In the remote jungle of the Dominican Republic, archaeologists have discovered a long-lost city once inhabited by the people who welcomed Christopher Columbus to the New World.
The Taino Indians were the first people Columbus encountered after landing on an island he called San Salvador in 1492. They numbered in the millions and had developed a network of small cities ruled by chieftains.
Last week, archaeologists found one of those cities, in the easternmost part of the Dominican Republic. On March 20 researchers exploring around a sinkhole in the country’s East National Park found three large ceremonial plazas and the remains of a substantial settlement that appears to have been home to thousands of people.
There is a strong possibility that the city is the same one whose brutal destruction in 1503 is described in an account by the missionary Bartolome de Las Casas. The incident was one of the first conflicts in what would become the conquest of a continent.
“This is going to give us more insight into the Taino than has ever been known before,” said Charles Beeker, director of the underwater science program at Indiana University. The find was announced Friday at a meeting in Rohnert Park, Calif., of the Society for California Archaeology.
Beeker and several colleagues traveled to the site by helicopter last week to investigate the area around a cenote, or natural well, that the Indiana archaeologist has been studying for several months. Last fall scuba divers retrieved carved wooden axes, baskets, ornate pottery and other artifacts from the well that were probably dropped into the water as part of a sacrificial ceremony.
With Beeker were Geoff Conrad of Indiana University’s Mathers Museum, California state archaeologist John Foster and three East National Park consulting archaeologists.
“Nobody’s ever going to encounter a whole new world again, not on the face of this Earth,” Conrad said. “That’s just never going to happen again. And this is where it happened first.”
Though the Taino are all but forgotten today, certain aspects of their culture live on. The English word barbecue comes from the Taino term for the rock slabs they used to cook bread. The hammock is also a Taino invention discovered by the Spanish upon their arrival in the New World.
At the site, known as La Aleta, the archaeologists found three plazas lined by 5-foot-tall limestone blocks. The plazas were 75 yards long and 15 yards wide, and would have been used for ceremonies and the playing of a soccer-like game that was common in America.
They also found kitchen areas, and stones used to break and grind oyster shells. Some of the stone depressions still had bits of shell left in them, looking as if the people who used them weren’t long gone.
“They could have just walked off last week,” Beeker said.
So far, the site is not the largest Taino city ever discovered. One site in Puerto Rico has seven plazas to La Aleta’s three. But there’s no telling how many more plazas archaeologists will find when they return in July, Conrad said.
Very little is known about the Taino Indians because they were nearly annihilated by 1515. The clash, one of the first conflicts between the Spanish and the Taino, may have happened at La Aleta, according to Wilson.
According to the missionary’s account, it all began when the Taino were loading bread onto a Spanish ship. Under a treaty with the Spanish, the Indians supplied bread to the nearby colony of Santo Domingo. A Spanish officer standing nearby had an attack dog on a leash, and when the animal began acting up another officer joked about setting the dog on the Indian chief.
“Tomalo,” he said, meaning, “Take him.”
The dog lunged, overpowered his handler and soon disemboweled the chief.
The Indians retaliated a few months later by killing a few Spaniards. That led the colony of Santo Domingo to lead an expedition against the city. One of the officers sent on the mission was Ponce de Leon, who would later roam Florida in search of the Fountain of Youth.