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New cave discoveries shed light on Native and European religious encounters in the Americas

A project led by archaeologists from the British Museum and our University has discovered remarkable evidence which shows how the first generations of Europeans to arrive in the Americas engaged with indigenous peoples and their spiritual beliefs deep inside the caves of a remote Caribbean island.

In a paper, published in Antiquity, a team led by Dr Jago Cooper (British Museum) and Dr Alice Samson (Leicester) has provided new understandings about the formation of emergent cultural identities in the Caribbean that challenge historic accounts of indigenous extinction.

Since 2013, exploration and survey of around 70 cave systems — part of an interdisciplinary study of past human activity on Mona Island — has revealed that Mona’s caves include the greatest diversity of preserved indigenous iconography in the Caribbean, with thousands of motifs recorded in darkzone chambers far from cave entrances.

In the astonishing cave discussed in this paper more than 30 historic inscriptions include named individuals, phrases in Latin and Spanish, dates and Christian symbols that occur within a series of connecting chambers all within the area of indigenous iconography.

Dr Alice Samson from the School of Archaeology and Ancient History said: “Increasing use of interdisciplinary approaches  and archaeometric analyses have provided new understandings of colonial processes that are more nuanced than mere oppression, domination and, in the case of the Caribbean, indigenous extinction.

“This not only provides a counterpoint to official metropolitan histories, but also tracks the beginnings of new religious engagements and transforming cultural identities in the Americas."

The team, which has just completed its 2016 season, includes students from Puerto Rico and the UK carrying out dissertations in Climate Science, Archaeology, and History.

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