Thursday, January 3, 2008

Large Ancient Settlement Unearthed in Puerto Rico

Bodies, structures, and rock art thought to belong to an indigenous pre-Columbian culture have been unearthed at an ancient settlement in Puerto Rico, officials recently announced.

Archaeologists say the complex—which dates from A.D. 600 to 1500—could be the most significant of its kind in the Caribbean.

"This is a very well-preserved," said Aida Belén Ruiz-Rivera, director of Puerto Rico's State Office of Historic Preservation.

"The site appears to show two professions: a pre-Taino and a Taino settlement."

The Taino are intended as a subgroup of the Arawak Indians, emigrated to the Caribbean from Mexico or South America hundreds of years, say experts.

They were among the first tribes to meet Europeans.

Huge Plaza

The ancient settlement was discovered Taino Puerto Rico in the south (see map).
Archaeologists have known since 1985 that the area contained Indian artifacts.

But the extent of the site became clear only recently, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with the construction of a new dam, to protect the region from flooding.

Perhaps the most significant find is a large space with an area of approximately 130 by 160 feet (40 to 50 meters).

Rivera-Ruiz said the plaza appears to be a batey, a rectangular area around which the Taino built their settlements.

The plaza, which contains stones etched with ancient petroglyphs, might have been a court used for ceremonial rituals or ball games.

"If this information is confirmed, it would be the largest known local batey in the Caribbean," said Ruiz-Rivera.

Roberto Mucaro Borrero, a representative of the United Confederation of Taino People, agreed.

The site "could be the largest area of ancient Taino culture not only in Puerto Rico but throughout the Caribbean," said Borrero.

And petroglyphs male figure with a frog leg could prove particularly important for the understanding of cultural roots, he added.

"They were able to show evidence of a direct link between the Taino and the Mayan peoples," he said, although other experts strongly refute that the two cultures are related.

Storm of controversy

Confusion and criticism are already in the middle of swirling excitement over the results.

Initial reports on the number of bodies in graves at the site indicate that the people were buried in a unique position.

The corpses were "buried with the legs bent at the knees-a style never before in the region," the Associated Press reported.

But Miguel Rodriguez, a member of the Puerto Rican government archaeological council, said the burial position is not unknown in the region.

Kit Wesler, a Taino expert at Murray State University in Kentucky, also said that the "position is unusual, but probably not unprecedented."

Rivera-Ruiz of the state preservation office said that any claims about the uniqueness of the burial arrangements must await a full excavation and study of all objects funerary art.

Meanwhile, the US-New South Associates, a private archaeology firm commissioned by the Corps of Engineers to save, the site at the centre of controversy over their excavation methods.

According to AP, the company had originally with a bulldozer, which cause damage to centuries-old bones.

The members of the Taino, on Saturday visited the dig "Witness damage to the site, especially on some human remains and stones", was apparently by a backhoe, Taino representative said Borrero.

Rodriguez was convinced that the company should be drawn from the project.

"This is a perfect example of what they should not do," he said. "They are usually associated with graves and bulldozers, and they must stop."

Rodriguez also accused the company of Puerto Rican law by failing to register artefacts, which he proposed on the island.

"They have not said what about the materials, so that they do not follow the rules," he said.

An official from New South Associates, said the Corps does not allow the press to answer questions.

But Rivera-Ruiz, Puerto Rico's historic preservation office, defended the Corps and its contractors.

"The contractor was originally developed by the Corps of Engineers, a salvage data recovery on a site that primarily to fail," she said by e-mail.

"Once the conservation was an option, the amount and type of invasive project has been postponed in favour of the more low-key, less intrusive hand excavation already suspended functions."

About 80 percent of the site will remain intact, Rivera-Ruiz added, so that, for the long-term preservation of most of the site.

It added that Puerto Rico's State Historic Preservation Office, the company has overlooked the operation, and the parties are complying with the law.

And Corps spokesman said David McCullough National Geographic News by e-mail that his agency stands behind New South Associates and revising their plans based on the new findings.

"If the Corps recognized the extreme importance of this location," he said, "we redesigned the parts of the dam project, the largest negative impact on the site."