A Travel to the Arecibo Petroglyphs

ImageLa Cueva del Indio, Arecibo, Puerto Rico. The long stretch of sand along the eastern coast of Arecibo comes to a full stop as it meets the drab limestone terrain jutting out from the ocean. This limestone landmass appears like a calcified giant sea cucumber beached by the raging waves. By not refusing to budge, the sea carved lunar scars and little cenotes on its surface; some going down to as deep as 20-30 feet, eventually expanding to a three-chambered cave underneath. Often, if you move close enough, a gust of wind rushes out, a sigh from below, tender yet dangerous. The Tainos–prehistoric inhabitants of the island–called these sinkholes, xawei.

La Cueva del Indio hides an extensive array of Taino petroglyphs. From the sharp grey surface above, the blades of which could easily slice through skin, we clambered down a vacant space, a mini-coliseum of smooth limestone. Fronting this space and separated by a few meters from the swirling tides is a falcon-like rock outcrop whose “eye” seemed omniscient. On the right of this “mini-coliseum” is the mouth of the cave where a 15-20 ft makeshift ladder is inclined deep into the cave for the visitors to reach the bottom.

While descending into the cave, the petroglyphs started to appear. The most visible were in the upper reaches of the cave: sketches of human heads (or masks?) covered in lichens. The petroglyphs became more elaborate as we hit the cave bottom. The angle of the light from the cave entrance exposed the outlines of the series of pictographs and petroglyphs. They were of differing sizes and symbols. The artists must have used a wooden stick to carve the damp and chalky cave walls. The central chamber walls were filled with drawings of mazes, spirals, lines, and circles. Taken together, the sketches conjured a psychedelic sense, especially the figure that a friend called the Virgin Mary sketch–a human outline carved in a series of mazes, squares, and lines. Beside it was a faint drawing of a rainbow, a series of concentric half-rings. Human faces also peered out from the walls. The sketches have turned green due to cave lichens while some were getting faint due to erosion and, most likely, human interference.

The second chamber was damp and dark, illuminated only by a glimmer of light from the roof. The Taino drawings here were sparsely distributed. Using a small flashlight, I surveyed the walls and found a few of the cave drawings in the second chamber: an anthropomorphic butterfly, a one-eared figure (rabbit-like), a fish, a monkey-like figure, and a few faded human faces. The third chamber was narrower, only allowing 1-2 persons at a time inside. Maybe due to the exposure to moisture, wind, and heat, the petroglyphs were eroded and few. The most legible was the dot and line symbol.

That caves occupied a special place in the Taino cosmology have been noted by Father Ramon Pane, the priest commissioned by Christopher Columbus to study the culture of the Tainos. Recording a folklore about caves in the Caribbean, Pane in the 15th century noted that

These people, being in those caves, kept watch at night, and this one was entrusted to one called Macocael, of whom, because one day he was late in returning to the door, they say that the sun took him because he guarded badly, they closed the door to him; and thus he was transformed into a stone near the door. Later, they say that others, having gone to fish, were taken prisoner by the sun and were converted into trees which they called ‘jobos,’ also called myrobalans (from Art and archaeology of pre-Columbian Cuba By Ramón Dacal Moure, Manuel Rivero de la Calle).

Pane went on to record that the Tainos worship deities known as zemis (or cemis). Yucahu, the lord of the cassava and the sea, and Atabey, the goddess of fresh water and human fertility, were the supreme deities in the Taino cosmology. Nature spirits were believed to reside in the environment too, such as in caves, trees, rivers, streams, etc.

