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Taíno Caves in the Dominican Republic

Photo Essay, by Dr. Lynne Guitar

Guardians of the Caves

Here are two guardian petroglyphs, the first from the cave called Guacara de Sanabe (also Hoyo de Sanabe) in the hills near Cotui, and the second from Sand Cave in today's Los Haitises National Park.

The "Guardian" from Cueva Peñon Gordo. The pictographs in this cave are unusual because they are in white, not black. This guardian is unusual too, for he has eyes in his hands as well as in his head. Note the "happy face" to the right.

Cave Climbers and Dancers

A drawing of climbers in Guacara Sanabe shows that, once long ago, you had to climb up and down ropes to access this tunnel; some time in the recent past, a rock slide closed the tunnel off. As for the figure to the right...what a graceful dancer!  He's nearly hidden on a wall filled with drawings behind a large stalactite.

Rain Gods

Above are three images (two pictographs and one petroglyph) of the rain god, Boiyanel.  Life required rain, but also the sun (below).

The Sun

A pictograph of the sun from the Cueva Jose Maria in East National Park.

Taíno Food

These pictographs represent the Taínos' daily food:  a yucca grater for making casabe bread, the cibucanes needed to squeeze the poisonous juice from bitter yucca to make casabe, an hutia (now nearly extinct), maize/corn, sea turtles (though it was forbidden to eat fresh-water turtles because of their connection with the creation of the earth).

Inhaling Cohoba

The cohoba ceremony is depicted with frequency in almost all the caves.  Here are four of my favorites.  The last photo is of a shell pile in Guacara Sanabe.  The calcium from crushed shells acted as a catalyst to make the hallucinogens in the cohoba act more rapidly.

Healing Caves, Behiques and Caciques

The first time I saw these pictographs in Guacara Sanabe of human beings trussed to a pole and carried by two others, I was confused.  The Taíno weren't cannibals!  Had they captured some Spaniards?  Dominican archaeologist Domingo Abreau believes that this cave was an especially powerful healing cave and that the drawings depict the ill being brought there for curing.  This fits with all the fierce masks (see below) that also appear in this cave and oversize figures--some of the pictographs are 6' high!--for the behique had to call upon powerful zemi spirits to cure the seriously ill.

The pictograph (above left) from the Guacara Sanabe appears to be of a behique in his fierce mask or perhaps his zemi helper, who might have been a powerful behique while alive. To the right is an example from the Cueva de las Maravillas.

The drawings of this powerful cacique in Cueva de las Maravillas (left) are said to be of the Lord of the Dead.
Some people believe that the pictograph to the right in the main cave at Pommiers, represents the five cacicazgos (principle chiefdoms) that were on the island in 1492.


Dogs were very important to the Taíno as companions for hunting hutias.  Above are two pictographs of dogs, one from Cueva Pommiers of them mating (the entire cave is filled with drawings dedicated to the island's fertility) and the other, a 6-foot-wide drawing, from Guacara de Sanabe.


Land birds appear frequently in all the cave art and apparently represented man.  The last of these three bird pictographs is a signal painted onto the rock at the left side of the entrance to a narrow tunnel within the main Cueva Pommiers--it indicates that you have to bend down to get through.

More Animals and Birds

Other animals and birds are frequently depicted in the caves, like lizards, frogs, and owls--owls and bats, night "birds," represented the spirit world.  I haven't yet seen a bat pictograph or petroglyph, though their faces were the most common thing that decorated the handles of Taíno ceramics.... By the way, you may have to look closely to find the owl petroglyph.  He was carved using the natural flow of the rock to form his body, and his head is twisted to look at you sideways, in typical "barn owl" pose.  Fungus growing on the rock has turned him green. To the Taíno, the head was very important--the repository of all a person's thoughts and memories, and perhaps what we refer to as the soul.

"Happy Faces"?

These are petroglyphs.  The first set are carved into stalagmites facing the entrance of a cave called Chicho just outside East National Park, which has been an important source of fresh drinking water for thousands of years.  The second photo is of "Las Caritas" (The Little Faces) that are carved high on the rock cliffs overlooking Lake Enriquillo in the southwest.

"Reading" the Caves

Some of the caves, like Guacara Sanabe, Jose Maria, and Las Maravillas, have vast panels of drawings, all crowded together.  What was the relationship among the drawings?  Does each panel, in fact, tell a story, if only we could "read" them like the Taíno did?

The Spanish Invaders

Is this drawing in Pommiers a cat?  If so, it was drawn after the arrival of the Spaniards, for there were no cats in the Americas before that.

And is this drawing in Jose Maria a bearded Spaniard?

How about this one, also in Jose Maria?  It could be interpreted as a man with a beard, a ship with a mast, and maybe a man on horseback.

Start of War

This is part (about 1/3rd) of the so-called Tribute Panel in Jose Maria that some have "read" as a description of the agreement between Spaniards and Taínos from Isla Saona to provide casabe bread for Spanish sailors.  I think the interpretation is only partly right.  I think it deals with the Spaniards seeking cassabe bread from the Taíno, in particular the Spanish Captain Salamanca, who went to the Higuey region around 1502, when more food was needed to feed the Taíno workers constructing the new Fortress of the Ozama in Santo Domingo.  A fierce dog from his ship attacked the cacique, disembowling him; he died three days later.  The event caused the Taino of the region to rise up in rebellion against the Spaniards.  I think this part of the panel shows the violence of the start of that war.

This page was created: Friday, 28 January, 2005
Last Update: Monday, 31 January, 2005