Tibes, near Ponce, Puerto Rico

Ocean Gem
Geoff & Eileen Mander
Tue 3 Mar 2015 20:05

Date: Tuesday 3rd March 2015


There was no let-up in the strong easterly trade winds so our stay in Ponce became considerably longer than we had planned.  The benefit was that we could continue to explore the surrounding area and one of the places we found became, for me at least, the most fascinating place we had seen in the entire island.


The Tibes Indigenous Ceremonial Centre, situated about 5 miles out of Ponce houses what is in Puerto Rico the oldest so far discovered settlement of the Igneri peoples who lived in the area a long time before Columbus passed that way. It is also the oldest astronomical observatory in the entire Caribbean.  The Igneri migrated to the area from the Orinoco Delta and populated the site at Tibes from about 25 AD to 600 AD when it was abandoned for some as yet unknown reason. Around 1,000 AD the Tainos moved into the area but there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that they made use of the site; at the time it was probably well covered by alluvial debris. The Tainos are the people who were around when Colombus arrived, planted his flag and claimed the territory for Spain (as the Tainos didn’t have a flag then of course their claim to the country didn’t count).  The site was discovered in 1975 when Hurricane Eloise caused flooding in the Barrio Portugués which washed away soil that had covering the site for several hundred years.


The various names given to different peoples who have populated the area is confusing to someone like me who is anything but an expert, but from what I can make out the names used by archaeologists to define the cultural procession in the Caribbean is as follows: The people who originally left the Orinoco are called Arawak; by the time that they had migrated through the eastern Caribbean islands as far as Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic their culture had changed sufficiently for them to labelled Igneri and by 1000 AD their culture had continued to change sufficiently for them to now be called Taino.  There is evidence for there to have been people already living in the islands by the time that the Arawak arrived but it would appear that they were soon assimilated into Arawak society.


Much of what is known about the Igneri comes from written descriptions of the Taino, made by the earliest European settlers, combined with the archaeological finds that indicate significant cultural similarities.  The Taino played ball games, which they called Batey, in a specially constructed court which was also called ‘Batey’.  The ball was called ‘Batu’ and made principally from rubber.  The Spaniards were fascinated by this material as they had never seen it before and couldn’t believe the way that the ball would bounce.  There were two teams, one would serve and the other would field the ball back.  From the descriptions I have read it seems to have elements of many of the ball games currently played around the world.


There is some evidence that the courts were aligned with some astronomical alignment, and they were also believed to have been used for ‘Areyto’ which was some sort of cultural gathering consisting of marathon sessions of story telling using song and dance.


The Tibes site contains 9 ball fields varying in side up to 115 ft by 30 ft and a number of human skeletons. 


Here are some of pictures I took at the ‘Batey’ pitches









Here’s are some rather gruesome skeletal remains:





The remnants of some of petrographs found on the site have been taken away to be preserved in the local museum and were not on display, but here are some photographs, of photographs of the originals.













What a fascinating day!  I am always excited when, on our travels, I get a chance to see something of the people who lived in an area before Christianity or Islam bludgeoned its way on to the scene, subsuming everything in its path and imposing a bleak, monocultural orthodoxy in its wake.


But there are other examples of the Taino peoples that are everywhere around us in Puerto Rico.  The original Spanish settlers brought no women with them, they simply took Taino women as brides.  As little as 50 years after their arrival a Spanish census showed that of the estimated population of around 3 million when the Spanish arrived there were practically no Taino men left alive (killed by a combination of infectious diseases and abuse by their Spanish overlords).  Modern DNA analysis of the Puerto Rican population shows a significant proportion of their DNA originates from their Taino predecessors.