Rock Art of the Caribbean

Rock Art of the Caribbean

by Michele Hayward

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This compilation, by an international grouping of scholars, focuses on the nature of Caribbean rock art or rock graphics and makes clear the region's substantial and distinctive rock art tradition. Thorough and comparative, it includes data on the history of rock graphic research, the nature of the assemblages (image numbers, types, locations), and the legal,


This compilation, by an international grouping of scholars, focuses on the nature of Caribbean rock art or rock graphics and makes clear the region's substantial and distinctive rock art tradition. Thorough and comparative, it includes data on the history of rock graphic research, the nature of the assemblages (image numbers, types, locations), and the legal, conservation, and research status of the image sites. Chapters on these topics cover research on the islands of Cuba, Haiti, Dominican Republic, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, Guadeloupe, Aruba, and Bonaire. The prehispanic rock art and other ceremonial structures and artifacts, along with enthnohistorical accounts of the region at Contact, projected backward in time, all point to an active ritual and ceremonial life involving commoners, religious specialists, and elites in differing and interconnected roles and for diverse purposes. The selective use of common rock graphic design and physical elements can be seen in the distribution and execution of the carved and painted images. Pecked, ground, abraded, and scratched petroglyphs, along with pictographs done frequently in red, black, white and orange hues are found on a range of rock surfaces including limestones, granites, diorites, and andesites. Caves/rock shelters and rock formations associated with water sources (water ways, pools, ocean) account for the two most common locations, followed by ball court sites, inland rock outcroppings and beach rock.
In addition to specific area presentations, the work includes a review of recent advances in Caribbean rock graphic studies including dating and interpretative models; the application of a new documentation method and resulting computer manipulation advantages; a conservation project in Jamaica that has implications for the preservation and interpretation of the site; and a proposed dating sequence for the Lesser Antillean
Windward Islands.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"A truly valuable contribution to the rock art literature. This book contains comparative data useful for those interested specifically in rock art and will also serve as an important resource for archaeologists working throughout the region."
--Carol Diaz-Granados, Washington University at St. Louis

"The editors are to be commended for bringing together for the first time a wide range of rock art studies from across the Caribbean."
--Jan F. Simek, University of Tennessee

Product Details

University of Alabama Press
Publication date:
Caribbean Archaeology and Ethnohistory Series
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.00(d)

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Copyright © 2009 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-1650-1

Chapter One

Introduction Michele H. Hayward, Lesley-Gail Atkinson, and Michael A. Cinquino

Rationale and Goals

The study of and interest in Caribbean rock art possess a long, though largely circumscribed history. Early European chroniclers, while excluding direct mention of the area's rock images, nonetheless provide a comprehensive context to aid in the understanding of this form of cultural expression. Later interested amateurs and professionals have continued to detail the varied and substantial body of pre-Hispanic-executed designs on rock surfaces.

This resource and its investigative potential remain little known. David Whitley's edited volume Handbook of Rock Art Research (2001) provides summaries of technical, interpretive, and regional advances in rock art research. The Caribbean is not included, although scattered references to the region can be found in the lowland South America section. Cornelius N. Dubelaar has undertaken two comprehensive surveys of rock art for part of the area. Information such as techniques of execution and site descriptions with line drawings can be found in his 1986 book, South American and Caribbean Petroglyphs. The focus is primarily on South American locations, with limited mention of Caribbean island sites. A similar effort for the Lesser Antillean islands is contained in Dubelaar's 1995 publication The Petroglyphs of the Lesser Antilles, the Virgin Islands and Trinidad.

The principal venue for publication of rock art research in the region is the biannual Proceedings of the Congress of the International Association for Caribbean Archaeology. The entire Proceedings from 1961 to 2005, or Volumes 1 through 21, are available on a DVD in PDF format from the website www. More localized venues, such as the Boletín del Museo del Hombre Dominicano from the Dominican Republic and El Caribe Arqueológico from Cuba, regularly contain articles on the rock images of these or other islands.

