Mining Threatens Ancient Cave Art in Caribbean
Environment: A series of caves in the Dominican Republic harbors 2,000-year-old
paintings by the extinct Taino people. Some
are being damaged by a limestone concern.
By SUSANNAH A. NESMITH, Associated Press
SAN CRISTOBAL, Dominican Republic--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. Archeologists 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.
Australian archeologist 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
But mining is important to the economy here. Long impoverished, the Dominican Republic has recently experienced the kind of
economic growth it had longed for, amounting to some 40% in the last four years. 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."
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. 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
They were painted on with charcoal mixed with animal fat, probably from manatees, archeologists 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
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 that these places are sacred.