Archaeologists suggested that caves were used for spiritual than practical purposes. Irving Rouse cautioned however that the presence of religious artifacts in caves may have been due to the colonial encounter:

Zemis have also been found in caves, but they may not all have been worshipped there. Some may have been taken there to save them from destruction by the Spaniards, who considered them heathen idols. (The Tainos: Rise and Decline of the People who Greeted Columbus by Irving Rouse)

Irving Rouse (1992) further added:

…they carved or painted outlines of the natural spirits in places where they believed them to live, especially in caves and on rocks along streams or coasts. These so-called petroglyphs or pictographs were not necessarily objects of worship…

Before communing with their zemis, owners purified themselves by fasting or inserting a stick in their throat to cause vomiting. They then took snuff (cohoba) in front of the zemi. The worshiper put the snuff, made by crushing seeds of the piptadenia tree, on a platform surmounting the zemi or in a separate receptacle and inhaled through a forked tube. It caused hallucinations, through which the zemi made known his or her will.

Some anthropologists noted that cave sites figured prominently in Taino mythology. William F. Keegan and Lisabeth A. Carlson in their book, Talking Taíno: essays on Caribbean natural history from a native perspective, said that

The Tainos used caves as sanctuaries for ritual purposes. Taino cosmology has three main divisions: the skyworld, the land world of living people, and the world of subterranean water. Caves were the portals to the subterranean world…They had emerged from Cacibajagua (Cave of the Jagua), a reference to the jagua tree, whose edible fruit produces a black vegetable dye used for body painting. In contrast, the cave of the Amayauna is translated as the “cave without importance.” Apparently, the Tainos are the one true people who emerged from the sacred cave, while the rest of humanity came from some place of no importance.

I am not aware if anthropologists have a complete record or study of the cave drawings and petroglyphs in the area or if measures have been made to address the conservation and preservation needs of La Cueva del Indio. But if the etched name of a certain RAFFY over a Taino petroglyph is of any indication, then the task of Taino heritage conservation is all the more glaring and urgent.

Read also my previous post on Taino sites: A Visit to a Taino Archaeological Park

Ants Crossing


I found this colony of migrating ants on my way to work. They’re abandoning an anthill that’s situated on a small patch of grass surrounded by pools of rainwater. They formed a bridge of dead ants interlocked with half-drowned ones to cross the puddle, probably an ocean to the ants. I imagine these worker ants, enamored by a chemical signal of sorts, “martyring” themselves so the rest of the colony can march on to drier earth.

This behavior is described in evolutionary literature as part of a complex of behaviors in eusocial species. Behaviorists suggest that ant colonies have an altruistic worker caste that forego reproduction in order for fertile ants to have better chances of survival. These sterile ants take care of the larvae and fight off predators and competing colonies, often sacrificing themselves in the process. E.O. Wilson’s book, Sociobiology, presents three traits common among eusocial species  (1971:398-399):

(1) individuals of the same species cooperate in caring for the young, (2) there is a reproductive division of labor, with more or less sterile individuals working on behalf of fecund nestmates, (3) and there is an overlap of at least two generations in life stages capable of contributing to colony labor, so that offspring assist parents during some period of their life.

Self-sacrifice appears counter-intuitive at the individual level (I mean, who would want to be one of those ants forming the bridge, right?). Sociobiologists argue that this altruistic behavior seems to be a consequence of haplodiploidy, the mode of sex determination among ants (i.e., males only have only one copy of each chromosome while females have two):

Working from the traditional axioms of population genetics, Hamilton first deduced the following principle that applies to any genotype: in order for an altruistic trait to evolve, the sacrifice of fitness by an individual must be compensated for by an increase in fitness in some group of relatives by a factor greater than the  reciprocal of the coefficient of relationship (r) to that group…the coefficient of relationship (also called the degree of relatedness) is the equivalent of the average fraction of genes shared by common descent; thus, in sisters r is 1/2; in half-sisters, 1/4; in first cousins, 1/8; and so on. The following example should make the relation intuitively clearer: if an individual sacrifices its life or is sterilized by some inherited trait, in order for that trait to be fixed in evolution it must cause the reproductive rate of sisters to be more than doubled, or that of half-sisters to be more than quadrupled, and so on. (Wilson 1971:415)

Female ants are more sisters than regular sisters.  The sterile worker ants share 75% of their genes with their sister queen, who does all the reproducing by herself. Inclusive fitness theorists (basic idea outlined in the quote above), believe that this peculiar genetics is responsible for the altruistic behavior in ants–a sterile female worker caste devoting all their lives in ensuring the queen’s reproduction. In addition, Dawid Nowak et al (2007) also observed that life expectancy influences the ants’ engaging in risky foraging behavior; the shorter the life expectancy (or older), the greater the self-sacrifice for the benefit of the colony.

