Archaeological Study of a Limestone Sinkhole:
Diving in Manantial de la Aleta
East National Park,
Dominican Republic

John W. Foster
Senior State Archaeologist
California State Parks


Charles D. Beeker
Director of Underwater Science
Indiana University

In partnership with the East National Park of the Dominican Republic, a team of archaeologists and scientists led by Charles D. Beeker of Indiana University has provided an initial evaluation of a mysterious sinkhole in the tropical jungle. During three separate expeditions in 1996, the team was able to penetrate and document the archaeological potential of El Manantial de la Aleta, a deep, fresh water well containing a rich deposit of Taino artifacts.

This site has been an important landscape feature for many centuries. It is thought to be the water source described by the chronicler Bartoleme de Las Casas in the first decade of the sixteenth century for the capital village of Cotubanama, the Taino cacique. This site and its people were destroyed in a bloody war with the Spaniards in 1503.

The La Aleta site lies deep in the jungle of East National Park far from any established roads. There is a trail which can be taken from Boca de Yuma through La Granchorra, but it is very difficult. The team assembled several tons of diving supplies and equipment needed to conduct the archaeological study. Some items were transported by mule over a 7 hour trail. Other materials and team members were flown by helicopter to the site.

The first order of business was to get to the water. The manantial, or sinkhole, is reached by a descent of 50 feet through a small opening in the limestone rock. A rope system was rigged to allow access and equipment to reach the water. A 14 foot Quicksilver inflatable was launched and served as a diving platform for the operation.

La Aleta proved to be a spectacular dive. It has crystal clear water at the surface, but at a depth of 35 feet, a sulfur layer is encountered. This mixture continues to a depth of 65 feet, where fresh water again takes over. The bottom is at a depth of 115 feet. Here a cap rock, part of the collapsed formations from above, serves as a datum for the site. Thick humus silt containing a variety of artifacts, surrounds the cap rock. The deposit slopes to great depth -- at least 240 feet in every direction

A total of 80 dives were made at La Aleta. Bottom times were limited to about 11 minutes per dive, so each had to be planned carefully in advance. The site was mapped using the PIT technique. Photographs and measurements have provided a baseline map of the archaeological deposit. As requested by Dominican park authorities, a sample of artifacts was recovered from the sinkhole. Each artifact was carefully mapped and the packaged for its trip to the surface. Initial cataloguing of each specimen was done and the fragile artifacts were then airlifted to Santo Domingo for conservation treatment at the Faro a Colón Museum.

There are fine bottom silts containing the artifacts. They vary from a few inches in depth to over 3 feet. Conditions for preservation are excellent. Many objects of wood, ceramics, stone and even fragile gourds can be seen protruding through the top of the silt. One such gourd (higuero) has a twined basked woven around it.

Some 15 complete or nearly complete pottery containers have been recovered. Eleven are considered food or storage vessels, and 4 are water jars. The pottery includes some of the most decorated types made by the Taino. Even the water vessels include some spectacular examples.

A fragmentary duho was discovered on the cap rock at a depth of 115 feet. This carved wooden stool is the symbol of Taino royalty. The cacique was always seen in public seated on his (or her) duho. This a very rare and valuable artifact. Other wooden objects include a serving bowl, club and hatchet handles.

One of the most important artifacts from La Aleta is a fragmentary incised gourd. It is the first one ever recovered from the Dominican Republic, and may be unique to the Caribbean. It is intricately carved with a precise design.

The overall artifact assemblage from La Aleta has led us to theorize that the site was used for ceremonial offerings. It is the first Taino cenote ever documented, and has great potential to reveal new information about the people who greeted Christopher Columbus....the Taino.

Last updated: 9 February 1999
Comments:Underwater Science Program
Copyright 1995, The Trustees of Indiana University.