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A Prehistoric Wooden Sculpture of a Snake from the Dominican Republic

By Richard Michael Gramly, PhD
American Society for Amateur Archaeology
North Andover, Massachusetts

Amateur Archaeologist JournalSome time before 1902 Eugenio Federico Polanco, a lawyer practicing in Puerta Plata on the north coast of the Dominican Republic, received from a client, perhaps in lieu of cash payment of a fee, a wooden sculpture of a snake. According to Polanco family history, the client claimed that this artifact was discovered in a nearby cave (V. Cody, personal communication). On the other hand, a handwritten caption on the back of an old photograph of the sculpture suggests that it may have come from the Province of El Seibo — to the east of Puerta Plata. Whatever was its exact findspot, evidently the wooden sculpture must have lain in a dry, sheltered location, as it is in an excellent state of preservation.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalAn offer to purchase the sculpture was made by Jesse Walter Fewkes on behalf of the Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution, during his archaeological reconnaissance of the Lesser and Greater Antilles (Fewkes 1907: 197), but it was refused. A sketch of the sculpture was published by Fewkes as an accompaniment to his description (Ibid. Plate XC).

Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe artifact was in the keeping of Senor Polanco's oldest son, F. E. Polanco — brother of Ms. F. M. Cody. Ms. Cody had brought the sculpture to the United States after the death of their father in 1933. When Senor Polanco's son died, it became the property of his sister. In turn, it was bequeathed to the sister's oldest child — Ms. V. Cody. The sculpture appears to have been gently curated by the Polanco family and descendants for nearly 110 years without any treatments of preservatives or harsh cleaning agents.

Aspects of Taino Culture

Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe Greater Antilles, including the Dominican Republican Republic, were home historically to the Taino people; while, the Lesser Antilles east and south of Puerto Rico were occupied or claimed by Caribs (Loven 2010: 58; Willey 1971: 370-71). Taino economy was based upon horticulture and fishing, which yielded surplus enabling stratified societies such as chiefdoms to exist. Ball-courts and other large-scale earthen and stone works were constructed, and judging by stone sculptures and small articles made of other raw materials, art flourished (Fewkes 1907, 1922).

Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe fluorescence of the Caribbean cultural tradition occurred within a 500-year period, A.D. 1000-1500 (Willey ibid.: 363) during the time of Toltec supremacy over the Maya in the Yucatan. Many Taino artifacts made of wood and other perishable materials survive from this period because they were kept at shrines within caves (Loven ibid: 125) or were collected by early Spanish explorers and colonizers. For example, more than 100 imaginatively carved wooden stools (duhos) exist in private and public collections (Bercht et al. 1997: 59).

Amateur Archaeologist JournalOf special interest to collectors of Taino art are the so-called vomiting sticks — some of which have been recovered from shrines and burials in caves (Loven ibid: 126). They are fashioned of manatee bone, stone and wood. Most examples have a zoomorphic or anthropomorphic figure at one end and are spatulate-shaped at the other end for inserting down the throat (see Kerchache 1994 for examples). As described by 16th century Spanish chroniclers (Fewkes 1907: 66-67), shaman-priests known as "boli" ("serpents") induced vomiting with a stick to ritually cleanse themselves before praying. Although the practice of ritual vomiting is widespread in North America, the use of elaborately carved sticks to induce it was not as common.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalIn the Caribbean vomit sticks also appear to have been used prior to inhaling hallucinogenic powders (Allegria 1997: 24). Powdered drugs are still used some by South American shamans to induce visions. They are administered by blowing them through tubes into the nostrils and sinuses (Plotkin 1993: 243).

Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe features of many portable sculptures of the Taino, including vomiting sticks, were cut deeply to receive inlays of bone and other substances. Resins were used to affix these inlays, to judge by mastic still surviving on well-preserved wooden articles from caves (see Kerchache 1994 for examples).

Amateur Archaeologist JournalOther common attributes of Taino portable art are the curvilinear designs that were incised upon surfaces. A circle with a dot in its center and a circular spiral with trailing line are frequently observed on ceramic, wooden, and bone articles (Rouse 1992: Figure 20). For technical reasons perhaps, these motifs were seldom engraved upon Taino stone sculptures.

