Saturday, July 4, 2015

Shaman or Monkey?

Hello everyone out in the interverse. I have just recently returned from a very successful fieldwork season in Cuba, of which I will be posting about soon, but for the time being I have an interesting piece written by my colleague and friend Osvaldo Jimenez to share.  If you haven't yet seen them, he's the author of several previous posts on fossil monkeys and the discoverer of some of those interesting fossil remains.

His new post titled "Shaman or Monkey" (in Spanish: ¿Primate o Chamán? ) deals with the discovery and interpretation of a very enigmatic cave pictograph representing what seems to be a dancing human figure, originally interpreted as an erect monkey (fig. 1).

Figure 1: Cave pictograph of Ciclon Cave (or Cave of the Cyclone) discovered by members of the local speleological group Norbert Casteret in Matanzas city, Matanzas, Cuba.

Osvaldo's post tells the story of a local speleological group, so named Norbert Casteret in honor of that famous speleologist, that in 1981 discovered the interesting pictograph on a cave named Cyclone. This pictograph is enigmatic because it has disappeared from the cave wall, and so out of the radar of those interested in its study.

A cave pictograph is a form of Amerindian cave art executed with charcoal or any other form ocher-black colorants or pigments applied directly on a cave wall. These are somewhat common in the Greater Antilles, and especially Cuba, where they reach a high degree of technical detail and complexity. Such is the case of the concentric circles of Punta del Este, on the Isle of Pines (fig. 2), or Ambrosio Cave in the Varadero peninsula (fig. 3), northwestern Cuba.

Figure 2: Main concentric circle pictograph in Puna del Este, Isle of Pines. Photo and courtesy of Cuban archaeologist Jorge Garcell Dominguez.

Figure 3: Cave pictograph number 28 from Ambrosio Cave in Varadero, northwestern Cuba.

Such cave art is attributed to Cuban Amerindians, originally named Siboney, but that for the sake of simplicity is now grouped with similarly related cultures such as the Guanahatabey. These Amerindians lived in Cuba between 5000 and 1800 years before the present (Dacal and Rivero de la Calle, 1996), had no ceramics, and only a simple shell-based toolkit. They inhabited coastal areas and used caves for religious-ritualistic purposes, including artistic expression and burial.

Much research has been conducted of these cultures and their artistic expressions and will be too extensive to cite here. For the interested reader the work of the late Dr. Antonio Nunez Jimenez titled Cuba: "Dibujos Rupestres" (1975), "Cuevas y Pictografias", and "El Arte Rupestre Cubano" (1986), in addition to "Art and Archaeology of Pre-Columbian Cuba" (1996) by Ramon Dacal Maure and Manuel Rivero de la Calle could serve as great introductory material.

Since the late 1980s, there has been a revival in the study and interpretation of this culture's art form in Cuba. At the forefront of such investigation are the archaeologist Esteban Maciques Sanchez, Roger Arrazcaeta, director of the Archaeological Cabinet (an archaeologically oriented sub-office of the Historian's Office in Havana, Cuba), and Jorge Garcell Dominguez to name a few. Some of the current work has concentrated on dating, interpreting, and correlating these Amerindian artistic manifestations with burial rituals, and the possible influence of the moonlight-sunlight cycles within the cave's space. Such news can be accessed on the site Cuba Arqueologica. For the relevant citations, the reader is directed to Osvaldo's interesting post.

Figure 4: Palenque Hill pictograph discovered by Leonel P. Orozco and myself on 1 of June this year.

Incidentally and to my great surprise, I made my first cave art discovery during a recent excursion to the caves of the Serrania del Palenque, a lowland limestone hill formation in the northwestern province of Matanzas. These seemed to be the intricate remains of a probable more complex piece that have now been erased by time (fig. 4).  However, the origin and age of this pictograph is presently unknown and currently researched. But it seems to be one of the very few discovered in the region!

I hope you all enjoy these ventures and stay tuned for more puzzle pieces from the Greater Antillean paleoworld.

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