Southeastern Part of Santo Domingo
The anthropological reserve of the Cuevas de Borbón
A little over 20 kilometers from the city of Santo Domingo, near the city of San Cristóbal, one finds the tiny towns of Borbón and Pomier. These towns, without doubt, would have been passed over by tourism were it not for the fact that their outskirts house one of the largest groupings of caverns with cave art in the Caribbean: the Cuevas de Borbón .
Over 40 caverns, replete with painting and petroglyphs created by the Tainos, have been documented in this archaeological site.
The cultural tourism centered on rock art of the Dominican Republic has its oldest precedent in these mysterious caves. The walls still preserve their graffiti, discovered in the middle of the past century by visitors that were surprised by the beauty of the ancestral cave symbols that the natives created, engraving them with stone chisels or painting them with forgotten formulas of sacred pigments.
It was an intrepid explorer of Dominican geography, Schomburgk, a salty German consul in the country who, in 1851, officially reported the art for the first time. Later, the caverns were visited by our most recognized researchers, from Narciso Alberti Bosch to Dato Pagán Perdomo, who published, in 1978, a unique book on the caves that we still use today.
The archaeological and historical importance of these caverns is such that the Dominican government established, in law 233-96 on June 30, 1996, the increase of the area where the Anthropological Reserve of the Cuevas de Borbón was located to its current borders: 2.5 Km2.
It is easy to access the Cuevas de Borbón. One can arrive by vehicle almost to the mouth of the cavern richest in pictographs. To enter the caves, one must request a permit of the Subsecretariat of Protected Areas of the Secretariat of the Environment and Natural Resources. Once the authorization is obtained, carrying flashlights and always accompanied by a park ranger, one can enjoy the authentic subterranean adventure.
In addition to the beauty of the natural environment where the caverns are located and the cave art that they contain, visitors that stay close to the main cave around dusk can enjoy one of the most amazing events that the nature of Santo Domingo offers. These caverns are inhabited by a large colony of bats known throughout the country. At disk, hundreds of millions of these flying mammals abandon their stone dwelling to search for their food, with the help of the night. It is a spectacle that is unforgettable for those that have the fortune to witness it.
The bats of the caves are one of the most important species for the maintenance of our forest ecosystems. Some species are fruit-eaters, and the seeds are expelled in the excrement of the animals as they soar through the mountains. The bats reforest our country in a most concentrated manner, in addition to fertilizing it with organic waste. The importance of respecting the caves does not end with the mere conservation of their rock formations or the archaeological remains that they contain: the interest in the conservation of the bat colonies that inhabit them is basic to preserving the biodiversity of the Dominican Republic.
Upon entering the cavern, we will see the petroglyphs that we can always find by sunlight. In this type of rock art deposits, of the pictorial school, many paintings also can be seen with the light that enters through the mouth of the cavern. Centuries old birds, animals, human figures and mysterious geometric figures appear before our eyes, charged with magical symbolism, but the most impacting experience is for those that venture into the inner caves of the archaeological find, where scenes of aboriginal ceremonies have been frozen on the walls for centuries.
The cohoba ritual was the most important moment for the religious ceremonies held by the Tainos. The behiques (shamans or witchdoctors), together with the members of the clans that composed the settlements, performed an act that we can still observe in the few indigenous villages that still survive in the Orinoco-Amazon basin. Through tubes previously prepared with wood, mud or bird bones, they inhaled a potent hallucinogen that brought them into a trance, allowing them to contact their deities. In this way, they could discover magic secrets, recognize their totem animals and ask transcendental questions for the survival of their culture. On the walls of the Cuevas de Borbón, we can see a most interesting example of the indigenous custom, drawn with their own instruments. Groups of men assisted each other in the work of inhaling the cohoba, as they called the ritual hallucinogen. If a scene had to be chosen to characterize the aboriginal Antillean culture, it would, without doubt, be the scene found in the Cuevas de Borbón, representing a group of men in the cohoba ritual.
Continuing on our visit, we will see curious scenes of dancing shamans, animals copulating, fish still swimming on the stone walls after long centuries there, and unending paintings whose themes on occasion escape our modern perspective on the world and space.
It was also probably, in one of the Pomier caves, where one of the most interesting archaeological pieces preserved from the Taino culture was found: the famous “cemí” made of cotton, that today is preserved in the Ethnological Museum of Turin, in Italy. This is the only woven Taino idol that still exists and it has the strange characteristic of containing part of a human skull inside of its woven head.
The Cuevas de Borbón were, until a short time ago, threatened by the mineral extraction carried out in their surroundings. The dynamite explosions on occasions affected the walls and the paintings they contain, and on occasions, even the very caverns crumbled due to the shaking of their rocks. Fortunately, today, the situation is controlled. The paintings of the caves also suffered the attacks of fans with the best intentions, who attempted to “clean” the caves’ pictographs, irreversibly damaging many paintings and forever erasing many others that, in their ignorance, they considered of no interest.
Adolfo López Belando
Archaeologist specializing in cave art
Researcher Associated with the Museo del Hombre Dominicano