Cave etchings reveal early dialogue between Native Americans, Europeans

Did Native Americans and Europeans have spiritual dialogues during the colonial-era? New cave writings suggest yes.

Courtesy of Jago Cooper/British Museum
The three crosses of Calvary appear to be scratched into the soft walls of one of the caves on Mona Island in the Caribbean.

The colonization of the Americas at the hands of Europeans is often depicted as violent, oppressive, religiously zealous, and without interest in learning about the people who were already there. But in some places, it might not have been that cut and dry.

Etched in the soft limestone walls of a network of caves deep in Mona Island in the Caribbean are clues of a more thoughtful dialogue between the newcomers and the island's residents. 

The inscriptions appear to be an interplay between indigenous spiritual iconography and Christian symbols and phrases in Latin and Spanish. And the archaeologists who found this historical artwork say that they think the markings are the remnants of a colonial-era religious dialogue, as the Native and European peoples learned about each other.

"It is proof that the first generation of Europeans were going into caves and being exposed to an indigenous world view," one of the lead archaeologists, Jago Cooper, curator at the British Museum, told The Guardian.

Mona Island was inhabited by indigenous people for over 5,000 years. Thousands of years into their residence, Christopher Columbus stopped by on his second voyage to the New World in 1494. Just 41 miles west of Puerto Rico, the island would go on to be situated directly along a well-traveled route from Europe to the New World.

There are about 200 caves throughout the 19-square-mile rocky island, but the European arrivals wouldn't have known of the dark recesses of those caverns where the archaeologists found the etchings. So indigenous people would have had to be their guides.

And the researchers don't doubt that both groups were there.

"What we’re seeing here is a dichotomy between two very different sets of art," Dr. Cooper told National Geographic. "The later set is definitely drawn by Europeans who are having a reaction to, and a dialog with, the indigenous art."

In the same area where the researchers found indigenous art, they also spotted Christian crosses, abbreviations of Jesus's name, and phrases in Latin and Spanish. 

There was also more modern-style graffiti, as people apparently marked their presence by scrawling their names and dates on the cave walls.

"This research reveals a new perspective on the personal encounter between indigenous populations and the first generations of Europeans in the Americas," Cooper said in a press release.

The researchers analyzed the style of the iconography and associated pottery, and dated the scorch marks left by torches carried into the dark caverns for illumination. They also compared the handwriting of European signatures to those found in historical records. Their results were published Tuesday in the journal Antiquity.

"We have this idea of when the first Europeans came to the New World of them imposing a very rigid Christianity. We know a lot about the inquisition in Mexico and Peru and the burning of libraries and the persecution of indigenous religions," one of the lead archaeologists, Alice Samson, of University of Leicester, told The Guardian.

"What we are seeing in this Caribbean cave is something different. This is not zealous missionaries coming with their burning crosses, they are people engaging with a new spiritual realm and we get individual responses in the cave and it is not automatically erasure, it is engagement.”

To see more images of the cave etchings, click here.

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