Articles or information on Caribbean rock art can be found occasionally in wider-distribution journals and books; in international conference publications; in cultural resource management contract reports for those islands politically linked to the United States (Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands); and on electronic publishing or other informational sites through the Internet.

Our goal is to add to the growing interest and research in the rock art of the area through the following specific aims:

1. To provide an overview of Caribbean rock art from as many areas as possible. Topics include the history of research, as well as the assessment of sites, and the application of methods, interpretive frameworks, and protection strategies.

2. To collate these authors' and additional source data to more effectively direct and advance research and conservation efforts in the region.

Rock Art Categories and Terminology

The Caribbean contains three categories of rock art: painted images and carved designs on rock surfaces and rock sculptures. The latter include carved triangular objects and freestanding statues that are generally viewed as belonging to artifact classes of similar manufacture or function. For example, triangular objects made from stone are analyzed along with those carved from shell or bone. Other forms of rock art such as geoglyphs and large-scale rock arrangements constructed in pre-Columbian times are unknown from the region. Small-scale arrangements are possible. Gérard Richard (Chapter 10, this volume) reports an apparent circular formation of boulders for one site on Guadeloupe, while Maura Imbert (2007) suggests that rocks at one location on Antigua may have been deliberately ordered for astronomical observations. Historically, however, rock art studies have been restricted to the first two classes found on immovable or relatively stationary rock structures (Dubelaar et al. 1999:1–2), although comparisons of designs across different media are certainly incorporated.

Caribbean rock art researchers employ a range of terms and meanings in their research. We follow a middle ground of editorship: reducing but not entirely eliminating variability. The term rock art, normally found in the literature and this volume, refers to both carved and painted motifs on natural rock surfaces. Rock figures, images, designs, and motifs serve as alternative vocabulary. Petroglyphs refers to carved, pecked, ground, or other agency-produced designs. Pictographs covers painted or drawn images that are also, though less regularly, referred to as rock paintings.

The terms type, style, school, and tradition are utilized, frequently without consideration of their technical meanings. The various elaborated types or typologies have been employed as a means to order rock art data. The categories are derived from identified attributes that then function as analytical units to examine intersite or intrasite similarities and differences (see, for instance, Cinquino et al. 2003 and Dubelaar 1995:27–31).

In common with other rock art areas (see Francis 2001), the use of style, with school and tradition as loose synonyms, remains problematical. These categories in the Caribbean have been differentiated on the basis of variously defi ned complexes of shared aesthetic and physical traits. Styles, schools, or traditions are intended to be higher-order classification units than types, as well as aids in the study of temporal and cultural differentiation. Yet, linkages of these visual proveniences or even types with particular geographical areas, cultures, or time periods have met with limited success.

Physical Setting

Definitions of the geographical and cultural extent of the Caribbean vary. They can include the entire island chain as well as the adjacent South and North American continental fringes, or they may exclude certain islands based on differences in the region's geological or cultural history. For this discussion of Caribbean rock art, we include only the island chain and certain islands immediately off the northern South American coast. Limited references are made to continental assemblages, whose culturally expressive principles the in-migrating populations would have brought with them.

The Caribbean or West Indian archipelago swings outward from the Venezuelan coast of South America to near Florida at the southeastern tip of North America and the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico in Central America (Figure 1.1). The islands lie close enough together that most can be seen from one another. Based on such factors as size and geologic development, they are divided into four primary physiographic subregions: the Greater Antilles and the Virgin Islands, the Lesser Antilles plus Trinidad and Tobago, the Bahamian archipelago, and the southern Caribbean Islands (Newsom and Wing 2004:10, 75).

The Greater Antilles is made up of Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola (with the modern countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic), and Puerto Rico. These islands are the oldest, having formed by the mid-Cenozoic along the northern edge of the Caribbean tectonic plate. They also account for the largest landmasses in the region (Newsom and Wing 2004:10–11): Cuba with 110,860 km2 (Climate Zone 2006), Hispaniola with 75,940 (Climate Zone 2006), Jamaica with 11,424, and Puerto Rico with 8,897. In general, mountains, intermontane valleys, and coastal plains provide topographic relief derived from limestone, sedimentary, and metamorphic rocks (Newsom and Wing 2004:14 [Table 2.1]; Oldham 2007).

