A full-scale expedition got underway this month at underwater and land sites used by a little-known Western Hemisphere tribe that was the first to encounter Europeans in the New World.
The expedition follows initial discoveries last fall of the two unprecedented archaeological sites near Santa Domingo in the Dominican Republic. The underwater site has already yielded more than two dozen artifacts. More discoveries are expected as the exploration goes into full swing this spring and summer at both the underwater site and a nearby land site.
Located deep in rain forests, the sites are being examined by the first explorers to set foot in the area since Columbus and his crew arrived there more than 500 years ago. The research team is led by Charles Beeker, director of Underwater Science and Educational Resources (USER) at the Indiana University School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation.
The explorers found the underwater site when they discovered a sinkhole that concealed a spring-fed well. Based on the archaeological evidence, the sinkhole was used by the Taino Indian tribe around the time of Columbus' discovery of the New World.
The Taino tribe is believed to be the first to have encountered Columbus' crew, but little else is known about them. The sinkhole is filled with ceremonial artifacts and skeletal remains. Archaeologists believe they represent offerings to a tribal goddess. The tribe is said to have numbered from 1 to 3 million people at the time of Columbus' expeditions. Decimated by the encounter, the Taino population was reduced to only 50,000 two decades later.
Exploring the underwater site is no easy task. The researchers have to rappel 50 feet down to the water surface -- keeping an eye out for tarantulas which make their home in the walls -- and then dive 140 feet into the well.
But the difficulty and danger are considered well worth it. "Our findings should yield priceless information about the first contact between the Spanish and the Indians in the New World," said Beeker.
The trail to the discovery began when Beeker and some colleagues were searching for colonial ships in 1992 and heard about a cave with Taino tribal paintings. When they came upon a mural of a Spanish galleon and a scene of the Tainos giving offerings to men with beards, they started exploring a nearby spring, which led to the discovery of the well.
Undergraduate and graduate students from Indiana University and the Universidad Catholica de Santa Domingo are getting a unique out-of-classroom education as they participate in the exploration and research with the research team, under terms of a new agreement between the two schools.