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