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Expeditions with Ordúñez

Expeditions with Ordúñez

By Amanda Hale

Roberto Ordúñez © Amanda Hale
Roberto Ordúñez © Amanda Hale

There is an element of mystery in the world of archaeology. Despite all the scientific evidence and carbon dating available in our time these investigations are fraught with a puzzling and fascinating invitation to use one's poetic imagination and to call on a sense of déjà vu. This, together with comparative notes on the Mayan people of Guatemala and Mexico, and the First Nations of North America, fuels my conversation with archaeologist and anthropologist, Roberto Ordúñez.

As we sit in the front room of his house Ordúñez holds a stone sculpture in his hand – a head resembling the huge Olmec heads of the Mexican Gulf area. This miniature version is sculpted with clear features of eyes, nose, mouth, ears, all scored with sword marks – a message left by a Taíno survivor perhaps, a graphic depiction of a grisly discovery. When we had explored the site where this relic was discovered, one of our group had climbed to a second level of caves secreted in the rocky cliff face, and there found a complete bone from a forearm, indicating perhaps an attempted escape by one of the Taíno who nevertheless died from his wounds.

My first meeting with Roberto Ordúñez was at the archaeological museum in Paraíso during my first visit to Baracoa, on the south-eastern tip of Cuba, seven years ago. The museum, created by Ordúñez and his colleagues, is situated in a series of caves high above the town of Baracoa, even higher than the cemetery with its stone angel, arms and wings spread, watching over the town. There I discovered a wealth of evidence of the Taíno culture which flourished in the area until the arrival of the Spanish.

During the past four years I have been fortunate in visiting several archaeological sites with Ordúñez and his colleagues in the outlying areas of Baracoa, Cuba's ciudad primada – first city – where the Taíno presence remains strong. One can see Taíno features in the faces of people on the street in Baracoa. Like many indigenous groups, the Taíno are generally thought to be extinct but, along with the Maya, they endure, a quiet and generally unknown presence in the world.

Birthing Cave © Amanda Hale
Birthing Cave © Amanda Hale

Yesterday we examined a recently discovered site near the village of Boma along the coast – a cave rich with bone fragments, teeth, and other evidence of a massacre. There were also carbon fragments, perhaps evidence of the fact that a group of Taíno were cooking in the lower cave when surprised by the Spanish. Some of the bone fragments were burnt, indicating that some fell into the fire as they were slaughtered.

This was my third time to Boma, a visit which included the greeting of old friends. Carlos and his wife welcomed us with thick sweet coffee, and later served us a meal of homegrown fare – caballero beans cooked in coconut milk, root vegetables of malanga, ñame, boniato, platanos, and rice, tomatoes, tiny sweet bananas, water melon with its juicy red flesh and abundant black seeds. Lunch was followed by a visit to the local school where children ranging from six to twelve years clustered for a photo as we delivered packets of pencils, pens, pencil sharpeners, and exercise books. Oscar and Ana Ibis, their teachers, told us that the children study well and are good readers.

Boma School© Amanda Hale
Boma School© Amanda Hale

On this trip to Boma we re-visited a spectacular set of caves with vaulting roofs studded with tiny bats – nothing but the sound of water dripping from the roof and the distant thrum of ocean waves. These caves led to an open area where we found ourselves in a large bowl looking up at a maze of twisted roots and branches, surrounded by recessed caves where the more peaceful remains of a Taíno burial ground were discovered some years ago and where now a ceramic artist's rendition of a Taíno burial rests. A tiny brown body curled into a foetal position faces away from us, his black hair long and abundant, his ankles circled with caracol shells, ceramic ritual offering bowls at head and feet. The sculpture is so realistic that my heart leaps in reverence for the dead with each visit.

Later, on the road to Yumurí further up the coast, we stopped to greet Ordúñez's mother-in-law, Serafín, with her black hair and brilliant blue eyes. As we rested on the beach in front of her rustic house we watched two fishermen patiently hunting for octopus. On the roadside close to Yumurí there is a well-hidden cave. We squeezed into it through the narrow opening and descended into a small bowl where we saw evidence of recent ceremonies – bunches of dried leaves, candle stubs.

cobbled street © Amanda Hale
Cobbled Street © Amanda Hale

Ordúñez led the way with his powerful torch lantern and soon we saw the familiar pictograph. It seemed fainter than last year, but still visible, red against the creamy ochre stone. It clearly represents a figure in birthing posture, and this cave perhaps a birthing room, the entrance mirroring an entry into the womb of the earth, with the inevitable exit of the birthed child. The pictograph is instantly recognizable as the universal symbol woven into fabrics all over the world – a lizard with bent limbs held away from the body and tail extending down from the body like an umbilical cord – then a break in the cord, continuing an inch later – the cut umbilicus of the new born.

The Taíno sites closest to Baracoa are Las Terrazas de Yara, a day's excursion from sea level to a dizzying height which looks out over the bay of Playa Caribe where the Taíno first saw the ships of Columbus approaching. These are not isolated sites. People live on and around them. The ancient road, made of small blocks of stone embedded in the red earth, still exists and people travel up and down this cobbled street every day, on foot or on horseback.

Three Generations © Amanda Hale
Three Generations © Amanda Hale

Three years ago we visited a family where four generations live together. The old man whose skin pigment had broken down giving him a mottled effect, was almost one hundred years old. He stood next to his son and grandson for a photo. The difference in height and development with the generations was marked – better nutrition, evolution. Despite Cuba's “Special Period” of the early 1990s when many people were starving, despite her ongoing difficulties with food production and distribution, these campesinos are progressing and probably living a healthier and less stressful life with provisions from their own land than the townfolk who often live in crowded conditions in tiny rooms and run to la bodega after work to buy whatever might be available.

The plateau of Las Terrazas is a coconut grove harbouring a wealth of potsherds. Fragments of Taíno pottery are there for the taking. As in Mexico and in many other areas of the world, we walked over layers of historical remains too abundant to excavate. Wherever you may dig you will unearth treasure – the true treasure of bones, teeth and the enduring evidence of our ancestors' creativity in clay and stone.


Amanda Hale has published three novels and a recent collection of short fictions set in Cuba – In the Embrace of the Alligator. She has worked as a journalist and playwright, and is a creative writing teacher. All photographs © Amanda Hale