Natural History

Talking Taino: Caves

These subterranean caverns yield fascinating clues about early life.

By Bill Keegan and Betsy Carlson


“THE ISLAND [Hispaniola] has a section called Caonao in which there is a mountain called Cauta and it has two caves, Cacibajagua, CAVE OF THE JAGUA, and Amayaœna, CAVE WITHOUT IMPORTANCE. From Cacibajagua came most of the people who inhabit the island.”

[Ram—n PanŽ 1496; from Antonio Stevens Arroyo, Cave of the Jagua, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1988, p. 137]

The first physical evidence for the native peoples who inhabited the Bahama archipelago was discovered in caves. When Julian Granberry wrote the first summary of Lucayan archaeology in 1956 he noted that 45 of the known sites were in caves and only 16 were in open-air settings. All but one of those 16 open-air sites was in the Caicos Islands. Today, there are about 111 cave sites and almost 400 open-air sites recorded for the archipelago.

The early discovery of cave sites resulted not only from the Tainos’ fascination with caves, but also from the extensive excavations of cave earth (bat guano) for use as fertilizer in the 19th century. During these excavations pottery, exotic stone cem’es, human burials, and wooden objects (including fishhooks, bowls and duhos) were recovered and petroglyphs (engraved images) and pictographs (painted images) have been observed in the Caribbean. The Tainos did not live in caves, although they may have used them as shelter from severe storms. The materials observed and recovered from caves indicate a far more spiritual association; one that is reflected in part in the opening quotation concerning their mythology. The Taino word for cave was xaweye.

Caves are common in the karst (limestone) landforms found throughout the Caribbean. They occur in two forms. Sea caves formed where wave action has undercut rocky cliffs and bluffs along the shore. An excellent example can be found at Mudjin Harbour on Middle Caicos. Due to their proximity to the sea, the Tainos used few of these caves.

Caves in the interior ridges (ruku) of the islands formed through the dissolution of the bedrock usually beginning along fault lines in the rock where acidic rainwater easily dissolves the limestone. These caves typically have two components. Vertical sections created by the downward flow of rainwater, and horizontal sections created by the flow of underground streams. The highest rate of dissolution occurs on the margins where underlying salt water mixes with the overlying freshwater lens creating what geologists call “flank margin caves.” In these caves, rounded tunnels are spaces that once were completely filled with water, while triangular and rectangular tunnels result from streams running across the floor.

Caverns are large openings where several tunnels meet. They often have very high ceilings with substantial amounts of collapsed rock from the roof lying on the floor and multiple openings in the ceiling. Lakes (xara) can occur where the depth of the cave reaches the water table. The longest explored underwater cave system in the Bahamas is Lucayan Cavern on Grand Bahama Island with passages extending for more than five miles.

There is nothing quite like being deep in a cave and turning off your flashlight to be surrounded by complete and utter darkness – duck-walking through a low and narrow chamber as thousands of bats rush past you to escape your approaching light, or entering an interior chamber with the floor alive with scurrying cockroaches and cave crickets. In the Turks & Caicos, Conch Bar Cave on Middle Caicos is the most spectacular and nearby Indian Cave is also easily accessible. It is easy to arrange a tour and well worth the experience (and both are sufficiently open that you won’t come into close contact with bats or roaches).


The Tainos did not live in caves, but they used them as sanctuaries for ritual purposes. They recognized three main divisions of the cosmos: a sky world, the land world of living people, and the world of subterranean waters. Caves were the portals to the subterranean world. As the myth at the beginning of this article tells us, the Tainos believed that all humans shared a common origin. However, only the origin of the Tainos was considered important. They had emerged from the Cacibajagua (Cave of the Jagua), a reference to the jagua tree (Genipa americana), whose edible fruit produces a black vegetable dye used for body painting. This black paint was used in conjunction with a red dye derived from the bixa or achiote plant (Bixa orellana) for ritual purposes that served to reinforce the sense of communality among the Tainos. (Most of you probably don’t realize that you have eaten bixa/achiote. It is today used as a food coloring called annatto that gives American cheese its lovely orange color, and other foods as well.) In contrast, the Cave of Amayaœna is translated as the “cave without importance.” In sum, the Tainos are the one true people who emerged from the sacred cave, while the rest of us came from a cave of no importance!

The importance of caves in Taino mythology is expressed in their association of animals that frequent or live in caves with the ancestors. Bats and owls are especially important in this regard. Moreover, the decoration of cave walls with petroglyphs and pictographs enhanced the ritual significance of these passages to the underworld. Petroglyphs have been reported from only one cave in the Turks & Caicos. This cave is located near Jacksonville Harbour on East Caicos and was visited by Theodoor de Booy in 1912 when the East Caicos Sisal Company was in operation and bat guano was being excavated from several caves. Several efforts to find the cave have been unsuccessful. There are no cave paintings reported for the Bahama archipelago.