The Polanco Wooden Sculpture

Jump link to: captions and figures

Amateur Archaeologist JournalMade of dark hard wood capable of taking a high polish, the sculpture portrays a coiled snake ready to strike (Figures 1, 2). Its height is two inches (5 cm); while, the length is 21 inches (53.3 cm) over the curves with the last several inches being spatulate — rather than pointed like the tail of a living serpent. From the back of the head to the beginning of the spatulate section the top and sides are covered with a neat pattern of engraved circles with a dot in the center. In the Taino fashion these circles with a dot are separated by trailing lines delimiting triangular spaces. The bottom surface of the sculpture has a pattern of 45 incisions that realistically represents a snake's belly scales. The head is hog-nosed and is perhaps a stylized portrayal of a venomous pit viper that is often seen in late prehistoric Meso-American art of the mainland (e.g., Baquedano 1984: 72-73; Benson 1963: Plates 107, 136, 153, 121). The only genus of poisonous pit viper that survives anywhere in the Greater and Lesser Antilles is Bothrops, which is commonly known as the lancehead or fer-de-lance. Two species, B. caribbaeus and B. lanceolatus, ranging in size as adults from 50 to 200 cm, are known for St. Lucia and Martinique. They are absent in Puerto Rico (Nellis 1999), Hispaniola, and Cuba, and it is difficult to believe that Bothrops could have been eradicated on those large islands during historic times. The Polanco sculpture of a snake does not resemble a fer-de-lance, except for length, and even here it barely falls within the expected size range. Likely the ancient Taino sculptor was striving to represent a Meso-American rattlesnake or its conventional depiction — but not a fer-de-lance of the Antilles.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalAt the junction of the spatulate end with the body of the Polanco sculpture is a belt of barred rectangles or long ovals with two pendant, bellows-shaped engravings. These lobate engravings resemble a snake's genital opening or vent and are located at the correct anatomical position along the body. It is curious, however, that this feature is depicted on both the dorsal and ventral surfaces of the sculpture and not just on the ventral side where it belongs. The engraved genital openings on the Polanco sculpture recall aprons worn by Mississippian/Caddoan warriors who are portrayed upon shell cups and gorgets (see Brain and Phillips 1996: 52-53 for examples) of the Southern Cult. Even the barred rectangles or long ovals have a counterpart among Southern Cult motifs.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalThere remain traces of resin within the eyes, mouth, and dots in the center of the engraved circles, but no shell or metal inlays have survived. The deep, continuous channel forming the snake's mouth (depth = 4.5 mm) must have accommodated bone "dentures" like those fitted into a snake-headed stone zemi that is figured by Kerchache (1994: 201). There was ample resin within the Polanco sculpture's mouth for radiocarbon-dating, and the results are reported below.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalCompared to some Taino vomiting sticks, the spatulate end of the Polanco specimen is short (approximately four inches or 10 cm); however, it is long enough to have reached the glottis within a shaman's throat and to have caused reflexive vomiting.

Absolute Age of the Polanco Sculpture

Amateur Archaeologist JournalUsing a clean dental pick, resin within the snake's mouth was scraped directly into a collection bag. Although the sample weighed only a few tenths of a gram, it was sufficient for accurate radiocarbon-dating by tandem linear accelerator mass spectroscopy (TAMS). Not all the resin within the mouth cavity was removed, and enough remains for one or two more determinations.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe measured radiocarbon age (Beta-257656) was 390 +/- 40 years before present (AD 1950). The calibrated date, on the other hand, is significantly older, namely, 580 +/- 40 years before present. At two standard deviations there is a 95% probability that the age of the resin (and the period when the sculpture was used) lies between 1300 AD and 1430 AD. A good estimate of the calendar age of the sculpture, therefore, is 1365 AD making it pre-Columbian and Middle to Late Post-Classic in age according to mainland Meso-America chronology.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalIn that era human sacrifices were being made and offerings still being thrown into the Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza in the Yucatan (Coggins and Shane 1984). Among the thousands of wood, metal, stone and ceramic artifacts that were retrieved from the cenote by Edward H. Thompson between 1904 and 1909 are wooden sculptures of snakes. Two of these (Figure 3) are end-fragments of spearthowers or atl-atls that were capable of practical use. Each bears the realistically modeled head of a pit viper. A third wooden object in the shape of a snake (Figure 4) is more problematical. It has been interpreted as a small scepter or hair ornament (Coggins and Shane, Object 183). Being thin (3-6 mm), flat, dully pointed, and having the same overall length (20.2 cm) as the Polanco sculpture (22.4 cm), it seems to me that this sculpture might have served as a vomit stick like those used by the Taino.

