June 28, 2004 – Ken Wild, archaeologist and cultural resource manager with the National Park Service, has presented new theories about why the petroglyphs were carved into rock at Reef Bay on St. John and what they mean.
His article posted on the Friends of the V.I. National Park Web site goes to heart of Taino Indian culture that was developing from the beginning of the first century up to the arrival of Columbus in the Virgin Islands.
Wild's theories are based on what he sees as core beliefs of the Taino Indians: that the supernatural world and natural world reflect each other and that some creatures, specifically bats, can cross between the two worlds.
"It is hard for us to comprehend today," he said in an interview Sunday. "We are different. We are much more materialistic."
Wild, who has been doing archaeological work in the Virgin Islands since 1984, wrote his article for a general audience. But he also submitted it to the International Caribbean Congress of Archaeologists, which he expects will publish it later this year.
He writes, "Many people here are physically related to this past and, even if not, we all share the customs, words and ideas of these people as they have been passed on for centuries from island to island."
No study has been done in the Virgin Islands, Wild says, but DNA research in Puerto Rico has found a that high percentage of the population has Native American blood in them.
What Wild concludes from his studies at Reef Bay and Cinnamon Bay on St. John and Salt River on St. Croix is that the Taino civilization was thriving in the islands when Columbus arrived.
It is accepted by archaeologists that the Taino were present in Puerto Rico. But the thinking has been that the small number of Taino artifacts found in the Virgin Islands was not a sign of a residing civilization, but only indicators that natives traded with Taino Indians.
However, Wild writes that the uncovering of more evidence indicates that for 700 years the Taino culture thrived in the islands. His evidence is from artifacts from Salt River and Cinnamon Bay. But what appears to clinch it for him are the rock carvings, the famed petroglyphs, of the Reef Bay valley.
This, according to Wild, is where the natural and supernatural worlds came together. His studies link bats, ancestral worship and the philosophical nature of the Tainos which held that the supernatural world reflected the natural world.
Wild writes that the insight that combined all of these elements came to him early one evening while he was swimming in a St. John pool and watching bats sweep through the air. He had recently been at the Reef Bay petroglyph site and knew that bats probably had been flitting around that pool for centuries eating insects.
Archaeologists have debated the significance of the strange noses on the human faces of many Taino artifacts. There has been conjecture about monkey noses and crocodile noses, but Wild now accepts them as being bat noses. He has photographs of bats and various carvings to demonstrate the likenesses.
The strange face carvings have been found at Salt River, at Reef Bay and on Congo Cay off St. John. They are also found carved into rocks around a ball court in Puerto Rico.
Wild surmises that the bats were seen as mystical creatures that could travel back and forth between the natural and supernatural world. As the Taino civilization progressed to a hierarchal society with shamans and chiefs, religious symbols were needed to justify the power of that class. The symbols were carved as memorials to ancestors who shared a likeness with the supernatural bat.
According to Wild, the culture of the people of the Virgin Islands probably began to unfold at about the same time Christ was born. It was about that time that the people started to settle down and farm and move away from their hunting and gathering lifestyle. However, it was not until about 800 A.D. that a hierarchical society which probably included ancestor worship started to develop. Wild points out that ancestor worship has been an integral stage in the growth of most civilized societies.
When many people think of the early inhabitants of the Caribbean, they think of the Arawak Indians. But the "Arawak" label more correctly refers to a language group, Wild says, like saying the "Southwest Indians," which would cover a variety of tribes.
Wild's beliefs put the Virgin Islands on the edge of the Taino civilization, an edge that was about to run into the expansion of the Carib Indians from the south. Wild says there is a recorded case of Caribs kidnapping Tainos at the time of Columbus.
However, it was not the Caribs who did the Tainos in. The diseases and the brutality of the conquistadors did that.
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