The symbolism that these carved and painted images represent is difficult to interpret, but they include both anthropomorphic (human forms) and animal imagery. Hartford Cave on Rum Cay in the Bahamas is one of the most elaborately decorated, and included the representation of a canoe paddle (until it was hacked out of the wall and brought to the New World Museum on San Salvador!). Painted images on the walls of caves in the Dominican Republic are especially evocative. One scene depicts the cohoba ritual in which the cacique ingested a hallucinogenic snuff to induce a trance that facilitated his communication with the spirits. When viewed in the flickering of torchlight the images appear to come alive.

One of the questions we are frequently asked is, “Where did they bury their dead?” Unfortunately, we do not have a complete answer. In some places the Tainos buried their dead in cemeteries. At El Chorro de Ma’ta in Cuba and Maisabel in Puerto Rico, the dead were buried beneath the central plaza. This burial location reflects a close association of the dead with their ancestral homeland. Knowledge of previous burials at Maisabel was so complete that despite hundreds of interments over a period of 800 years not one disturbed a previous burial. Evidence for formal cemeteries is lacking from the Bahama archipelago. To date, all of the burials in the Bahamas have been found in caves.

Blue holes and sinkholes (xawei), caves whose vault has collapsed to expose subterranean lakes, are also associated with ritual activities. Cottage Pond on North Caicos is a perfectly circular inland blue hole that measures 165 feet across and sits in a beautiful natural depression that supports rare plant and animal species. It has a 30 foot layer of freshwater that was certainly valued by the Lucayan inhabitants. The Nature Reserve is open to the public and easy to access and one of the many sites worth visiting on North Caicos.

Human burials have been found underwater in caverns and blue holes on Grand Bahama, Abaco, Andros, Eleuthera and Providenciales. In addition, a small wooden canoe was recovered from a blue hole on Andros, and the extremely well preserved skeletons of crocodiles, tortoises and birds recently were found in a sinkhole on Abaco. The most spectacular finds come from caves and caverns in Parque National del Este, in the eastern Dominican Republic. This region of Hispaniola is quite arid, and water sources are limited. It is therefore not surprising that a substantial number of broken ceramic bottles used to collect water (potizas) have been found in several flooded caverns.

Yet water collection was not the only activity associated with these flooded caverns and sinkholes. Divers have also found decorated pottery bowls that are poorly suited for water collection. And the objects recovered from the Manantial de la Aleta are reminiscent of the sacred cenote at Chichen Itza (the Mayan city on the Yucatan Peninsula). A wide variety of objects were “sacrificed” in this sinkhole, and the anoxic (lacking oxygen) waters surrounding the finds have resulted in a remarkable state of preservation. Along with pottery vessels, stone tools, complete baskets (haba and makuto), cordage (cabuya), wooden handles for stone axes, and a war club (macana) have been observed in the sediments at the bottom of this sinkhole. To date, only a few of the objects have been retrieved because they require special conservation techniques that are of limited availability in the Dominican Republic. This discovery has opened an entirely new vista into the world of the Tainos. (For more information on these finds, see volumes 2 and 3 of the Journal of Caribbean Archaeology at:

Objects recovered from caves figured prominently in the early days of Caribbean archaeology. Over the years most archaeologists have turned away from caves to open-air sites where a more complete record of Taino lifeways is preserved. With the development of new techniques for safely exploring submerged caverns and the development of formal techniques for studying rock art, these portals to the subterranean waters are once again receiving the attention they so richly deserve.

Dr. Bill Keegan is Curator of Caribbean Archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida, Gainesville. Dr. Betsy Carlson is an Archaeologist at Southeastern Archaeological Research, Inc., Gainesville, Florida.


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Nov 25, 2011 11:14

The importance of caves in Taino mythology is expressed in their association of animals that frequent or live in caves with the ancestors. The symbolism that these carved and painted images represent is difficult to interpret, but they include both anthropomorphic (human forms) and animal imagery.

Is there a guide posted on line as to what these symbols mean?

Jun 13, 2013 11:51

Hi Tracy,

There are many local (Puerto Rico and DR) magazines that try to explain those symbols. In addition there is tons of scientific literature that can give you a better clue of what are you looking at. The Puerto Rican governmental office “El Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña” is available to give you copies of all the studies realized in those caves and their interpretation.



Daniel DuVall
Feb 15, 2014 15:59

For more on Taíno rock art see–, The pictograph above in this article is from the Cueva de Las Maravillas, San Pedro de Macorix, Dominican Republic..

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