PHOTOS: 15th Century Taino Cave Art Provides Evidence of Lost Caribbean Culture

Cave art on Mona Island is bringing centuries of lost Taino history back to life, providing clues to Puerto Rico’s rich past.

The Americas were home to diverse, sophisticated cultures for thousands of years before European colonization. It’s always exciting when evidence of lost civilizations is discovered, and cave art is sometimes all that survives the passage of time.

In September 2017, researchers at the universities of Leicester and Cambridge, the British Museum and the Centre for Advanced Studies in Puerto Rico published a study in the Journal of Archaeological Science, documenting thousands of rock drawings in networks of caves on a remote Caribbean island. The glyphs are the only evidence of a now extinct indigenous people called the Taino, who inhabited Puerto Rico and the surrounding islands for nearly 2,000 years. Puerto Ricans and residents of the U.S. Virgin Islands are the descendants of the Taino, as are people in Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Hispaniola and Haiti.

Although anecdotal accounts of the Taino have been around for centuries, physical evidence has remained elusive. The Taino had no written language, and their culture ultimately collapsed due to disease, famine, and enslavement, courtesy of European mercenaries like Christopher Columbus. Prior to the Europeans’ arrival, the Taino were the most advanced society in the Caribbean.

Taino Cave Paintings Are Windows Into Lost Spirituality

Exploring more than 70 caves from 2013 to 2016, archaeologists found the drawings deep inside dark, humid caverns on the remote island of Mona, a now uninhabited 35-square-mile nature preserve situated in the Caribbean Sea between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Mona Island hosts an extensive network of caves that functioned as sacred spiritual portals for the Taino.

The three-year-long study, which was funded by National Geographic, yielded the first dates for Caribbean cave art. “Scientific analyses from the team have provided the first dates for rock art in the Caribbean – illustrating that these images are pre-Columbian made by artists exploring and experimenting deep underground,” stated Dr. Alice Samson, co-author of the study. Dating from the 14th and 15th centuries, the Mona drawings are the most diverse cave art thus far found in the Caribbean. The beautiful and mysterious glyphs are providing researchers with insight into the pre-Columbian Caribbean Taino society.

Taino cave art, Taino culture, Taino, Taino cave paintings
A researcher examines inscriptions by 16th century Europeans in a cave on Mona Island (Smithsonian/Jago Cooper)

The caves contain thousands of complex images of human beings, animals, animal-human hybrids and other symbols, each of which is a window into the minds of Taino artists. Some of the artwork consists of abstract shapes and patterns, like something one would see on a psychedelic trip. Ancient psychedelic-inspired artwork is found all over the world; cultures throughout antiquity used psychedelics, such as magic mushrooms and ayahuasca, for spiritual enlightenment and expanding their consciousness.

“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,” Dr. Jago Cooper of the British Museum explained in a statement.

The Taino used cohoba, a psychedelic compound derived from Caribbean tree seeds, as the doorway into their spiritual realm. Cohoba, often combined with tobacco to enhance the effects, is burned and inhaled, producing psychoactive effects. DMT (dimethyltryptamine), often referred to as the “spirit molecule,” is nature’s most powerful hallucinogen, and the active ingredient in cohoba. In a paper published on Entheology.com, author and researcher Keith Cleversley explains that “many Taíno works associated with the cohoba ceremony, especially the vomiting spatulas, are exquisitely carved with fierce animals, upside-down images, and skeletal figures from the otherworld.”

DMT is also the active ingredient in ayahuasca, which is a tea brewed from Amazonian plant roots. Ayahuasca rituals are still practiced today throughout meso and South America, as they have been for thousands of years. Guided shamanic DMT sessions assist in combating addiction and mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety, PTSD, and eating disorders.

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