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

A Visit to a Taino Archaeological Park

We went on an hour and a half drive to the Caguana Indian Ceremonial Park in Utuado, located in the central cordilleras of Puerto Rico. The place is considered as the most important Taino Culture archaeological site in the Caribbean.

The Tainos, pre-Columban settlers of the Greater Antilles, were seafarers and farmers who had an elaborate culture centered on the worship of gods, spirits, and ancestors called cemis.  The primary god, Yucahu, is the god of agriculture, cassava (staple food of the Tainos), and the seas. This deity is believed to reside in the mountains of El Yunque, a dense rainforest region in Puerto Rico. Yucahu’s evil brother, Huracan, is responsible for worldly calamities, such as earthquakes, storms, and, yes, hurricanes (etymology comes from Huracan).

Where are the Tainos?

The strategic importance of Puerto Rico to colonial Spain however led to the decimation of the native Taino population in the 18th century. Spanish-introduced diseases, colonial subjugation, slavery, and forced assimilation into the colonial plantation economy were the major  historical forces that led to the extinction of this indigenous group. Here’s a retelling of the Taino demise:

They committed group suicide as an escape, but it was mainly disease that decimated the Taínos so quickly. In 1516, only eight years later, there were so few Taínos left in the Caribbean that Father Bartolomé de las Casas won a “crown order” to free the Indians. In 1527, a small pox epidemic in Puerto Rico killed one third of the remaining Taíno population. In 1542, a Bishop was sent to Puerto Rico to inform the Indians of their “new” complete freedom.

Others however belie the extinction story, saying that the Tainos thrived in secrecy especially in the mountainous regions of Puerto Rico. Dr. Lynne Guitar added that it may also be due to historical inaccuracies that led to the perpetuation of the “myth of Taino extinction”:

If a Spaniard and a Taína had a child who was raised in the city or a European-style town, spoke Castillian, was baptized Catholic, wore European clothes, received a European education, and “acted” Spanish—then he or she was listed as Spanish on the censuses.  If that same child lived in a yucayeque (Taíno village), spoke Taíno, practiced Taíno religious rituals, dressed as a Taíno, and acted Taíno, then he or she was listed on the censuses as Indian.  That’s confusing for modern scholars, but it was also confusing for the colonial-era census takers, who had to try to figure out how to categorize people when there were, as yet, no fixed standards.

The ball courts and the batey

Whether the Tainos survived colonization or not, the Caguana ceremonial place is an important archaeological site that allows us a glimpse into the world of the Tainos. The site is built around 1270 A.D., featuring 10 plazas of various sizes and 21 petroglyphs. Archaeologists said that this had been continuously occupied for more than 300 years up until around the start of the Spanish colonization. The central plazas were outlined with river stones and rocks–each rock carved with petroglyphs of cemis (i.e., Taino deities). The plazas were used for areitos (ceremonial dances) and a ball game called batey. It was in this similar plaza that a Taino cacique, Agueybana II, plotted to overthrow the Spanish conquistadores in 1511.

Spanish friars chronicled that the batey was played by two opposing teams using a rubber ball. Neck and elbow collars made from stone were also used by the players as a yoke (i.e. inferred from a similar ball court practice in Mesoamerica).

Game revivalists believe that each opposing team is composed of 12 players, each with a goalie that attempts to stop the ball from going to her/his team’s side. Like football, the ball or the batu cannot be touched by the hand but can be struck by the foot, hip, thigh, or any part of the body. The ball can also be bounced around the stone walls of the ball court. Although the game has recreational value, experts believe that the batey has an underlying religious and judicial significance as evidenced by the petroglyphs circling the ballcourt and its associated artifacts.

As we were about to leave the park, we surveyed the ceremonial site for the last time. With a 3-year old child in tow, we scanned the landscape trying to remember every bit of the place. The reconstructed Taino abode, the bohio, stands on the ceremonial place’s landscape. The expanse of the valley is encircled by karst hills of lush rainforest and giant ferns. In this small valley rests the rectangular ball courts of the Tainos.  Here, on this very earth, the Tainos tread the ground, breathed the same air, mystified by the unseen forces of nature, and probably hoped too for a better future for their children.

Fig. 1. Mujer de Caguana. This petroglyph is believed to be a fertility figure or an ancestor-figure from a powerful family.

Fig. 2. A Cemi. Representation of a Taino Deity.


Fig.3. Stone Rings. Once thought to be associated with the ball game, they are now considered as of unknown use. Some scholars speculate that they were distinctive symbols of clans.

Fig. 4. Elbow Stone. Its scarcity in archaeological sites indicate that this might have been used in ritual contexts.

Other photos of the visit: us, ball courts, monoliths, petroglyphs, etc.

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