Advanced Dating and Characterization Methods Shed New Light on Caribbean Cave Art

by johnsmith

A paper published in the Journal of Archaeological Science presents the first results of the dating of indigenous pre-Columbian cave art in the Caribbean, as well as insights into the artistic choices made about location, technique, and paint recipes of the time.

Cave art on Mona Island, Puerto Rico. Image credit: University of Leicester.

Cave art on Mona Island, Puerto Rico. Image credit: University of Leicester.

Dr. Alice Samson from the University of Leicester and colleagues uncovered extensive and undocumented rock art deep inside around 70 labyrinthine cave systems on Puerto Rico’s Mona Island.

They found multiple rock art sites 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 Paleolithic rock art in southern Europe.

“Dates obtained from cave art demonstrate indigenous authorship and support a horizon of cave use in the late pre-Columbian period,” the researchers said.

“Both radiocarbon (1302-1413 CE, 1478-1637 CE) and uranium-thorium (1088 CE, 1244 CE) dates are consistent with each other and with dates from the 13th to 15th centuries obtained from other archaeological materials from caves all around the island.”

“Dates from caves overlap with those from the indigenous village site at Sardinera, suggesting its use as a base for cave exploration.”

“We 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,” Dr. Samson said.

“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.”

“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,” said Dr. Jago Cooper, of British Museum, London.

“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,” added Victor Serrano, PhD distance learning student at the University of Leicester.

“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.”


Alice V.M. Samson et al. Artists before Columbus: A multi-method characterization of the materials and practices of Caribbean cave art. Journal of Archaeological Science, published online October 29, 2017; doi: 10.1016/j.jas.2017.09.012

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