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Artists before Columbus: new research on the Caribbean’s largest concentration of indigenous pre-Columbian rock art

last modified Oct 30, 2017 12:25 PM
Published by the Journal of Archaeological Science on 30 October, the paper reveals key discoveries such as the first direct rock art dates in the Caribbean, how pre-Columbian rock-art was made and their paint recipes.

New research has just been published by University of Leicester and British Museum researchers along with colleagues from the British Geological Survey and Cambridge University, outlining the science behind the largest concentration of indigenous pre-Columbian rock art in the Caribbean.

Published by the Journal of Archaeological Science, the paper is entitled ‘Artists before Columbus: A multi-method characterization of the materials and practices of Caribbean cave art’.

Written by a collective of academics, including Dr Alice Samson (University of Leicester), Dr Lucy Wrapson (University of Cambridge) and Dr Jago Cooper (British Museum), the paper is the result of three-years of research from 2013 to 2016, on the currently uninhabited and remote Mona Island in the Caribbean.

The paper presents the results of National Geographic funded fieldwork by an Anglo-Puerto Rican team, who uncovered extensive and undocumented rock art deep inside the islands labyrinthine cave systems. The paper presents the first results of the dating of the art, as well as insight into the artistic choices made about location, technique, and paint recipes of the time.

Exploration and survey of around 70 cave systems — part of an interdisciplinary study of past human activity on Puerto Rico’s Mona Island —revealed that Mona’s caves include the greatest diversity of preserved indigenous iconography in the Caribbean, with thousands of motifs recorded in dark zone chambers far from cave entrances. Dr Jago Cooper notes that “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.”

The team uncovered multiple rock art sites inside the caves with iconography consisting of human, animal, and meandering designs. Some are painted or drawn, and others, drawn with the fingers in the soft walls, are more elaborate and akin to a technique called finger-fluting familiar from Palaeolithic rock art in southern Europe.

 Dr Alice Samson, co-author of the paper from the University of Leicester School of Archaeology and Ancient History explained the importance of this new information, as: “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.”

“The conservation-minded approach we used squeezed every bit of information we could out of the discovery using multiple methods that are relevant to the studies of vulnerable rock art worldwide.”

The team also included students from Puerto Rico and the UK carrying out dissertations in Climate Science, Archaeology, and History.

Victor Serrano, 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. Imagine a social networking site, where instead of having a page with posts of people here you have an actual cave wall or roof full of different pictographs”.

 The paper can be accessed via the Journal of Archaeological Science’s website here: journal homepage:

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