Mysterious lion cave painting in Puerto Rico

This drawing could have come from someone who knew lions from their homeland. © A. Acosta-Colon

Was this the work of an African slave of the Spanish? Around 500 years ago, someone drew what looked like a lion on the wall of a cave on the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico, researchers report. It is an unusual example among numerous depictions in the island's caves that they have dated and analyzed. They therefore date from the middle of the 1st millennium BC. BC until the colonial period. The research results shed light on the history of Puerto Rico in a special way, say the scientists.

It was one of the first stops in the colonization of the New World: as early as 1493, the Spaniards under Christopher Columbus landed on the island in the east of the Caribbean, later known as Puerto Rico. For the locals, this was the beginning of the end: the Taíno people were brutally enslaved to build the island's colonial structures, and many died from introduced diseases. Due to the severe population decline, the invaders needed additional and more robust workers. Slaves from Africa were therefore trafficked to Puerto Rico in the first decades after their arrival. This history also gives rise to the mixed ancestry of the island's current population of over three million: they have European, black African and Indian roots.

After their arrival, the Spanish claimed that the indigenous people had only been living on the island for a few centuries. But finds have now documented that Puerto Rico's history of settlement went back a long way. This is proven, among other things, by artistic depictions from different times on the walls of the island's numerous karst caves. Some of these are engravings, but also drawings with organic dyes. To date, however, dating of this rock art has only been based on indirect evidence from archaeological finds in the caves. Acosta-Colon from the University of Puerto Rico and his colleagues have now for the first time directly subjected the dyes to radiocarbon dating in order to obtain more precise age information about the cave paintings. To do this, they obtained 61 material samples from different representations in eleven caves as economically and carefully as possible.

As the researchers at the meeting of the Geological Society of America in

Over time, cave art evolved from simple geometric shapes to detailed depictions, like this stingray. © A. Acosta-Colon

Pittsburgh report, the radiocarbon dating enabled a more precise temporal assignment of certain categories of the depictions. The earliest pictograms are abstract, geometric shapes that date back to 700 to 400 BC. BC, were dated. This finding once again proves that Puerto Rico's pre-colonial population history went back a long way, the scientists emphasize. The team was also able to date certain stylized depictions of human bodies to the era between 200 and 400 AD. From the time between 700 and 800 AD, the depictions of animals and people became significantly more detailed. For example, in an illustration from this era, a ray can clearly be seen.

Who drew the lion?

As the study results show, people still came into the caves during the period of European colonization and left drawings behind. In addition to the age determination, this becomes clear from the motifs: ships and horses were depicted, among other things. This category apparently also includes the amazing-looking animal depiction, which the team particularly highlights. According to the dating, it was created around 1500 AD and therefore in the early colonial period. At first glance it seems obvious that the drawing depicts a lion with a mane.

“We have this picture here that looks like a lion – but as we all know, these animals don’t exist in Puerto Rico,” says Acosta-Colon. This raised the question of who could have drawn this picture around 500 years ago. Scientists say it was probably someone who had a very clear picture of these animals in their head. According to Acosta-Colon, the most plausible explanation is a slave that the Spaniards brought to the island from sub-Saharan Africa. Although he emphasizes that this interpretation is speculative, it fits in the context: “The time of creation of this depiction is around 1500 AD. This, in my opinion, proves that it could be a slave artwork in a cave in Puerto Rico.” said the scientist.

Acosta-Colon and his colleagues now want to continue researching Puerto Rico's cave art. So far they have only examined eleven of the more than 300 caves and rock overhangs with traces of rock paintings. Above all, they hope that their further research will allow them to trace the island's settlement history even further back than before.

Source: Geological Society of America

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