements on islands such as Mona, Robert M. Poole writes for Smithsonian Magazine.

In the 1530s, Mona was put under the control of Francisco Alegre, who watched over royal estates near Puerto Rico. It is believed he visited the cave on Mona Island himself, inscribing his name on a soft wall.

“We have this idea of when the first Europeans came to the New World of them imposing a very rigid Christianity. We know a lot about the inquisition in Mexico and Peru and the burning of libraries and the persecution of indigenous religions,” Alice Samson, the papers co-author tells Brown. “What we are seeing in this Caribbean cave is something different. This is not zealous missionaries coming with their burning crosses, they are people engaging with a new spiritual realm and we get individual responses in the cave and it is not automatically erasure, it is engagement.”

Nevertheless, the arrival of the Europeans would destroy the Taíno population on Mona. The island became an important trading route and stopping point for vessels from all over the New World and even became a hideout for pirates. By the end of that 16th century, most of the Taíno people had died or fled the island. Still, as Poole writes, "five century after [their] fateful meeting with Columbus, elements of their culture endure" and there's been a Taíno resurgence, by formal and informal means, among descendents of the civilization today. 

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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