Thousands of Taino paintings, including human and animal designs, extend deep into the caves on Puerto Rico’s Mona Island.

For the last four years, archaeologists have been exploring cave systems on Mona Island, which lies halfway between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Inside, they’ve found the largest concentration of Taino cave art yet discovered, with literally thousands of motifs extending deep into ‘dark zone’ chambers far from the cave entrances.

The iconography includes humans and animals, as well as a series of elaborate and meandering linear designs. Some of the artists made their designs using plant gums, which they then mixed with pigments from the cave floors to create complex paints, including ochre, phosphorite (mineralised guano), and charcoal from their torchwood.

Designs on the cave wall. Image provided by University of Leicester.

The majority, however, seem to have made their designs simply by running fingers, or finger-sized tools, through a soft, white calcium carbonate deposit popularly known to cavers as ‘moon milk’. Forming naturally on cave walls, the artists were able to use it as a canvas, leaving their wonderful designs preserved in hollow relief.

The National Geographic funded fieldwork was carried out between 2013 and 2016 by a team of archaeologists from Puerto Rico and the UK, including Dr Alice Samson (University of Leicester) and Dr Jago Cooper (British Museum), who have just published their first set of results in the Journal of Archaeological Sciences.

Designs on the cave wall. Image provided by University of Leicester.

In some areas, the cave wall crust has been scraped off which, the archaeologists suggest, might indicate that some of the artwork relates to a form of calcium carbonate extraction.

Designs on the cave wall. Image provided by University of Leicester.

The team used a slew of scientific techniques to analyse the artworks, and obtain dates for when they were made. Their radiocarbon and uranium-thorium dates indicate the paintings were made relatively recently between the 13th and 15th centuries, and are consistent with the wider Late Ceramic Age Taino culture on either side of the Mona Passage.

Around this time, there were well over one million Taino in the Caribbean, organised into five mini-states whose rulers were known as caciques. Following the brutality of the Spanish Conquest, war, execution, enslavement and disease reduced their population by 80-90 percent.

Designs on the cave wall. Image provided by University of Leicester.

Victor Serrano, a member of the student team and PhD distance learning student in the University of Leicester’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History, said: “As a Puerto Rican these groups of people that visited and lived in Mona Island are my ancestors, and their story is of utmost importance. Working in those caves, as part of the Corazon del Caribe archaeological project, is hard but fun work.

“Most of the precolonial pictographs are in very narrow spaces deep in the caves, some are very hard to access, you have to crawl to get to them, they are very extensive and humidity is very high but it is extremely rewarding.”

Designs on the cave wall. Image provided by University of Leicester.

The paper presents the first results of the dating of the art, as well as insights into the artistic choices made about location, technique, and paint recipes of the time.

Meandering designs. Image from the Corazon del Caribe project at the British Museum.

Dr Jago Cooper said: “For the millions of indigenous peoples 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.”

You can read the full paper here.

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Maiya Pina-Dacier

Head of Community at DigVentures, Maiya digs with a trowel in one hand, and a Twitter feed in the other. She reports on all our discoveries live from the trenches, and keeps our Site Hut full of the latest archaeology news. Got a story? Just drop her a line...

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