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A team of archaeologists has discovered a vast array of pre-European conquest artwork from a lost civilization in a series of tiny caves on an uninhabited island in the Caribbean.

Some of the artwork was already known to archaeologists but had been misidentified as far more recent than it actually was. The Taíno people, a forgotten civilization that were wiped out following the conquests of Christopher Columbus, who mistook them for Indians, etched and painted a series of pictograms of animal-human hybrids and complex geometric designs.

“For the millions of indigenous peoples living in the Caribbean before European arrival, caves represented portals into a spiritual realm, and therefore these new discoveries of the artists at work within them captures, the essence of their belief systems and the building blocks of their cultural identity,” said researcher Jago Cooper from the British Museum, as cited by Science Alert.

In the Taíno religion, for example, both the sun and moon emerged from caves, making them a key feature of their religious canon. “Most of the precolonial pictographs are in very narrow spaces deep in the caves,” says Victor Serrano from the University of Leicester as cited by The University of Leicester Press, where the team’s findings were published.

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To correctly date the artwork, the international team of archaeologists and anthropologists, along with their high-tech equipment, had to squeeze through a network of 70 tiny caves. Employing cutting-edge techniques such as portable X-ray fluorescence (P-XRF), scanning electron microscopy with energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (SEM/EDX) on paint and charcoal samples, the team were able to establish the methods used to not only create the artworks on the cave walls but also the paint and charcoal themselves.

The team also used radiocarbon (C14) and Uranium-thorium (U-Th) dating methods to more accurately define the period of history in which the artworks were created. These methods have the potential for widespread application across the globe and could advance the integration of cave art research in archaeology.

Taíno people left their legacy embedded in the rock of Mona Island, which today is a 57-square-kilometer (22 square mile) uninhabited nature reserve consisting mostly of limestone and vegetation to the west of Puerto Rico. “As a Puerto Rican, these groups of people that visited and lived in Mona Island are my ancestors, and their story is of utmost importance,” says Serrano.

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The majority of the pictograms were created by scratching at the rock face with tools or with their hands while the remainder were paintings created with the use of charcoal or bat droppings (guano) that had been mixed with plant resins. The paintings were created in a multi-step process with additional layers and touch-ups detected by the archaeologists.

The words “hurricane, canoe, and tobacco” are all Taíno in origin. In addition, the Taíno are believed to be among the first peoples to cultivate sweet potato, corn and pineapple, creating a legacy that endures to this day, unbeknownst to many.