To the east of the Greater Antilles lies the Virgin Islands archipelago composed of numerous small islands politically divided between the United States and the United Kingdom. Volcanic rock predominates on most of the islands that together present a landmass of 502 km2. The terrain is hilly with minimal level areas and relatively thin coasts that rise from a shallow island shelf attached to Puerto Rico (Climate Zone 2006; Davis 2002:15–16, 18–23; Newsom and Wing 2004:14, 114).

The Lesser Antilles extends from Sombrero and Anguilla in the north to Grenada off the coast of Venezuela. The islands formed during the Eocene and Miocene epochs at the eastern edge of the Caribbean tectonic plate and comprise coral limestone or volcanic landforms. This grouping is further divided into the Leeward Islands in the north (Sombrero/Anguilla to Guadeloupe) and the Windward Islands in the south (Dominica to Grenada) (Hofman et al. 2007:244; Newsom and Wing 2004:12, 14 [Table 2.1], 77; Rouse 1992:3). Landmasses are considerably smaller than those in the Greater Antilles, ranging from Saba with 13 km2 to Guadeloupe with 1,702 km2 (Newsom and Wing 2004:14 [Table 2.1], 77). Numerous smaller islands are also found throughout the Lesser, as well as the Greater, Antilles.

The next islands in line, Trinidad and Tobago, broke off at different times from the South American continent in the Quaternary. As continental rather than oceanic derived islands they bear close biological and physical relationships with the northeastern section of South America. Trinidad's 4,828 km2 enclose mountain ranges, lowlands, and coasts resulting from sedimentary, limestone, and volcanic substrates. A central highland ridge, primarily made up of metamorphic and volcanic rocks, accounts for most of the 302 km2 of Tobago, which is also bordered by a shoreline and to the southwest a broad coastal platform of coral limestone (Boomert 2000:17–19, 24–31).

The Bahamian archipelago comprises 35 small coral limestone islands with low, usually less than 30 m, relief. The Bahamas represent the most recently derived islands, stemming from banks on a slowly rising large limestone platform. The islands, along with more than 600 cays (smaller islands) stretching over 1,000 km, are divided between the governments of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas and of Turks and Caicos Islands (Newsom and Wing 2004:12, 14, 172, 174).

The southern Caribbean Islands generally lie within 50 km of Venezuela. Margarita and the Los Roques groupings belong to Venezuela, while Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao, being former Dutch colonies, are commonly referred to as the Netherlands Antilles (Newsom and Wing 2004:12). We focus on only the latter grouping of islands for this rock art survey. Their landmasses in square kilometers are as follows: Aruba with 190, Bonaire with 288, and Curaçao with 443. Limestone and volcanic rocks predominate on these relatively low-lying islands (188 to 372 m high), where Aruba is attached to the continental shelf distinct from the oceanic islands of Bonaire and Curaçao (Newsom and Wing 2004:14 [Table 2.1], 60). Like Trinidad and Tobago, they all reflect the biotic and material cultures of the mainland (Boomert 2000; Newsom and Wing 2004), including rock art (see Haviser on Bonaire and Kelly on Aruba, Chapters 12 and 13, respectively, this volume).

Cultural Setting


Populations initially entering the Caribbean island chain would have found more circumscribed landforms, less biotic diversity, and increased marine resources compared with their continental homelands. These factors, along with such physical conditions as the islands' divergent climatic, topographic, and resource bases, and in addition to varying local, interisland, and continental cultural ties, all affected subsequent cultural development.

We briefly outline this development and for chronological control rely on a 1992 framework by Rouse. Associations among principally ceramics and radiocarbon dates provide the basis for the sequence. Figures 1.2 and 1.3 present an updated version of Rouse's (1992:52–53, Figures 14 and 15) time/ space continuum with the nomenclature for major cultural periods, associated calendrical dates, general ceramic categories, and peoples.

