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Discoveries in Dominican caves.

DEEP IN AN underwater cave in the Dominican Republic, divers are looking for clues about the island's earliest inhabitants. The discovery of stone tools, a small primate skull, and sloth bones--found 28 to 34 feet deep in a cave named Padre Nuestro--has been called a "treasure trove" by researchers in the field of Caribbean archaeology. "I couldn't believe my eyes as I viewed each of these astonishing discoveries underwater," says Charles Becker, project leader and director of Academic Diving and Underwater Science Programs at Indiana University. "The virtually intact extinct faunal skeletons really amazed me, but what may prove to be a fire pit from the first human occupation of the island just seems too good to be true. But now that the lithics are authenticated, I can't wait to direct another underwater expedition into what may become one of the most important prehistoric sites in all the Caribbean."

The stone tools are from the Taino, a pre-Columbian society that lived in the Caribbean on the islands of the Bahamas, the Greater Antilles, and the Lesser Antilles. The Taino organized themselves into regional, district, and village chiefdoms with one principal ruler. Researchers suggest that during the fifteenth century, the Taino were driven from their homes by rival civilizations from South America. They found refuge in the islands of the Caribbean and were the first indigenous population to meet Christopher Columbus in 1492. Researchers estimate that when Columbus arrived on the island of Hispaniola--now Haiti and the Dominican Republic--five Taino chiefdoms called the island home.

"This is, to the best of my knowledge, the only site in the entire Caribbean that has sloths, primates, and early-looking stone tools all in the same place," explains Geoffrey W. Conrad, anthropology professor and director of the Mathers Museum of World Culture at Indiana University. "Right now, it looks like a treasure trove of data to help us sort out the relationship in time between humans and extinct animals in the Greater Antilles." Researchers estimate that the stone tools are between 4,000 and 6,500 years old.

The animal remains come front extinct sloths--some as large as North American black bears--that were alive between 4,000 and 10,000 years ago. The team is especially excited about the primate skull, one of the few found in the entire Caribbean, and believes it may belong to a type of howler monkey that is now extinct in the Caribbean.

The cave is part of a series of sinkholes located in the southeastern region of the Dominican Republic where an international team of Dominican and American scientists has been working since 1996. The area is covered with limestone bedrock, a porous material that is eroded by water over time forming caves and sinkholes. Archaeological evidence suggests that the Taino used these caverns to gather water for cooking and drinking.

Caves were important to the Taino people and were used for rock art, burials, and temporary resting places. "Caves in general tend to be kind of sacred places. They are connections between this world and the spirit world," Conrad explains. The best known cavern investigated by Beeker's team is Manantial de la Aleta, which researchers suggest was used as a ritual center for ancestor worship.

Because the Taino played such a significant role in the blending of the indigenous and European cultures, Conrad believes this relationship is worth studying. "The Taino are the first people to have sustained contact between Europe axid the Americas," he explains. He adds that once Columbus established the town of La Isabela, "there is continuous contact between Europe and Native Americans and there is no turning back. It is one of the greatest transformations in human history."

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Title Annotation:!Ojo!
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:5DOMN
Date:Mar 1, 2010
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