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It began as an invitation by the government of the Dominican Republic, in August 1996, to a team of underwater archaeologists led by Indiana University professor Charles Beeker. The idea was to initiate the investigation of a water filled sinkhole and a dry cave inside one of the countrys national parks near the southeastern coastal providence of La Romana.
The outcome was perhaps the richest find ever recorded of Taino Indian artifacts. Believed to be the first people to have met Columbus upon his fateful discovery of the island of Hispaniola in 1492, this same race was pushed to extinction less than 20 years after the Spaniards first settlement of this second-largest island in the Caribbean.
Beeker, director of IUs Underwater Science and Educational Resources Program, has been conducting Columbus-era archaeological studies in the waters of the Dominican Republic since 1993 and, Therefore, he is well versed in Taino culture. The Taino, which once numbered between 1.5 and 3 million, were eradicated through war and pestilence. As a result, most of what could have been told about them was either destroyed or hidden from view for nearly five centuries. Where and how these artifacts were found bore a strong resemblance to the plot of a Clive Cussler novel.
The site of the ancient sinkhole is covered surrounded by rough, thick brush governed terrain and is 17 miles from the nearest road. The team had to bring its equipment in via helicopter. That was the easy part. The hard part was descending into El Manantiel de La Aleta itself.
The largest of the seven openings or eyes in the ground, where sections of its domed ceiling had fallen or eroded through, scarcely measured nine by six feet across. To reach the water, the team first had to rappel 50 feet through the largest opening. From there, using a medium sized inflatable boat as surface support, the divers descended to the uncharted and unexplored waters of an immense cavern.
The presence of this or any other sinkhole in the Dominican Republic is certainly no surprise. Most of its southern region is comprised of karst rock resulting in numerous sinkholes, cenotes and underground freshwater cave systems similar to those found in North Florida and Mexicos Yucatan Peninsula.
According to Beeker, the hydrology of this particular cavern is quite unique. Totally void of suspended particulates, the water appears as clear as air when illuminated with a high powered light. Without anything to reflect off, there is no way of telling distance. Furthermore, the exact size of the cavern is unknown. To date, no member of the team has been able to find its perimeter walls.
Descending straight down through a 20 foot top layer of highly sulfated water, Beeker and his divers reached the top of what appeared to be a giant hill of rock and silt at a depth near 190 feet. Partially exposed in the sediment were numerous shards of pottery.
After several subsequent excavations of this sinkhole, Beekers team of researchers, which included a few Florida Keys tech divers such as Joe Clark, owner/operator of Key Largo based Ocean Divers, retrieved a treasure trove of artifacts. The impressive list of recovered objects includes numerous clay pots, bowls, hand carved gourds and a fully intact, woven basket more than six centuries old. The most significant find was a fierce looking, wooden Taino Indian war club that dates back even farther. According to Beeker, Until now, the only source of information we have of the Taino Indians using such a weapon existed in entries and drawings made by the Spaniards in their journals during their initial conquest of Hispaniola in the early 1500s. Now we actually have one in our hands!
Before the Spaniards arrived, the Taino Indians believed ceremonial offerings of personal belongings dropped into the well would be rewarded by their gods. La Aleta sinkhole was the primary water source for the capital village of tribal chieftain Cotubanam‹, who led his people in battle in the Higuey region on the south coast against Juan de Esquivel. Supporting this finding is the nearby dry cave, JosŽ Maria, which features more than 1,200 ancient pictographs depicting the cosmology and history of the Taino race. Several of the scenes on the cave walls appear to depict accounts of the Tainos forced tribute to the Spaniards, requiring them to supply free labor and food.
Because the lower reaches of the sinkhole are almost completely void of both light and bacteria, artifacts such as the club and the basket were preserved in a state of almost complete suspended animation. The importance of this discovery cannot be overstated.
To safeguard and preserve these remarkable finds, all recovered artifacts are transported within 24 hours to the East National Park Headquarters and catalogued before being transported to the Faro a Colon Museum in Santo Domingo.
To find out more about Beekers work at La Aleta sinkhole, check out the Web site at www.indiana.edu/~scuba or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.