Snakes in Meso-America and on Its Periphery

Amateur Archaeologist JournalSnakes or composite creatures with attributes of snakes made of wood are rare in Taino sculpture. Apart from the Polanco specimen, there may be only one other in the archaeological records of the Caribbean islands — a tightly coiled snake of unknown genus/species made from a tree root, attributed to Puerto Rico (Bercht 1997: Plate 97). Their scarcity perhaps reflects the small number of snakes in the Lesser and Greater Antilles in general.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalOn the mainland, however, snakes are abundant, and not surprisingly they assume an important role in traditional belief systems. In northern South America, for example, the anaconda along with jaguar and harpy eagle form a "cosmological triumvirate" ( Roe 1997: 124) that occupies the lower, middle and upper worlds respectively. In Pre-Columbian Panama snakes and creatures with snake-like attributes were often depicted upon polychrome painted ceramic vessels and they are thought to have been icons of "vital force" (Labbe 1995: 37). In central Mexico during the era of Spanish contact, on the other hand, rattlesnakes were not only a common theme of Aztec artists but also were kept in menageries for the amusement of royalty. Likewise, during late prehistory and proto-history in regions immediately north of the Meso-American fringe, namely, the wide region of eastern North America influenced by the Southern Cult, poisonous snakes and snake-like creatures were depicted frequently upon objects of personal adornment and ritual use. As well, the mythologies of native peoples in northern North America tales are haunted by beliefs of "underwater serpents" lurking within deep waters of lakes and rivers. And in the American Southwest the Hopi Indians annually staged a dance with live rattlesnakes — who at this observance were directly connected to the Underworld (Dutton 1983: 61).

Amateur Archaeologist JournalLuckert (1976) has argued persuasively that snake's all-pervading role in Meso-American religions began during the Olmec era. He suggests that Olmec shamans transformed themselves into serpents in a quest for power to heal and influence other human beings. It would hardly be a revelation to learn that all Taino shamans (boli) were heirs to shamanistic knowledge of the Olmec. It would be even less surprising if one of these boli chose to carve a vomit stick in the shape of a snake, like the Polanco sculpture, for use in his transformation.

Richard Michael Gramly, PhD
North Andover, Massachusetts
December 2010

References Cited

Allegria, Ricardo E.

1997Amateur Archaeologist Journal

An introduction to Taino culture and history. Pp. 18-33 in Fatima Bercht et al. (editors) Taino: Pre-Columbian Art and Culture from the Caribbean. The Monacelli Press. New York.

Baquedano, Elizabeth

1984Amateur Archaeologist Journal

Aztec Sculpture. British Museum Publications, Ltd. London.

Benson, Elizabeth Polk

1963Amateur Archaeologist Journal

Handbook of the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art. Dumbarton Oaks. Washington, D.C.

Bercht, Fatima, Estrellita Brodsky, John Alan Farmer, and Dicey Taylor (editors)

1997Amateur Archaeologist Journal

Taino: Pre-Colombian Art and Culture from the Caribbean. El Museo del Barrio. The Monacelli Press. New York.

Brain, Jeffrey P. and Philip Phillips

1996Amateur Archaeologist Journal

Shell Gorgets: Styles of the Late Prehistoric and Protohistoric Southeast. Peabody Museum Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Coggins, Clemency Chase and Orrin C. Shane III

1984Amateur Archaeologist Journal

Cenote of Sacrifice: Maya Treasures from the Sacred Well at Chichen Itza. University of Texas Press. Austin.

