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Ancient cave art threatened by mining in Dominican Republic
SAN CRISTOBAL, Dominican Republic (AP) -- Ancient drawings on cave walls, the work of a now-extinct people, are being threatened by modern man's need for concrete blocks and heartburn relief.
More than five centuries ago, Christopher Columbus landed on this island and set in motion events that would wipe out its Taino Indians. Now limestone mining threatens some of the last remaining evidence that Tainos ever lived here: thousands of drawings and carvings left in caves they considered a sacred site of the beginning of creation.
Here are copulating birds that themselves became extinct, a fish, lizards, cute figures that look like creatures from another planet -- drawings in charcoal that one could imagine influencing Picasso. Archaeologists believe the oldest drawings are up to 2,000 years old, but no one is certain because you would have to destroy them to carbon-date them.
"These caves have been compared to the pyramids of Egypt in terms of their importance to Caribbean native culture," says Domingo Abreu, who has been exploring the caves for more than 20 years and gives tours to students and tourists.
'Extensive example of prehistoric art'
Australian archaeologist Robert Bednarik, who has visited caves here, in Puerto Rico and in Cuba, says the Pomier Caves are the most extensive example of prehistoric art yet discovered in the Caribbean, containing works by Igneri and Carib Indians as well as the Tainos. He is adamant about protecting the site, noting the Tainos left little else behind.
"There is plenty of limestone they can mine without coming near the caves," he said. "I don't understand why this even has to be an issue."
Yet mining is important to the economy here. A long impoverished island, the Dominican Republic has recently experienced the kind of economic growth it had longed for. That boom has been fueled, in part, by construction -- buildings of concrete, concrete made with limestone.
One of the miners in the area, GAT Industries, also sells the limestone to an American antacid manufacturer, GAT vice president Camilo Andres Tavares said.
"We expect private investment and the mining concessions we hold to be respected," he said. "We support the coexistence of mining and the environment."
Caves, drawings already damaged
Five of the 54 caverns already have been damaged or ruined by the explosions, and only 11 of the rest are within the Anthropological Reserve, which is protected by the government.
Mining is prohibited within the park, but its border runs close to the protected caves and GAT and other companies mine as close as 33 feet from the caves.
A study funded by the U.N. Development Program in 1995 recommended mining be prohibited within 660 feet of the park border, which also protects a million-strong bat population. The government's newly created Ministry of the Environment is studying measures to better protect the caves.
Meanwhile, the explosions and debris from the mining have blocked entrances, tumbled down cave walls and damaged the drawings inside.
They were painted on with charcoal mixed with animal fat, probably from manatees, archaeologists say, and have been protected by the natural humidity in the caves, which reach down to 1,000 feet below sea level.
Environmental activists have big expectations for the caves. Architects have drawn plans for an environmental education center with walkways to make it easier for visitors to see the drawings. The plans even include sanitation projects for the surrounding community. The cost: $1.7 million.
"We've found in these caves pictures that match what the early Spanish priests recorded about the Tainos," Abreu tells a group of students, after leading them crawling on their stomachs through tight tunnels and up near-vertical walls.
"The Tainos left information here, about the caves, how to get through them, about the birds of the island, about their beliefs," he explains.
Inside the caves, Tainos drew birds crouching with their wings folded tightly in front of small tunnels and birds in flight before the openings of huge caverns. There are pictures of people catching birds in their hands as they fly by. A Spanish priest who arrived shortly after Columbus wrote that there were so many birds that the natives caught them this way. Other chroniclers wrote about the Taino pipe-smoking ceremony, which also is recorded on the cave walls.
Many of the cave entrances are marked with carvings of fearsome gods -- warnings to people of the future that these places are sacred.
Copyright 2001 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
Primitive Cave Art
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