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The origin of 800 stone figurines unearthed in Puerto Rico in the 19th century had been a controversial mystery for over one hundred years until scientists analyzed them for the first time with modern technology. And what they found could be evidence of a lost civilization.
The history of Puerto Rico is well known and understood by archaeologists. But a recent examination of stone figurines that had been guarded for generations by a single family until the last member died out in the 1870s has many questions being asked. Before the woman died, she passed her family secret to a priest named José María Nazario y Cancel, who dug up the collection and brought it to the attention of academia, which dismissed them as fakes.
Nothing like these figurines had ever been found or seen anywhere. Not in Puerto Rico and not even in South America.
But the priest died in 1919 without anyone from the academic world believing the story he was charged with to keep alive.
And for decades, the story persisted and the figurines were scattered into various museums and personal collections around the world without anyone knowing where they really came from or how old they are.
That is, until University of Puerto Rico Professor Reniel Rodríguez Ramos took an interest and sought to get to the bottom of the mystery once and for all.
“I can imagine something along the lines of the Dead Sea Scrolls, stashed in a hidden location, and that some people may have known about it and taken care of them,” Ramos admitted. “People have important objects that talk about their history, and that are not accessible to everyone.”
Ever hear about the Library of Agüeybaná? The mysterious artifacts traveled all the way from Puerto Rico to Dr. Iris Groman-Yaroslavsky's Use-wear Analysis Lab, and have just become a little less mysterious.https://t.co/iBUQwOOcIp pic.twitter.com/5sbYzQSdLi
— University of Haifa (@UofHaifa) July 11, 2019
Indeed, many artifacts throughout history have been held as family heirlooms for generations until they are sold or donated.
It’s not out of the realm of possibility that generations of a family held onto a secret collection of ancient artifacts to protect them. Museums were not exactly common until the 20th century, so families who guarded this unique treasure trove had nowhere to take it to keep it safe, thinking rightly that it should stay buried.
According to Haaretz:
Nothing like these roughly 800 figurines has ever been found before, in the Americas or anywhere else. Mostly anthropomorphic in form, the statuettes bear petroglyph inscriptions that look nothing like any known writing systems, including Mayan or Aztec, Rodríguez Ramos explains. The determination that the collection — known as the Library of Agüeybaná, or Nazario Collection — really is pre-Columbian and not a modern forgery supports the theory that the statuettes are a ghostly remnant of an unknown people.
They were made of apparently local serpentine stone, says Rodríguez Ramos, based on isotope analysis and chemical characteristics. Such tests cannot state categorically that they are local, but similar rock is available near where they were found but not elsewhere in Puerto Rico, the professor observes.
Ramos initially considered the possibility that the figurines were made by people from a far off civilization, perhaps from the Middle East or even as close as the South and Central American mainland by the Mayans or Aztecs. It’s not a bad theory. People from South America had made it to Puerto Rico before.
The problem is that an analysis of the figurines, performed at the University of Haifa by Dr. Iris Groman-Yaroslavsky, while proving that they are genuine pre-Columbian antiquities carved around 1400, the analysis cannot tell us who made them because there is nothing to compare them to anywhere to be found.
The symbols in the inscription are totally unique.
“We are in the presence of an annotation system that has never been documented so far,” Ramos said.
The information leads Ramos to think that the figurines were made by a small cult that never expanded, and more than likely disbanded, but they could have been made from a lost civilization that has gone unknown all this time. Perhaps the most devout followers of the cult or desperate members of the civilization kept the figurines and hid them away to prevent them from being destroyed, thus preserving their history.
Why the collection was buried centuries ago, and known only to one family that died out with an old woman in the late 1870s, we cannot know. But Rodríguez Ramos speculates that, since this collection is unique, they were not the product of a widespread cult.
The one thing now unambiguous is their age, which is determined partly by the patina glazing their surface, which had to have been laid down by natural processes over long, long years in their subterranean hiding place.
The University of Haifa explains that “remnants of gold that appears to have coated some of the items…reinforces the hypothesis that the items were used in ancient worship. Remnants were also found of a red paint that covered parts of the eyes and mouth in the figures, reflecting a complex process of design and finishing.”
“This is definitely one of the strangest and most fascinating stories I’ve been involved in,” Groman-Yaroslavsky said. “To date, we have not found any similar carved stone art objects from this region of America, and this is why many researchers assumed that they must be fake.”
“They were made in a different way,” Ramos added. “For me, when I look at them, I immediately say, different. I cannot say lost civilization but I can say: The hands that made these are different from the hands that made artifacts in Puerto Rico.”
The mystery of who carved the figurines will endure for now, but the results of the analysis has helped a long-dead priest keep a promise made to a dying woman that he would keep her family’s history alive. Ramos should be proud of that noble accomplishment.
You can see Professor Reniel Rodríguez Ramos discussing the figurines in the video below:
Featured Image: Screenshot via YouTube