Ancient African Lion Drawing Found in Puerto Rican Cave

The cave art of Puerto Rico includes a maned African lion — definitely non-native — as well as other unusual subjects such as a stingray. A new study suggests that the art is much older than previously thought and that African slaves may have created some of the drawings.

Cave art of a lizard.

Cave art of a lizard. Photo: A. Acosta-Colón


Petroglyphs, pyroglyphs, and pictographs

The paintings have been difficult to date, other than infer from other artifacts found nearby. The caves feature three types of art: petroglyphs (carvings), pyroglyphs (drawn with burnt objects), and pictographs (drawings). People drew the pictographs with a black organic material, and researchers could use this for radiocarbon dating.

To preserve the art, the team was very selective when extracting organic material from the images.

“If we touch one [pictograph], we touch it forever, and for future generations we are not allowing them the pleasure of seeing what we see,” Angel Acosta-Colon, the lead author of the paper, said in a statement.

So they only collected tiny samples, 1 or 2mg, from each drawing. In total, they took samples from 61 drawings across 11 caves on Puerto Rico’s main island.

Cave art of a stingray.

Drawing of a stingray. Photo: A. Acosta-Colon


The carbon dating indicates that people created the earliest drawings between 400-700 BC.

“That is very important to us because when the European Invasion came to Puerto Rico, they wrote in a document that our pre-colonial population was only there for 400 to 500 years. This proves that we were here thousands of years [earlier],” Acosta-Colon said.

The drawing of the lion is 500 years old. If Acosta-Colon is correct, that makes it some of the earliest slave art in the country.

Eras of cave art

The dating also showed three distinct phases of cave art. The earliest art features geometric shapes dating to 400-700 BC. The second phase shows simple human drawings and dates to 220-400 AD. The third stage dates between 700-800 AD and includes the most detailed art, showing both humans and animals.

Acosta-Colon believes that further research could push the history of the Puerto Rican people back even further, potentially to 5,000 BC.

Rebecca McPhee

Rebecca McPhee is a freelance writer for ExplorersWeb.

Rebecca has been writing about open water sports, adventure travel, and marine science for three years. Prior to that, Rebecca worked as an Editorial Assistant at Taylor and Francis, and a Wildlife Officer for ORCA.

Based in the UK Rebecca is a science teacher and volunteers for a number of marine charities. She enjoys open water swimming, hiking, diving, and traveling.