A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Off the Grid: Ambrosio Cave, Cuba
Cueva de Ambrosio, or Ambrosio Cave, harbors more than 70 red-and-black drawings of geometric shapes as well as mythological and human figures scattered throughout its five interconnected galleries. The cave is located on a verdant strip toward the end of Hicacos Peninsula, on Cuba’s northern coast. It lies within Varahicacos Ecological Reserve, which ensures the protection of approximately one square mile of tropical landscape of Matanzas Province, two hours’ drive from Havana. The reserve, which was established in 1974, also contains Cueva de los Musulmanes, or Muslim Cave, a purported historic smugglers’ hideout.
Illuminated by shafts of light filtering through holes in the cave’s ceiling, the pictographs share space with several species of bats, insects, and plants. The more than 200-foot-long limestone cave likely served as a ceremonial space at various times in the past, says archaeologist Racso Fernández Ortega of the Cuban Institute of Anthropology. Scholars believe the cave’s artworks, some of which may date to as long as 2,000 years ago, were drawn by Indigenous people before the arrival of Europeans in the fifteenth century, and later by people of African descent who had escaped enslavement. “Determining how old paintings are can be really difficult,” says chemist Ruth Ann Armitage of Eastern Michigan University, who specializes in radiocarbon dating of rock art. “Dating methods tell you how old the material is, not when a person did something with it. Anything that’s been restored, retouched, or publicly accessible is nearly impossible to date.”
The first people to land on the shores of the Caribbean archipelago likely came from places including the Yucatán Peninsula between 5000 and 4000 B.C. Cuba’s first settlers probably arrived between 4000 and 3000 B.C. It is unclear which Indigenous populations were living on the island when Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492, but scholars speculate that groups including the Guanahatabey, Ciboney, and Taíno coexisted there. Within a few decades, the dwindling Indigenous population had been all but wiped out through a combination of warfare with colonialists, forced labor, and disease introduced by the Spaniards. “Indigenous populations disappeared so fast that we’ll probably never know how many tribal groups there were,” says archaeologist Suzanne Baker of the firm Archaeological/Historical Consultants. “Rock art is an important material expression of the oral history and cosmology that was lost.”
Ambrosio Cave’s artworks were discovered in 1961 by archaeologists Manuel Rivero de la Calle and Mario Orlando Pariente Pérez, and the paintings were restored by archaeologist and revolutionary Antonio Núñez Jiménez in 1968. Since then, the identity of the artists who painted the cave walls and the meaning of the cave’s imagery have been the subjects of much scholarly speculation. Some archaeologists have suggested that Indigenous populations produced the more abstract shapes, while the more complex human and zoomorphic depictions may be later artworks created by people of African descent. Fernández Ortega believes some of the older renderings may represent the Taíno creation myth of the sun and the moon. Other interpretations suggest that the images could represent solar calendars, butterflies, or Indigenous peoples’ initial interactions with the Spanish.
WHILE YOU’RE THERE
From Havana, take a bus or hire a driver to reach the resort town of Varadero and the pristine beaches at the heart of a cluster of luxury hotels on the tip of the peninsula. There, you can ride the hop-on, hop-off bus and eat at one of the local restaurants. In the opposite direction, toward the city of Matanzas, you will find Cueva de Saturno, or Saturn Cave, which boasts a subterranean swimming hole with crystal waters and dramatic stalagmites and stalactites.
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