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University of Leicester. Art in Cave 18 on Isla de Mona

Cave Art Describes the Untold Interactions Between Europeans and Native Americans

Archaeologists discover indigenous art, Christian symbols, and European “graffiti” on a tiny Caribbean island.

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Archaeologists discover indigenous art, Christian symbols, and European “graffiti” on a tiny Caribbean island.

We know from the history books how relations ended poorly between early European explorers and the Native Americans, but that version of events doesn’t tell the story from the perspective of those who actually lived through it.

Caves on a tiny island off the coast of Puerto Rico may offer some different answers. Archaeologists have discovered cave art there that illustrates the cultural exchange of ideologies that took place between the European travelers and the indigenous people.

Mona island, which has one of the highest densities of caves per square kilometer in the world, welcomed its first European visitors in 1493 with the arrival of Columbus, but the indigenous Taino people had thrived there for thousands of years before. For the next 85 years, the Spanish and the Tainos lived side-by-side on the rocky outcrop before abandoning the island to pirates.

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A team of archaeologists led by Jago Cooper of the British Museum and Alice Samson of the University of Leicester have surveyed about 70 cave systems on Mona since 2013. Reporting in Antiquity, the researchers’ remarkable findings in one of the caves illustrates a previously untold story.

"Increasing use of interdisciplinary approaches and archaeometric analyses have provided new understandings of colonial processes that are more nuanced than mere oppression, domination and, in the case of the Caribbean, indigenous extinction,” the authors write in their paper.

The cave is largely decorated indigenous markings that have been carbon dated to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but there are also more than 30 inscriptions made by the Europeans, including names of individuals, Latin and Spanish phrases, dates, and Christian symbols.

For example, Francisco Alegre, a Spaniard emigrated to the West Indies in the 1530s, carved his name as if to say “Francisco was here.”

Christian Calvary inscribed in Mona island cave

A Christian Calvary with the Latin word for Jesus inscribed below (not shown). Credit: University of Leicester.

The researchers think the other European markings are reactions to the indigenous art found in the caves or to the Taino people the Europeans likely met in the caves. Latin phrases like “God forgive you” and “God made many things.” Based on their proximity to the indigenous iconography, these inscriptions may have been directly referencing the natives’ art, which would have been foreign and maybe shocking to the Spaniards.

In 1550, King Charles V of Spain hosted a theological debate to discuss whether the Native Americans had rational souls. The debaters never arrived at a conclusion, but for Europeans actually living in the Americas, the question would have been a daily challenge.

“The phrase [God made many things] may express the theological crisis of the New World discovery, throwing the personal human experience and reaction into sharp relief,” the archaeologists write.

What the cave art on Mona represents is the development of a unique Christian identity in the New World, the authors argue — an identity that was heavily influenced by cultural interactions with the native populations.

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