Excerpted From St.
John Off The Beaten Track
By Gerald Singer
In the lower section of the Reef Bay valley there is a freshwater
pool surrounded by large, smooth rocks. It is fed by a waterfall
that cascades down a 40-foot cliff where strangler figs and wild
orchids have taken root using cracks and crevices in the rock face
The pool provides an environment for shrimp, frogs, small fish,
dragonflies and hummingbirds, and at night bats zip back and forth
attracted to the sweet water. The vegetation is lush and tropical
and the ambiance is serene and tranquil. There is an air of magic
and spirituality here that undoubtedly inspired previous inhabitants
of St. John to carve drawings and symbols into the rocks surrounding
the pool. We call these rock carvings the petroglyphs.
If you're coming down the Reef
Bay Trail from Centerline Road the Petroglyph Trail will head
off to your right at a point 1.6 miles from trailhead. Coming up
from the sugar mill it is 0.8 miles to the Petroglyph Trail, which
will be on your left. From the intersection of the two trails it
only requires an easy half-mile walk over flat terrain in order
to reach the petroglyphs.
There are several theories on the origin of the petroglyphs, but
none can be absolutely proven. Apparently, there is not yet a reliable
scientific method for dating the carvings.
The most popular (and most plausible) theory attributes the petroglyphs
to the pre-Columbian inhabitants of St. John.
Reef Bay was a settlement site for a wave of pre-ceramic hunters
and gatherers that came up the island chain of the Lesser Antilles
and arrived on St. John about 3,000 years ago.
Around the time of Jesus Christ a new group of migrants arrived
on St. John. They were a more advanced society of farmers and artisans
who worked with clay and fabricated distinctive pottery. They also
originated on the South American mainland and migrated throughout
the Lesser Antilles and on to the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
With the arrival of the newcomers the previous inhabitants of these
islands were absorbed into the new society, killed or driven off.
When they reached Hispaniola, however, the newly arrived immigrants
came into contact with an ancient people who were the very first
human beings to occupy the islands of the West Indies. This group
of pre-ceramic hunters and gatherers were strong enough to halt
the advance of the farmers, and for the next few hundred years the
two societies faced each other off in the region of the Mona Passage
between western Puerto Rico and eastern Hispaniola.
The interaction of the two cultures eventually gave rise to the
great Taino nation that spread
westward throughout Hispaniola, Jamaica, Cuba, and the Bahamas,
and eastward into Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
Archeological evidence, especially the dig at Cinnamon Bay, proves
conclusively that the Taino and their ancestors once lived on St.
John. Moreover, a characteristic of Taino society was their propensity
to carve pictographs around freshwater pools, along streams and
rivers, on rocks found in caves, on coastlines, and at ceremonial
sites such as ball courts. Petroglyphs similar to the ones at Reef
Bay have been found at other former Taino settlements in Puerto
Rico, Hispaniola and on various other islands throughout the West
Archeologist Ken Wild points to a bat motif found on many Taino
artifacts, and historians have learned from the writings of the
early Spanish chroniclers, who met the Taino, that the bat was an
important religious symbol. Furthermore, what appears to be bat
noses on a human faces can be seen on some petroglyphs. An interesting
concept is the fact that petroglyphs are often found in areas frequented
by bats such as water sources and caves. The petroglyph pool on
St. John is one of these places. At night the sky over the pool
is full of bats that come there to get water.
Given the overwhelming historical and archeological evidence, the
vast majority of archeologists, historians, anthropologists and
ethnologists have concluded that it was the Tainos who carved the
petroglyphs in Reef Bay.
However, there are other theories.
One hypothesis is that Africans carved the petroglyphs. In 1971
the visiting ambassador from Ghana noticed a striking similarity
of one of the pictographs to an Ashanti symbol that means, “accept
Going further afield is the research of the eminent cryptographer,
Dr. Barry Fell, who identifies the petroglyphs as being similar
to “the Tifinag branch of a medieval Libyan script ... used
by multi-racial peoples in South East Libya as well as by black
Africans in the Sahara and the Sudan.”
According to Dr. Fell the petroglyphs are “script reflected
and inverted in the mirror of the water” and would be translated
into Modern English as “Plunge in to cleanse and dissolve
away impurity and trouble; this is water for ritual ablution before
As you can see the petroglyphs can inspire the imagination and
produce many different explanations as to their origin and their
meaning, and with the lack of conclusive, scientific evidence to
explain them, many theories are possible.
Michael Gannon, a biologist who has worked studying bat ecology
in the Caribbean for many years, located an extremely rare species
of bat, Stenoderma rufum, at the petroglyph pools on St. John in
August of 2003.
Professor Gannon reports that this species has been recorded on
St. John back in the late 1950s, but not since.
For more information
on bats visit Professor Gannon’s website.
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