Within walking distance of the southeast coast, 25km down a dirt track leading east from the checkpoint at Cayo Piedra, the Cuevas de Punta del Este, half-buried amid overgrown herbs and greenery, contain significant examples of early pre-Columbian art, pointing to an established culture on the island as early as 900 AD. These paintings are among the few remaining traces of the Siboney – among the first inhabitants of Cuba – who arrived from South America via other Caribbean islands between three and four millennia ago; they are thought to have died out shortly after the paintings were made.
The six caves, only two of them accessible, were discovered by accident at the turn of the twentieth century by a north American named Freeman P. Lane, who disembarked on the beach and sought shelter in one of them. The discovery made archeologists reconsider their assumption that Siboney culture was primitive, as the paintings are thought to represent a solar calendar, which would indicate a sophisticated cosmology.
Caves One and Two
On March 22 each year, the sun streams through a natural hole in the roof of Cave One, the largest of the group, illuminating the pictographs in a beam of sunlight. Being linked to the vernal equinox, the effect is thought to celebrate fertility and the cycle of life and death. When bones were excavated here in 1939, it became apparent that the caves’ function was not only ceremonial – they had also been used for habitation and burial.
Of the 230 pictographs, the most prominent are the tight rows of concentric red-and-black circles overlapping one another on the low ceiling of Cave One. Despite creeping erosion by algae, the fading images are still very visible. Major excavation work got under way in the 1940s, when five more caves were discovered, though the paintings within are in a far worse state of repair and you’ll need a keen eye to spot them. Even so, you should take a look at Cave Two, 500m away, where more fragments of circles are outshone by the fragile remains of a painted fish.