Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A Rock Art Discovery in Cumayasa

Before meeting Rafael in La Piedra, Alain and I searched caves for several years in Cumayasa with Chichi. Chichi’s knowledge of local caves came, not from hiding illegal pesticides in them, but from looking for lost livestock; goats in particular have a penchant for wandering into cave complexes, not being able to find their way out and dying. We turn off the main highway, between San Pedro de Macoris and La Romana, after the
The guaguita can just be seen parked to far left
monumental Presidente beer billboard and more or less follow the high tension electric towers past several dumps and charcoal making piles and we turn after the shack where the Haitianos live and bounce down the brutally rutted dirt road through several barways until we get to Chichi’s mother-in-law, Isabel’s house.
Pile of branches ready to be burned for charcoal.
Isabel raises mules and donkeys and has taken in several wan, thin orphans over the years and feeds them partially with bread made from the rhizomes of guáyiga (Zamia debilis), a wild fern-like cycad that grows in abundance here. If the sap is not properly purged from the mashed rhizomes the bread can be
Plantains and papaya planted on limestone
deadly poisonous but Isabel’s, while very dry, is filling and sticks with you. She claims her recipe hasn't killed anyone yet. They also grow yucca (manihot), guandules (pigeon peas), habichuelas (kidney beans) and lechosa (papaya), although I don't know how since the ground appears to be about as fertile as the Moon. They have to find or smash and chisel holes in the jagged limestone crust and fill them with dirt and manure in order to plant anything. Walking through a planted area is an ankle turning, shoe-ripping ordeal.
Chichi is married to Isabel's deaf mute daughter, who I am not sure has a name, and they have one child together.
Chichi with wife and child in their back yard

Unlike Rafael, who took a shine to looking for petroglyphs with us and who explores the caves with us when he does not have somewhere else he needs to be, Chichi leads us to a cave entrance, follows us in to the edge of the dark zone, shudders, leaves, and comes back for us in the afternoon. If we need to rappel into the cave we ask him to wait for us above ever since the morning some itinerant, machete-wielding tigueres shouted down to us, at the bottom of a 30 foot deep drop with sheer walls and no other way out that we knew of than up by the same 9mm rope that we had descended with, that they were going to cut and steal the rope. Luckily we were able to name-drop several local landowners and managed to talk the thugs out of it. They would have probably cut the rope into short lengths to make halters and hobbles for stolen mules or to make towropes for broken down vehicles.
This area of Cumayasa is rich in caves but was not known to be so rich
Petroglyph from Cumayasa.
Unusual with two connected heads,
perhaps suggesting Siamese twins.
in rock art. As in almost all regions of the Dominican Republic, close to half of the caves will have at least one or two, often badly eroded, petroglyphs carved into calcite formations near the entrance, in partial light. These petroglyphs are nearly always faces comprising a circle, two eyes and a nose or mouth and are thought to be guardians of the deeper regions. We don't know why the Taíno (or their predecessors) decorated their caves but they did believe that they were special places; the sun and moon emerged from caves in their creation and the souls of the dead were thought to be tied to the comings and goings of bats in the caves.
During a previous year Alain and Eric LaBarre, another French caver, along with Chichi, had discovered both a painted mural and a finger-fluted boulder in a previously unreported cave that they named Cueva del Peñón. Chichi kept coming across unknown entrances and Alain and I kept exploring, measuring and mapping them and it turned out that many of the entrances were interconnected and that it was not an area of many small caves but of a few large, almost maze-like cave systems.
One drizzly morning Chichi led us to the back of a small property owned by Vidal and that had a small shack on it and eventually we spotted the entrance at the bottom of an overgrown gravelly slope. After being assured that we would not need to rappel Chichi promptly left to go chop firewood with his colleen*.
After taking the GPS coordinates we ducked under a low lentil and crawled into the cool penumbra of the cave. I readied my camera stuff while Alain wandered off to reconnoiter the first rooms and within minutes got lost. When he called out sometimes the echo came from nearby and sometimes from what seemed like from the bowels of an empty, subterranean coliseum. I hammered on the wall near me from time to time and he found his way back
Remains of a lost goat. A strand of
our discarded measuring thread
can be seen to left.
after about 20 minutes. He handed me my end of the string from his Topofil gadget and we began measuring the few nearby dimly lighted rooms and their interconnections before striking off down a slick, smooth, mud glazed decline and into total darkness. At first when I looked back I could see points and dim glows of light from where we had come, but one turn later and all was dark in every direction except where our helmet spotlights shined. While Alain sketched and calculated the rises and runs and azimuths I cast my light around the walls looking for art.
We measured our way off to the right where we soon came to a cliff with a 6-meter drop, too steep for us to descend without rope. As we gazed down into that space Alain thought he recognized one of the boulders on the floor as one he thought of as “camel hump” from Cueva del Peñón. We turned and, punto por punto, worked our way back through a sort of high lobby with a dark triangular opening in the far end. Alain bit off the used measuring thread and sat down to sketch some ceiling details while I wandered off through the lobby. High and to the right of the triangle I saw the first pictograph, “Alain, hay dibujos!” I said.

We left our packs at the base of the triangle and crab-slid our way through the opening into a narrow passageway about 15 meters long and that had a shelf like a stair-tread about 1 meter high extending the length of the left hand wall and above that shelf the wall was covered in rich black pictographs. Some were covered with natural deposits of calcite, which attests to their antiquity. The ceiling was high, evidently nearly reaching ground level since we could see pinpricks of light above.

We did eventually determine that the cave on Vidal's land did connect with Peñón at the intersection by the “camel hump” rock and that the whole system contains almost 3 miles of passageway and 4 important areas of rock art. Alain published his findings in a private publication in French and I published Finger Fluting and Other Cave Art in Cumayasa, Dominican Republic in Rock Art Research, a juried, peer reviewed Australian journal available to download HERE. Rock art image galleries HERE and at www.danielduvall.com

* Colleen is a vernacular term here for machete because many years ago all the machetes were imported from The Collins Iron Works, Collinsville, Ct., USA and they had the word Collins stamped in the steel up near the handle and colleen is the Spanish pronunciation. In those days when you were wading into a machete fight you might threaten to stick it into your foe “up to the colleen”.

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