The arrival of the European conquistadores in the New World marked the beginning of a social, economic, and spiritual schism on a global scale. While the official records depict an uncompromising and one-sided cultural annihilation, resulting in the extinction of the indigenous metaphysical order, a series of newly discovered markings in caves on a small Caribbean island suggest that not all European invaders were quite so heavy-handed.
Describing the findings in the journal Antiquity, the researchers provide a new perspective on the “intimate dialogue of spiritual encounter between Christian and Native worldviews” shortly after the first Europeans arrived in the region.
During the 16th century, as word was spreading throughout the Old World about a new and mysterious continent, inhabited by godless savages, the small island of Mona developed into a hub of colonial activity. Having surveyed around 70 cave systems on the island, researchers have discovered a huge collection of indigenous illustrations etched onto the cavern walls, many of which depict key motifs related to their spiritual beliefs and iconography.
An image engraved onto the walls of a cave on the island of Mona. University of Leicester
One cave in particular, known as Cave 18, appears to have held particular significance for the pre-Columbian natives of Mona, as it contains a strikingly large concentration of images, and seems to have been visited more frequently than other caves.
When examining these etchings, the researchers stumbled upon the amazing discovery of several Latin and Spanish inscriptions and Christian motifs, all of which have been dated back to the 1550s and are accompanied by the names of the Spanish colonists who made them. Taking a closer look at these markings, the study authors believe they provide a record of a theological debate, during which the native and European inhabitants of Mona discussed and attempted to reconcile their respective spiritual beliefs with one another.
For instance, among the phrases found written on the cave walls are the likes of “verbum caro factum est” – meaning “and the world was made flesh” – by someone called Bernardo in 1554, as well as others like “dios te perdone” (“may god forgive you”). In addition, the researchers found depictions of Jesus on the cross, with these images interspersed among indigenous motifs.
It therefore seems that the native and Spanish visitors to the cave used its walls as a forum to exchange ideas and beliefs regarding concepts such as the creation of the world and the afterlife, among other things. The fact that Christian crosses were always engraved above indigenous drawings may also indicate the conquistadores’ attempts to instill a spiritual hierarchy on the island, implying that their god is superior to all native ones. However, this may also reflect the simple fact that Europeans were generally taller than indigenous Americans, and therefore made their engravings higher up.
The interspersing of Christian and native imagery in this way marks a major departure from traditional understandings of the way that Europeans imposed their spirituality on their indigenous hosts. For instance, the study authors comment that “the emotional and theological character of the inscriptions is different from the censure of the inquisition in places such as contemporary Mexico, where the incorporation of indigenous iconography into a Calvary scene would have been deeply heretical.”
The reasons for this apparent spiritual cooperation is unclear, although the researchers suggest that both parties may have benefited economically from maintaining a respectful relationship with one another. Regardless of the true reasons behind this religious alliance, it’s clear that the paper archives that tell the official story of the spiritual conquest of the Americas omit several intimate details, which are recorded not in books but on the very landscape of the continent itself.
The inscription "IESUS" refers to Jesus. University of Leicester