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Cave art on Mona Island (All images by and courtesy Jago Cooper and Alice Samson)

In the subterranean network of caves on Mona Island, 41 miles west of Puerto Rico, archaeologists have discovered a series of engravings by both indigenous people and the early European colonizers. The cave art — which includes geometric shapes and stick-figure people alongside Christograms and carvings of Bible verses — reflects some of the first encounters between the so-called Old World and the New.

Led by Jago Cooper, of the British Museum of London, and Alice Samson, of the University of Leicester, the study of the 200 caves on the Isla de Mona (indigenous name Amona) has been ongoing for years. Archaeologists have explored 70 of these caves, discovering indigenous art in more than 24. Their findings were published this week in the journal Antiquity.

Dating from the 12th to the 16th century, many of the thousands of designs were made with a technique called finger fluting, in which the artist scratches fingernails across the soft limestone surface of cave walls. Others were carved with sharp stone tools. Earlier designs, featuring whimsical swirls, animals, and stick figures with spiky hair, reflect the spiritual beliefs of the indigenous people, according to the researchers.

Before Christopher Columbus made a pit stop on Mona Island in 1494, indigenous people had lived there for nearly 5,000 years. In the early 1500s, the island became part of a heavily trafficked route between the Old and New World. It was around this time that the island’s cave art started to reflect European influences.

A cave on Mona Island carved with Christograms and abbreviations of Jesus’s name (Image credit: Jago Cooper and Alice Samson)

One cave, on the southern coast of the island, is scrawled with Christian iconography and Bible verses. Phrases like “Dios te perdone” (“may God forgive you”), “Plura fecit deus” (“God made many things”), and “verbum caro factum est” (“and the Word was made flesh”) are carved into walls and ceilings in Spanish and Latin. Also found were crosses, Christograms, and abbreviations of Jesus’s name.

Then there’s one example of an individual European marking his newly colonized territory: The name Francisco Alegre is scribbled on a cave wall. In the 1530s, Alegre came to the Caribbean from Spain with his father. He later became a royal official in Puerto Rico, presiding over Mona Island, among other territories. Similarities between the cave marking and Alegre’s official signature suggest he himself visited the cave and couldn’t resist tagging it. 

Entrance to a cave on Mona Island (Image credit: Jago Cooper and Alice Samson)

These dark, labyrinthine caves would have been very difficult to access — even today, they can only be reached by scaling a cliff face and squeezing through a hole — so European graffiti suggests that colonizers may have been led by native guides. Researchers also suggest that some of the Christian iconography could have been drawn by indigenous people converted to Christianity by Europeans.

Now a deserted nature reserve, Mona Island’s cave galleries are an early example of how the tensions between colonizers and the colonized play out in visual art. In the context of ongoing discussions about decolonizing the art world, they’re as relevant today as they were 500 years ago.

Cave art on Mona Island (Image credit: Jago Cooper and Alice Samson)

Christian-themed cave art on Mona Island (Image credit: Jago Cooper and Alice Samson)

Cave art on Mona Island (Image credit: Jago Cooper and Alice Samson)

Cave art on Mona Island (Image credit: Jago Cooper and Alice Samson)

Cave art on Mona Island (Image credit: Jago Cooper and Alice Samson)

Archaeologists explore caves on Mona Island (Image credit: Jago Cooper and Alice Samson)

Cave art on Mona Island (Image credit: Jago Cooper and Alice Samson)

h/t National Geographic

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Carey Dunne

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering arts and culture. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Baffler, The Village Voice, and elsewhere.