The Writing on the Wall
Exploring Bonaire’s Cave Art
With its cactus-lined dirt roads, darting lizards and blazing sun, Bonaire’s interior has the distinct feel of the American Southwest. That illusion however is immediately dispelled as we drive out of the colorfully lined streets of Rincon Village towards Boca Onima on the island’s east coast. Turning into the winding gravel drive that hugs the rocky shore, we are treated to the thundering cadence of crashing waves and sprawling outcroppings of stone set against the dark turquoise backdrop of the Caribbean. We came to Boca Onima to explore Bonaire’s rougher, unprotected shoreline. And while the rest of our group was busy diving the calm waters on the west side of the island, we were spending the morning looking for yet another of Bonaire’s treasures: Cave art.
In truth, the ancient paintings are fairly simple to find. A sign on the main road directs visitors to Boca Onima and the Indian Inscriptions, and it takes little more than some patience and careful inspection to find the artwork. We walked quickly along the rock shelter looking at the rough limestone walls, pitted and eroded by time, weather and the sea. On our first pass we didn’t see any inscriptions. It required only a tilt of the head upward however to find what we were looking for. There, covering the ceiling of the shallow cave cradled by drooping stalactites were the colorful markings. The reddish brown designs, painted using pigment from the Dyewood tree, showed a collage of images from dotted spiraling forms, to cross-hatched designs, to fish. The petroglyphs are spread out over several meters and although somewhat faded, are still easily recognizable.
At the time of discovery by Spanish explorers Alonso de Ojeda and Amerigo Vespucci in 1499, Bonaire was inhabited by the Arawak Indians. The Arawak most likely arrived by boat from the South American mainland more than a thousand years ago, bringing their artwork and culture with them to the small island. Similar inscriptions can be found throughout the northern coast of South America. The small inlet of Boca Onima is theorized to be the original landing spot for the native people of Bonaire although the treacherous coastline of Bonaire’s east shore must have made for a tricky landing in their primitive watercraft. The Arawak were all but eliminated by the Spanish, who enslaved them in the copper mines on Hispaniola in the early 1500’s. Signs of the native culture however can still be seen today, not only in their artwork, but through their language as well. In fact, it would be the native Arawak word “Bojnaj” (meaning “low country”) from which the island of Bonaire would get its name.
We spent some more time exploring the small cave, and wondering what the symbols meant, before starting our drive back to Kralendijk. We both had our theories and as the yellow Dutch gable buildings of the city came into view, we agreed that at least for the time being, it would have to remain a mystery.