Caribbean-Indian Spring: Clues to early Tainos?

Associated Press Writer

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) -- Deep in a cave in the remote rain forest of the Dominican Republic, an underground spring may hold clues about the first Indian group to make contact with Spanish explorers.

U.S. archaeologists won permission Wednesday night to explore the spring, which they believe was the ceremonial heart of the Tainos (tah-EE-nohs) Indians five centuries ago.

The Indiana University team, along with local archaeologists, will dive more than 200 feet beneath the jungle floor to recover artifacts, and will excavate a nearby cave.

Preliminary dives have recovered more than 200 artifacts from the spring, including dozens of pottery vessels and a chieftain's wooden ceremonial chair.

"We believe this area was the heart of the Taino Caribbean civilization, and our findings should yield priceless information about the first contact between the Spanish and the Indians in the New World," said Charles Beeker, director of Indiana's underwater science program.

Little is known about the Tainos, believed to be the first American indigenous group to make contact with the Spanish.

An estimated 1 million Tainos were living on the island of Hispaniola -- now divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic -- when Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492.

Within 20 years, fewer than 50,000 Indians remained. Most fell prey to diseases the Spanish brought with them and the colonizers' brutal treatment. Tainos on other Caribbean islands experienced a similar fate.

The Dominican spring is located 160 miles east of Santo Domingo, the capital, and is shrouded by thick rain forest.

Beeker said that he first heard about a cave with Taino paintings, possibly depicting the conquest, while he was while searching for Spanish colonial ships off the eastern Dominican coast in 1992.

"What we found was an 18-foot mural of a Spanish galleon ship and a scene of the Taino giving offerings to men with beards," Beeker said. "That's when we decided to dig deeper."

The discovery of the mural prompted Beeker and others to explore the nearby underground spring, hidden within a larger cave.

In a preliminary expedition this fall, his team made the 17-mile trek from the nearest road and rappelled 50 feet into the cave before diving. They found more than 200 artifacts, which Beeker says the Tainos may have cast into the water as offerings to their gods.

Archaeologists also discovered a rock-rimmed plaza about 80 yards from the spring. The plaza may have been used as a ceremonial court and for ball games.

Archaeologists from Indiana University and Santo Domingo's Catholic University will start full-scale exploration of the spring in January. Area land excavations will begin next summer.

Bob Corbett adds a note: Jan. 18, 1999.

In his travel book of 1952, HAITI, HIGHROAD TO ADVENTURE, Hugh B. Cave tells of Taino pictographs on the cave walls of the caves at Dondon in the Central Plateau of Haiti. I never got around to checking them out myself.

Hello Columbus


AP Science Editor

The first time he dove into the Manantial de la Aleta, Charles Beeker felt like Christopher Columbus.

The burly, scuba-diving archaeologist found a new world at the bottom of the natural well. Baskets, pottery, wooden clubs and the ceremonial chairs of ancient kings lay stuck in the silty muck, looking just as they did when the people who welcomed Columbus to America tossed them there.

In a way, Beeker had found the same place that Columbus did, half a millennium later.

"What we have here," he says, "is the collision of two worlds."

A professor of underwater science at Indiana University, Beeker first saw the well at La Aleta last year, while searching for shipwrecks from Columbus' second voyage to the New World.

Now, in the dense tropical forests of the easternmost Dominican Republic, he and his colleagues are uncovering lost remnants of the first contact between the Old World and the New.

"There's no doubt that this is a very special place for archaeologists in terms of what we stand to learn," says Geoff Conrad, director of Indiana University's Mathers Museum.

Just yards from the well in a mountainous corner of the Dominican Republic's East National Park, La Aleta is a settlement once inhabited by thousands of people. It may have been the site of one of the first conflicts between Indians and Europeans.

Obscured by thick tropical vegetation -- and a hefty 17-mile hike from the nearest road -- the settlement consists of at least four ceremonial plazas littered with fragments of pottery, broken and intact seashells, chunks of coral and other debris.

To the archaeologists' delight, the location and general plan of their discovery matches that of Higuey, an Indian settlement whose destruction in 1503 is described by the Spanish missionary Bartolome de Las Casas.

The bloody war began when a Spanish attack dog killed an Indian chief. His subjects retaliated a few weeks later by killing a few conquistadors. Pretty soon, the Spanish were chasing Indians through the forest, killing some and cutting off the hands of others. It was one of the earliest American Indian massacres.

The Indian side of the story has been lost to history. But archaeologists have found cave paintings near La Aleta that may give a partial account from the Indian point of view.

The walls of Jose Maria Cave, a few miles from the well, depict Indians growing, harvesting and making bread from a local plant known as guayiga. The paintings also show the Indians offering the bread to the Spanish as a tribute. Because the conquistadors were more interested in gold than farming, they needed the bread to feed the inhabitants of Santo Domingo and other nearby colonies.

In the back of the cave, the narrow face of a conquistador peers out from beneath a metal helmet, which some experts speculate could be that of Juan de Esquivel, who led the campaign against the Taino in 1503.

"This is all subject to interpretation," Beeker says. "That's the fun of archaeology."

As the people who met Columbus, the Taino Indians ought to be as famous as the Maya or the Aztecs. A few million of them are thought to have lived in the Caribbean in 1492, on Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, Cuba and nearby smaller islands.

But surprisingly little is known of Taino culture, which was wiped out in a single generation by war and disease. In 1515, just 23 years after Columbus' arrival, only a few thousand Taino were left.

La Aleta is hardly the first Taino settlement ever found; hundreds are known around the Caribbean. But the site is unusually promising because it may be the only ceremonial well, or cenote, ever found in the Caribbean, and it also appears to have been the location of the historic massacre recorded by Las Casas.

"It's one of those rare things where archaeology and history actually touch in a place," says Sam Wilson, an expert in Caribbean archaeology at the University of Texas.

Since last August, Beeker and other divers have pulled out war clubs, a large bowl and hatchet handles that have been carbon-dated to between A.D. 1025 and 1275 -- and have been perfectly preserved by the well's oxygen-free water, which is more than 100 feet deep.

"The state of preservation in the water is phenomenal," Beeker says. "We now know we have one of the most significant underwater archaeological sites in the Caribbean."

Teams have found decorated pottery containers that may have held offerings of food, some of them bearing images of bats, which the Taino considered sacred.

The well also has yielded a dujo, a wooden stool where a Taino chief sat during ceremonies. Hispaniola was divided into five chiefdoms when the Spanish arrived, and the settlement at La Aleta appears to have been an important ceremonial center for Higuey, the easternmost of the five.

Archaeologists think the Taino threw the objects into the well as spiritual offerings.

Before last year, archaeologists knew only that some kind of Taino site existed at La Aleta, in dense tropical forest. The site lies in a region so remote and difficult to travel through that it is all but unexplored archaeologically.

"The area is virgin," says Dominican archaeologist Marcio Veloz Maggiolo. He and Elpidio Ortega, vice president of the Dominican Republic Academy of Sciences, began excavating the plazas this spring.

The next major excavation is planned for July, when underwater archaeologists will continue plumbing the well while their terrestrial counterparts search for more plazas and excavate the known ones.

It will take years to finish recovering the treasures. But when it all comes together -- the debris-littered plazas, the cave paintings, the perfectly preserved artifacts from the well -- La Aleta looks like one of the best chances ever to learn about the people who met Columbus.

"Opportunities like this don't come drifting by your doorstep every day," says Conrad, of the Mathers Museum.


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