On a 1988 expedition deep in the heart of Parque Nacional del Este, a team of archeologists from Indiana University discovered the most significant and extensive Taino excavation yet on record, four ceremonial plazas surrounding a cenote; (a natural well) – a site referred to as La Aleta. Evidence shows that natives came to this well to worship during pre-Columbian times from across the countryside, even as far away as the Tetero valley near Pico Duarte.
In his History of the Indies, Spanish priest Bartolomé de Las Casas recorded a journey to La Aleta in the late fifteenth century, noting that the natives lowered bowls into the well via a piece of rattan rope to pull up water, which was sweet at the surface and salty at the bottom – a stratification that still exists. He also described the slaughter of seven hundred people at La Aleta in 1503, the culmination of Nicolás de Ovando’s campaign of Taino extermination, which he started after the Tainos killed three Spaniards on Isla Saona, itself a retaliation for an attack by a Spanish soldier. Bones from the mass killing have been found scattered throughout the site and within the well.
For the Tainos, caves served as the gateways to an underground spirit world. The well was apparently a site for subterranean ceremonies; fragments believed to have been parts of rafts lowered into the well have also been discovered. Other artefacts recovered from the site include clay pots and one straw basket, thought to contain offerings of food; a cassava cooking pan; axes and clubs; and an intact wooden duho (the seat from which the caciques prophesied to their people). In addition to the cenote, there is a series of four ceremonial plazas at the site – bounded by monumental limestone pillars – where a ball game similar to modern-day soccer was played by those who attended the rituals.
The government hopes one day to blaze a trail here from Peñon Gordo and open La Aleta to the public, but for now archeologists have to use a helicopter to get in, and no one else is supposedly allowed admittance. Still, the place has been ransacked twice by treasure hunters, and Dominican soldiers have been posted to prevent further looting.