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Caribbean Cave Art Myths Revealed

Some of humanity’s oldest and newest storytelling techniques have been brought together through an innovative project in the Dominican Republic.

Having met in 2010 at an international conference on Ice Age rock art (covered here on NatGeo News Watch), experts in both ancient myths and modern digital photography teamed up this past January to catalog Caribbean cave art like never before.

hoyo-de-sanabe-cave-art.jpgA detail of part of Hoyo de Sanabe, known for having some of the best rock art in the Caribbean. Photo by Robert Mark

Robert Mark and Evelyn Billo of Rupestrian CyberServices in Arizona proposed a project where they would use D-Stretch image enhancement and GigaPan panorama technology to help record the ancient rock art of the Dominican Republic. Daniel DuVall, himself a researcher and photographer of ancient art in the area, together with Domingo Abréu, Head of Caves for the Dept of the Environment for the Dominican Republic, served as hosts and guides to both the locations of the art and the meanings behind it.

While Billo’s use of D-Stretch as an attempt “to bring out some of the faded imagery ” is still in progress, Mark’s GigaPans are online now, the result of a pioneering effort to create such a digital panorama of ancient art in the dark zone of a cave using just the flash of a camera. Last year in Niaux, France, National Geographic used existing display lighting in the cave to produce a similar image (view the Niaux panorama).

Words Are Worth 1,000 Pictures

In addition to posting the images themselves, on the panorama of Hoyo de Sanabe the team used GigaPan’s captioning tools to highlight particular areas of interest, and provide a rare glimpse at the meanings behind the pictures through snippets of research by Abréu and DuVall.

These involve descriptions of the ancient Taíno myth of Deminán Caracaracol, known from the work of early European chroniclers Fray Ramón Pané and Bartolomé de las Casas. They decipher ancient symbols of healing and childbirth, and reveal traditional cultural scenes, like a shaman inhaling cohoba, a native hallucinogenic agent.

This is the kind of information still available in many parts of the world from living cultures and forgotten historical documents, but which is virtually nonexistent in Europe where the cultural traditions that produced cave art have long since completely replaced and forgotten.

An Ancient Treasure Re-Gifted

The images themselves were made by Rupestrian CyberServices, and are being presented to the government free of charge, in the words of Evelyn Billo, “in hopes it might contribute to the appreciation and conservation of the cultural resources in the Dominican Republic.”

The complete Hoyo de Sanabe panorama and captions are viewable both on
Rupestrian CyberServices and here on nationalgeographic.com.

(updated 3/3/2011)