Ancient Trove May Attest to Lost Civilization in Puerto Rico

University of Haifa use-wear lab called in to verify hidden cache of ancient figurines, proving they really are pre-Columbian

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Puerto Rico has been occupied for about 6,000 years
Puerto Rico has been occupied for about 6,000 years by people coming from the mainlandCredit: cogito ergo imago
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

A collection of enigmatic figurines given to a monk by their dying guardian in the late 1870s could be artifacts from a lost civilization that lived in Puerto Rico as long as 3,000 years ago, scientists suggest.

One of the strange serpentine figurines found in Puerto RicoCredit: Courtesy of the University of Haifa

Molecular analysis of around 20 pieces at the materials lab of the University of Haifa proved that the unique serpentine objects are genuinely antique, not a latter-day fake, based in part on the patina that developed on their surfaces.

The lab also detected traces of red paint and gold decoration, says Dr. Iris Groman-Yaroslavsky, who was recruited for consultation by Prof. Reniel Rodríguez Ramos of the University of Puerto Rico at Utuado.

Nothing like these roughly 800 figurines has ever been found before, in the Americas or anywhere else. Mostly anthropomorphic in form, the statuettes bear petroglyph inscriptions that look nothing like any known writing systems, including Mayan or Aztec, Rodríguez Ramos explains. The determination that the collection — known as the Library of Agüeybaná, or Nazario Collection — really is pre-Columbian and not a modern forgery supports the theory that the statuettes are a ghostly remnant of an unknown people.

They were made of apparently local serpentine stone, says Rodríguez Ramos, based on isotope analysis and chemical characteristics. Such tests cannot state categorically that they are local, but similar rock is available near where they were found but not elsewhere in Puerto Rico, the professor observes.

Stashed away in the dark

The stones first drew academic attention in the late 19th century after a Puerto Rican Catholic monk, José María Nazario y Cancel, attended the deathbed of a Taíno woman, the last of her family (which was of local Caribbean descent). She knew a secret going back generations, she told the priest: The location of a hoard of ancient figurines hidden in a tunnel, which had been guarded by her family for centuries.

The priest dug them up and later related the tale to the 19th-century historian Adolfo de Hostos. The rest is hotly debated history.

Dr. Iris Groman-Yaroslavsky, left, with Prof. Reniel Rodríguez Ramos examining some of the Puerto Rican figurines at Haifa UniversityCredit: Courtesy of the University of Haifa

Early detractors had charged that Nazario could have faked them himself. He would die in 1919 with the origin mystery intact. As the probability of ever resolving the mystery of the stones’ origin seemed remote, academic interest then waned for some decades, until Rodríguez Ramos, then a research student, saw them in 2001.

Given the inexplicable nature of the statuettes, origin theories had abounded. Nazario himself postulated that they had been carved by descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes, because he thought he recognized Hebrew or Chaldean letters in the inscriptions.

This theory did not win acceptance. “Ten tribes? No, no,” Rodríguez Ramos tells Haaretz. He explains that Chris Rollston, an expert in the ancient languages of the Levant, including Hebrew and Phoenician, suggests that ostensible similarities might be observed here and there, but the structures of the writing systems are fundamentally different.

The statuette inscriptions contain at least 15 to 20 different symbols engraved in different arrangements, Rodríguez Ramos says, adding: “We are in the presence of an annotation system that has never been documented so far.”

Serpentine figurine with an inscription in an unknown form of writing, found in Puerto RicoCredit: Courtesy Haifa University

Though most scholars had shrugged the collection off as forgeries, the figurines stayed in his mind. Following completion of his doctoral studies in indigenous Caribbean stoneware, he returned to the mysterious “library.” Observing that the statuettes did show indications of antiquity such as weathering and patination, he set out to study the collection.

Seeking confirmation of his observation that the pieces were genuine antiquities, he sought a molecular use-wear analysis laboratory and chose the University of Haifa. He brought over about 20 statuettes for examination, which took Groman-Yaroslavsky and him a week of grueling work.

Much of the original collection of 800 artifacts wound up in various museums and private collections, and all track of them has been lost over the years. That is also the reason why the researchers say the collection consisted of “about” 800 pieces.

Anyway, the use-wear analysis concluded that the pieces were genuine antiques, Groman-Yaroslavsky confirms. “We don’t know how old they are,” she told Haaretz.

Rodríguez Ramos does have an idea, based on five carbon-dating tests of soot found in the stones: between 900 B.C.E. and 900. That is a wide timeline, but in any case all the dates thus far are pre-Columbian, he points out.

Passed down the generations

Human occupation of Puerto Rico goes back about 6,000 years, Rodríguez Ramos says. In other words, a local population predated the figurines by at least 3,500 years. The earliest Caribbean settlers came by boat from the mainland, possibly Belize or Venezuela. They were apparently pre-pottery hunter-gatherers, and made stone tools. Later, around 600 to 300 B.C.E., peoples from Venezuela called the Saladoids arrived and settled, bringing pottery skills, farming techniques and animalistic rites. How they got along with the indigenous Puerto Ricans is not known.

While the original dwellers did not cavil at living in caves and flimsy huts, by the year 600 — still pre-Columbian times — the local population was building massively in stone.

Mysterious figurines found hidden in the mountain area of Puerto Rico could have been made by an unknown civilization

So who along this timeline carved the mysterious figurines?

We do not know. The carbon-dating span is wide and the only point of reference is the style of carving and the inscriptions, which have no parallel. They show no sign of being the product of the Ten Tribes, Phoenicians, Greeks or any other boat of ancient Levantines that got very lost. Nor do they seem similar to anything originating in mainland South America. It seems they were manufactured by a civilization unknown to history.

Why the collection was buried centuries ago, and known only to one family that died out with an old woman in the late 1870s, we cannot know. But Rodríguez Ramos speculates that, since this collection is unique, they were not the product of a widespread cult.

“I can imagine something along the lines of the Dead Sea Scrolls, stashed in a hidden location, and that some people may have known about it and taken care of them,” he hypothesizes. “People have important objects that talk about their history, and that are not accessible to everyone.”

The one thing now unambiguous is their age, which is determined partly by the patina glazing their surface, which had to have been laid down by natural processes over long, long years in their subterranean hiding place.

Being a scientist, Rodríguez Ramos is reluctant to hazard that these strange artifacts were made by an unknown civilization. But he will say this: “They were made in a different way. For me, when I look at them … I immediately say, different. I cannot say lost civilization but I can say: The hands that made these are different from the hands that made artifacts in Puerto Rico.”

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