Dutton, Bertha P.

1983Amateur Archaeologist Journal

American Indians of the Southwest. University of New Mexico Press. Albuquerque.

Fewkes, Jesse Walter

1907Amateur Archaeologist Journal

The Aborigines of Porto Rico and Neighboring Islands. Annual Report, Bureau of American Ethnology 24 (1903-1904). Washington, D. C.

1922Amateur Archaeologist Journal

A Prehistoric Island Culture Area of America. Annual Report, Bureau of American Ethnology 34 (1912-1913). Washington, D. C.

Kerchache, Jacques

1994Amateur Archaeologist Journal

L'Art Taino. Musees de la Ville de Paris.

Labbe, Armand J.

1995Amateur Archaeologist Journal

Guardians of the Life Stream: Shamans, Art and Power in Prehispanic Central Panama. Bowers Museum of Cultural Art. Santa Anna, California.

Loven, Sven

2010Amateur Archaeologist Journal

(new edition of 1935 work) Origins of the Tainan Culture, West Indies. The University of Alabama Press. Tuscaloosa.

Luckert, Karl W.

1976Amateur Archaeologist Journal

Olmec Religion: A Key to Middle American and Beyond. University of Oklahoma Press. Norman.

Nellis, David W.

1999Amateur Archaeologist Journal

Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands Wildlife Viewing Guide. Falcon Publishing, Inc. Helena, Montana.

Plotkin, Mark J.

1993Amateur Archaeologist Journal

Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice. Viking Penguin. New York.

Roe, Peter G.

1997Amateur Archaeologist Journal

Just wasting away: Taino shamanism and concepts of fertility. Pp. 124-157 in Fatima Bercht et al. (editors) Taino: Pre-Columbian Art and Culture from the Caribbean. The Monacelli Press. New York.

Rouse, Irving

1992Amateur Archaeologist Journal

The Tainos: Rise and Decline of the People Who Greeted Columbus. Yale University Press. New Haven.

Willey, Gordon R.

1971Amateur Archaeologist Journal

An Introduction to American Archaeology (Volume 2). Prentice-Hall, Inc. New Jersey.

Figures 1 and 2 Lithic Casting Lab photographs.
Figures 3 and 4 President and Fellows of Harvard College, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.

Jump Back

Figure 1. Dorsal view of the Polanco sculpture of a snake. Taino, circa. 1365 AD, Dominican Republic. Length (snout to tail) = 8 7/8 inches (22.4 cm), length (over the curves) = 21 inches (53.3 cm). Lithic Casting Lab photograph.

Figure 1. Dorsal view of the Polanco sculpture of a snake.

Figure 2. Side view of the Polanco sculpture. Lithic Casting Lab photograph.

Figure 2. Side view of the Polanco sculpture. Lithic Casting Lab photograph.

Figure 3. Distal ends of wooden spearthrowers (atl-atls) with snake head terminals, recovered by Edward H. Thompson from the Sacred Cenote, Chichen Itza, Yucatan. Length of upper specimen (C6739) = 15.3 cm, length of lower specimen (C6738) = 17.5 cm. Note the holes intended for inlays along the back of C6739. Photograph (98720055) courtesy of Peabody Museum, Harvard; copyright President and Fellows of Harvard College, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.

Figure 3. Distal ends of wooden spearthrowers (atl-atls) with snake head terminals, recovered by Edward H. Thompson from the Sacred Cenote, Chichen Itza, Yucatan.

Figure 4. Wooden "hairpin" — perhaps a vomiting stick — recovered by Edward H. Thompson from the Sacred Cenote, Chichen Itza, Yucatan (C6696). The head of the snake is obscured by resin and copper sheet. Length = 20.2 cm. Photograph (98720056) courtesy of Peabody Museum, Harvard; copyright President and Fellows of Harvard College, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.

Figure 4. Wooden

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