Virgin Islands National Park: Taino Petroglyphs

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When Sean, Adam, and I reached the valley floor, we turned north onto Reef Bay Trail for a dozen yards until we came to the beginning of Petroglyph Trail, a spur trail leading westward through the forest until it crossed a gut, or semi-regular stream bed, which was currently dry. The trail dead-ended at the site of pre-Columbian petroglyphs carved by the Taino people (see map).

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Near the end of the short trail, steps led up to a natural ledge in the rock. Several freshwater pools were trapped on the ledge.

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As we arrived, there was a fresh-faced young couple, blonde, in their late twenties or early thirties. They were being warned off by a mother mongoose, whose nest of juveniles was in the dense foliage of the cliff face just about at eye level. Mongoose are non-native to St. John. They were introduced in the hope that they would hunt rats. Unfortunately, that didn’t work at all because rats are nocturnal and mongoose are not. The Mongoose did, however, severely impact native bird populations because they love to eat eggs.

One of the juveniles was extremely curious about us, and Adam was able to capture some photos and video.

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Image: Adam Geffen

Video: Adam Geffen

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Image: Adam Geffen

We got to talking with the couple, who were very friendly. They had just arrived on St. John the day before from Appleton, Wisconsin. They were excited to hear that Sean and I were from Chicago, and we all chatted for a bit about the blizzard earlier that week. We gave them some space to explore the petroglyphs. When they were done posing for photos, they collected their things and wished us a cheerful goodbye.

Then we had the petroglyphs to ourselves.

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The Tainos were the inhabitants of this part of the Caribbean when Columbus arrived. In The Tainos: Rise and Decline of the People Who Greeted Columbus (1993), archaeologist Irving Rouse (1913-2006) offers a valedictory statement on the Tainos gleaned from his fifty-year career studying them.

In 1492, the Tainos had a robust civilization stretching from all but the westernmost part of Cuba through Hispaniola and Puerto Rico to the Virgin Islands and beyond, and stretching north into the Bahamian archipelago. It was long thought that they had been part of the series of successive migrations into the West Indies from South America. The ancestors of the Tainos had certainly come from the Amazon basin, down the Orinoco River, and then migrated up the Lesser Antilles into the Greater Antilles. But the Tainos themselves, Rouse argues, developed into a distinct culture in the islands. Their own creation myth, in fact, spoke of their emergence as a people from a cave on Hispaniola.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

Rouse asserts that had the Tainos continued to develop undisturbed by the Spanish, they likely would have created a lavish civilization on par with the Maya, Aztec, and Inca of Middle and South America. The central Tainos of Hispaniola and Puerto Rico (whom Rouse calls the “Classic Tainos”) constructed courts for ceremonial ball playing and dancing. (Taino ball courts have been discovered as far east as St. Croix.) They also had a complicated matriarchal social structure of villages and chiefs and practiced agriculture and trade.

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The Taino religion was based on the worship and reverence of gods and ancestors. Much of what we know about it comes from both Spanish records and artifacts discovered by archaeologists and anthropologists. The Tainos used zemis to represent gods and ancestors. Figures of zemis were modeled out of clay or carved out of bone, shell, or stone. They were also carved or painted onto sacred objects or stones ringing ball courts.

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And they were carved as petroglyphs.

Rouse: The Classic Tainos are said to have decorated their pottery, ornaments, and other artifacts with the figures of zemis and to have painted or tattooed them on their bodies. In addition, they carved or painted outlines in caves and on rocks along streams or coasts. These so-called petroglyphs or pictographs were not necessarily objects of worship.

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The cliff, the still pools, and the surrounding forest created an effect almost like a grotto or a medieval chapel.

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Image: Adam Geffen

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Video: Brandon Hayes

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On his first voyage, Columbus landed in the Bahamas, where he encountered the northern Tainos. They guided him to Cuba and Hispaniola before he returned to Spain. On the second voyage, Columbus arrived in the Caribbean farther south in the Lesser Antilles and worked his way north and west past the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. The Eastern Tainos were subject to regular raids by the Island Caribs, who lived in the Lesser Antilles north of the South American mainland. By the time Columbus arrived, St. John was depopulated. It’s unknown whether this was because of the Island Caribs or whether it was merely the ebb and flow of Eastern Taino society and where they settled at any given time.

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Columbus arrived in the Americas in 1492. By 1524, the Tainos as a people were essentially extinct, victims of slavery, disease, and brutal massacres. Looking at the faces staring out from the rock, I was reminded of the monument to Columbus staring out to sea from a plaza in Barcelona. I couldn’t help but imagine the stone faces and the statue gazing at each other across the Atlantic and the centuries.

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And reading about the Virgin Islands in National Geographic archives after we returned home, I came across this appalling photo:

National Geographic February 1956

From National Geographic, February 1956

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Gray Kingbird

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Image: Sean M. Santos

We remained at the petroglyphs, enjoying the peacefulness, until another couple arrived. They lived on St. John, and Sean remarked later how nice it was that even locals hiked out to see the petroglyphs on a Sunday afternoon.

We gathered our things and withdrew to give the new arrivals time alone with the petroglyphs. As we headed back down the trail and through the forest, we agreed that we were glad that we hadn’t visited the site on the guided Reef Bay Trail hike. We were fortunate to have visited it without a crowd.

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