Culturally, the Greater Antilles includes the Bahamian archipelago, Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and, at times, parts of the northern Leeward Islands. The Lesser Antilles comprises the Leeward and Windward islands and, for our purposes, the near South American islands of Trinidad, Tobago, Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao.

The Preceramic Period: Lithic and Archaic Ages

An isolated spearhead from Trinidad marks the earliest evidence for Lithic Age hunter-foragers in the region, around 10,000 B.C. when the island was still connected to the mainland by a land bridge. The point bears similarities to the Canaiman subseries of the Joboid series of northern South America (Boomert 2000:49–51, 54). Much later, ca. 4000 B.C., groups from either northern South America or Central America moved into the Antillean islands of Cuba, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico (Callaghan 2003; Newsom and Wing 2004:29–30; Rodríguez Ramos 2005:5; Rouse 1992:51, 54).

Even though the number of sites is limited, the material remains, as well as analogies to present-day hunter-gatherers, suggest that Lithic Age or Casimiroid people primarily manufactured fl aked tools including blades and scrapers; were organized into small, mobile, egalitarian band-level societies; and engaged in varied subsistence practices from hunting on land to fishing for marine resources to manipulation of plant foods (Boomert 2000:51–52; Newsom and Wing 2004:29–30, 117; Rodríguez Ramos 2005:5–6).

Site density increases in the Archaic Age, with groups from northern South America settling many of the islands beginning around 7500 B.C. in Trinidad and reaching the Greater Antilles by 2000 B.C. This interisland peopling also includes groups from the mainland that occupied the neighboring Nether lands Antillean islands for a restricted period between 1370 B.C. and A.D. 470. Cultural diversification is seen in the division of these societies into the Ortoiroid series from northern South America to the Greater Antilles, with the Cuban and Hispaniolan populations maintaining their Casimiroid traditions in modified form (Newsom and Wing 2004:30, 61, 117–118; Rouse 1992:61).

Ground stone, bone, and shell artifacts, along with a general though not exclusive absence of pottery, characterize Archaic Age material cultural assemblages. Considerable local variation within overall shared subsistence and settlement patterns is evident. Subsistence appears to have been based on the exploitation of marine resources such as shellfish and reef fish, supplemented by the hunting or gathering of land animals and plant foods. More intensive utilization or manipulation of plant foods is indicated. Occupation of the sites, consisting mainly of shell middens on or near the coasts, was probably by small groups for short or recurrent periods. Sociopolitical organization likely remained at the band egalitarian level, albeit in a more complex form than in the previous Lithic Age (Boomert 2000:53–91; Newsom and Wing 2004:30–31, 78, 118; Rodríguez Ramos 2005:6–8; Rouse 1992:49–70).

Ceramic Period: Early and Late Phases

The Ceramic Age not only marks the widespread adaptation of pottery-making traditions, settled village life, and full-time horticulture throughout the region but, in addition, the settlement of all the major Antillean islands. People left the lowland tropical forest region of the Orinoco, as well as interior and coastal river basins of Venezuela and Guiana, to establish new settlements beginning around 400/500 B.C. Thin-walled ceramics with a variety of plastic elements and painted designs were manufactured, as were intricately carved and polished beads, amulets, and pendants from stone, shell, coral, and bone. The dietary base was widened to include cultivation of various plants, especially root crops including manioc. Settlements were permanent, located near the shoreline, coastal plain, and alluvial valleys. These diverse Early Ceramic or Saladoid people left little evidence of marked sociopolitical stratification and may have been organized into segmented "big man" local political units in which kinship ties served to integrate these polities into multicommunity groupings (Newsom and Wing 2004:31–32, 78–79, 118–119; Rouse 1992).


Excerpted from ROCK ART OF THE CARIBBEAN Copyright © 2009 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Michele H. Hayward, Archaeologist, Panamerican Consultants, Inc.; Lesley-Gail Atkinson, Archaeologist, Jamaica National
Heritage Trust; and Michael A. Cinquino, Archaeologist, Panamerican Consultants, Inc.

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