Cave Art

The Lucayan petroglyphs of East Caicos.
By Dr. Michael P. Pateman

Archaeological studies of the Lucayan Islands (which includes The Bahamas and Turks & Caicos Islands) have mainly focused on settlement surveys and large scale village excavations. However, early archaeologists (late 19th and early 20th century) focused most of their efforts on the cave systems of these islands. This interest in the caves started to fade towards the end of the 20th century.

However, caves played an important role in Taíno lifestyle and spiritual beliefs, and as such it is assumed played an important role in that of the Lucayans. Therefore, it should be no surprise that caves represent a significant aspect of the archaeological record of the Lucayan Islands. These caves exist in two forms, wet (including blue holes and caves with a direct connection to the water table) and dry. The caves contain a variety of artifacts which have not been preserved at open sites such as human burials, petroglyphs and pictographs, faunal and botanical remains, and a variety of wooden artifacts.

Lucayan rock art is found throughout the Lucayan Islands, specifically Crooked Island, Eleuthera, Inagua, Long Island, New Providence, Mayaguana, Rum Cay and San Salvador (in The Bahamas) and East Caicos (in the Turks & Caicos).
In 1912, Theodore De Booy visited a cave at Jacksonville and described six petroglyphs, two carved heads and a possible stone altar. However, after this visit, this site was lost to science and eventually, the location was lost to all.

This petroglyph is from Jacksonville Cave in East Caicos.

In 2006, on an expedition by a team of scientists working in collaboration with the TCI National Trust, the cave was found again but they did not observe the petroglyphs. It wasn’t until 2008 that explorer Kim Mortimer saw them. (Details of this were published in the Spring 2012 edition of the Astrolabe in an article by Mark Parrish.) More recent research published by Lace and others in the 2018 Journal of Caribbean Archaeology describe 13 petroglyphs and included a map of their locations.

As a child growing up I loved to explore, especially the caves throughout the islands. After arriving in the Turks & Caicos, the caves at Jacksonville were high on my list of places to visit and document. However, as East Caicos is uninhabited today except for donkeys and other wildlife, I had to find a way to get there and someone who knew the location of the cave. Finally, in October 2019, a team led by the Museum and consisting of local TCI explorers John Galleymore, Agile and Daniel LeVin, Leif Erickson, Mat Matlock (photographer) and Dr. Shaun Sullivan (archaeologist) visited East Caicos with the primary mission of exploring the petroglyph cave at Jacksonville.

Armed with the map created by Lace and others we set off to find and document the petroglyphs. Privately, we were also hoping to find more as the petroglyphs can sometimes only be seen when light conditions change.At first, they were very difficult to see, but as our eyes adjusted to the cave light the faint carvings emerged from the walls. We started to tick off all of the previous ones listed by De Booy and Lace. Soon, we had counted over 20 carvings, including a row of 5 faces, a pipe, individuals with rays and numerous anthropomorphic figures.

All petroglyphs were drawn and photographed. Both methods were used because due to the nature of the light in caves, sometimes photographs do not reveal them.

This map is a survey of rock art distribution found in Jacksonville Cave.

The main question I am asked is “What do the petroglyphs mean?” This is difficult to answer, as we do not always know. Some are easy to interpret, as they include objects of everyday life (canoe paddle or pipe). Others are more difficult to interpret, including anthropomorphic figures (animals with human features). Were they created over a short term by a single individual or over a long term by multiple individuals? John Winter in 2009 wrote a summary of petroglyphs from throughout The Bahamas and noted they are of the Timehri type, an anthropomorphic design first classified by Williams (1985) and named after figures found on the Corartijn River in Suriname, part of the Guianas region in northeast South America. Williams believes these figures functioned to maintain subsistence horticulture and have their origin in Amazonia.

The drawing of human-like faces has been suggested elsewhere in the Caribbean as a part of ancestor worship, a central part of Taíno religion. Additionally, a number of the petroglyphs are figures with rays. These may be representations of Lucayan deities of sun or rain or masked fertility figures. One of the petroglyphs depicts an anthropomorphic individual squatting. This can be interpreted as Atabey the Taíno supreme goddess of fresh water and fertility.

Whether the rock art of East Caicos was part of fertility rituals, ancestor worship, marking of territories or the telling of events is uncertain. However, it is clear that cultural traditions of the larger islands of Cuba, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico also took place in the Lucayan Islands. Yet more research is needed. Very little archaeological research has been conducted on East Caicos. Is there a large-scale habitation nearby? Can a link be determined between this cave and any other site?

In De Booy’s 1912 article, he notes that locals describe other caves on East Caicos with “Indian” carvings. A side mission of our trip was to try and find these sites but we didn’t have the time. It gives us another reason to go back!

A short documentary about the project is being created and will be launched during 2020.

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