Explorers turned up at least three ceremonial plazas last week near a spring-fed cave where artifacts were found last year showing the tribe had used it as a well. The new finds indicated the area was a city inhabited by thousands of Taino Indians, who lived in the region between 1200 and 1500, said Geoffrey Conrad, director of IU's Mathers Museam and a participant in the exploration.
The tribe was the first to encounter Christopher Columbus on the island of Hispaniola, which today is divided into the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
Conrad accompanied Charles Beeker, director of IU's underwater science program; eight IU students; John Foster of Cal State University; and several noted Dominican experts on the expedition last week.
The trip was a follow-up to an exploration by Beeker and a team of divers in December. At that time, the group found 26 artifacts in a well that was believed to have been a water source for theTaino. The site was abandoned about 500 years ago after a battle with the Spanish in which most of the Indians were killed.
It was believed to have been a relatively small Taino village, but the discovery of the plazas indicate it was a much larger complex, Beeker said.
"They feel this is the most significant and largest complex of Taino Indians in their country, and probably the Caribbean," Beeker said. "They are excited about it. It's a phenomenal, unexpected find."
The plazas are ceremonial areas of the Taino culture, used for religious purposes, group meetings and a game that was the forerunner of today's soccer, Beeker said.
"Nobody is going to discover a whole new world again," Conrad said of the significance of the find. "That will not repeat itself. So we are looking at a historically important and extremely dramatic moment."
Beeker said the find was unexpected because no one planned to do an extensive search of the area. But with the assistance of the Dominican military, the IU party and researchers from the Universidad Catolica de Santo Domingo went into the jungle near the previously explored well.
"The government agreed that while we were there it was worthwhile to look at the site," Beeker said. "We got into military helicopters, went into the jungle to look around and make some preliminary sketches. We had no idea it was this extensive. We had been concentrating on diving in the well. The plaza was described in 1981 as a small plaza so we knew it was there but there had never been any excavation."
Beeker credited IU sophmore Chris Gonso with finding the first of the three plazas. Gonso said the discovery was in part an accident.
"I was told to look around for large deposits of shells," Gonso said. "I was just out wandering in the woods, looking around. Actually, I came across a snake under part of a shed that had been blown apart."
"I was kind of running from that and got on top of a pile of rocks. I noticed it was a long line of rocks, examined it and thought it might be of interest."
"We went out there and cleared it out. It was plain to see what it was."
It was a wall, one of two parallel structures that bordered the plaza field, Beeker said. Parallel to that plaza was another set of walls, added Lynn Uhls, another student on the trip, and still another was nearby.
Conrad called the discovery significant in two ways.
"First, it is of historical interest in and of itself, " he said. "These are the first New World people to be encountered by Europeans. That is of some interest.
What interests me as an anthropologist is that out here we will be able to investigate the rise of chiefdoms. With that form of organization, you get the first division of society into groups that are unequal."
Conrad said a chiefdom is the first step in the development of the kind of complex society that leads to the kind of world we live in today. Evidence shows the Taino may have been in that stage of societal development at the time Columbus arrived.
"It is a major transition in the development of human society," he said. "From that, you go on to increasing complexity - to the development of kings and the state. From there, you go on to kingdoms and empires.
"It looks to me like they are right on the verge of making the next transition that will put them up there with the Incas when Columbus comes in and cuts the whole thing off."
Beeker said a team is scheduled to return to the site, known as Manantial de la Aleta, located in the East National Park of the Dominican Republic, in May and July for further study.
"If you are into this, it is really exciting," he said. "I think we are just scratching the surface.
Last updated: 31 March 1997
Comments:Underwater Science Program
Copyright 1995, The Trustees of Indiana University.