I came back a few hours later to check on the ant bridge. This time, the water has receded. There was a thin line of dead ants left. I thought only a few died in the crossing of the “great” puddle. But when i looked closer, the worker ants, using their mandibles, were picking their dead up. I followed the marching ants and, about a couple of feet away, on a dry space between grasses is an inch-high pile of dead ants, likely sterile females and probably older.


For a nice blog review on the debates surrounding the evolution of altruism, please click:

The Good Fight


Division of labour among workers with different life expectancy in the ant Myrmica scabrinodis
Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition

Her sketch, my tattoo

I finally got my very first tattoo. On the left side of my back, you can now see a doodle of people and a dog with a squiggly rectangle boxing them in. The lines vibrate with simplicity; the positioning and distance of the stick figures reveal a lot about the artist’s feelings toward her significant others.

The original plan was to seek out sketches of artists, Pablo Picasso and Antonio Saura. A forgotten Spanish Civil War anarchist painter, Saura is a personal favorite because of his politics and his profound reinterpretation of Don Quixote, while Pablo Picasso, well, is picasso.

Here are examples of Saura’s sketches:

Another tattoo concept I entertained was one that is science-based. This idea came about after viewing cool tattoos of avid science fans and professionals. I would’ve wanted something that’s a homage of sorts to the years of working with rhesus macaques and, in the past, tarsiers and long-tailed macaques. I’m clueless as to what the design would have been, but I figure that the idea should be similar to this:

After several years of backtracking, I finally settled for something more personal–a stick figure drawing by my daughter, Gabriela Lualhati. We went to Harisumi Tattoo Parlor in Condado and met with Blen, the artist, to have the tattoo done. When we arrived there, Blen didn’t start right away. He talked to my daughter first and allowed her to improve the sketch before running the needle on my back.

Talking to a tattoo artist is a big deal for my daughter, since she loves to draw and paint. Her kindergarten teacher said that although Gabriela is creative and a bit advanced for her class, she has problems with shyness and sensitivity. In part, my decision to get a tattoo from one of her sketches is driven by the desire to boost her self-confidence, to coax her out of her timid self, and to show the world that her drawings are beautiful and great.

I know that I will not pass as some badass Sons of Anarchy type with a stick figure tattoo like this, but I know it’s worth the pain and the skin.

Harisumi Tattoo Parlor

Blen at Work

Gabi and her work

Anarchist Mangroves


the fiddler crab concurs
that the mangrove is an anarchist,
perfect in its defiance
from that liminal place
between the land and the sea:
trunks bent close to the ground,
roots interlocked like arms in protest
in this creeping war against the tides.
when the sea appears to be winning,
a million middle fingers
shoots through mud,
growing leaves,
extending borders,
giving more life in time.


Boy Aims Gun at Two Men Graffiti

I found this graffiti on a wall of an abandoned building in Hato Rey, featuring a boy aiming a gun at two men. I imagine this artwork as a critique on the pervasive violence in the island. Local authorities reveal that 70% of the 994 murders in Puerto Rico (2011) were all drug-related.

The location of this artwork is in a two-storey building near a Walgreens pharmacy and the San Juan mayor’s campaign office. The main railway of the city train also passes next to the structure. On occasion, a troupe of street performers ply their trade by the intersection.

in a random san juan street
jugglers throw bowling pins in the air,
heroin-addled human statues across them,
to entertain strangers in their cars
so you get
the dark carnivalesque humor and look away:
‘such beautiful caribbean skies..’