SUMMER 2017: By Julian Smith.

When Christopher Columbus visited the Isla de Mona, located halfway between Puerto Rico and Hispaniola, in 1494, he found its indigenous residents fishing and farming, part of a thriving Taíno culture that spread across much of the Caribbean. At only twenty-two square miles, Mona is roughly the size of Manhattan. But beneath its surface is another world: an astonishing network of tunnels and caves that often made it easier to get around underground than through the dense vegetation above.

Mona Island is one of the most cavernous places in the world per square mile. Over time, erosion has carved out thousands of spaces, from large cathedral-like rooms to tight tunnels, between a hard lower layer of dolomite and a soft upper layer of limestone. Some of these caves have water, the only permanent sources on the island, and one has twenty-two miles of tunnels, making it the largest coastal cavern in the world. On other Caribbean islands, early inhabitants used caves to deposit bodies and carve or paint symbolic images. Taíno folklore includes accounts of the first human emerging from caves.

Mona, which is now part of Puerto Rico, is an uninhabited island that’s managed as a nature reserve. When Jago Cooper of the British Museum and his colleague, Alice Samson of the University of Leicester, arrived on Mona in 2013, they intended only to conduct an aboveground archaeological survey. “We kind of got sucked into the caves,” said Cooper. What they found quickly became the focus of their work: prehistoric people had left rock art in many of the caverns, usually by carving directly into the soft walls. With help from experts at the Puerto Rico Coastal Cave Survey and the Puerto Rico Department of Environment, Cooper, Samson, and team members from the U.K. and Puerto Rico pushed deeper into the “dark zone” beyond the reach of natural light. (The cave networks tend to be mostly horizontal, but getting to the entrances sometimes involved climbing up or down cliffs.)


Read More in our SUMMER 2017 Issue of American Archaeology, Vol. 20 No. 4. Browse Content of this Issue: SUMMER 2017 . Browse Articles Excerpts from our last issue, SPRING 2017.

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