Evidence of pre-Columbian civilization has been rare in the Caribbean until relatively recently, but the CENTRO CEREMONIAL INDÍGENA DE TIBES (787/840-2255) remains one of the region’s greatest discoveries, proof of highly complex societies long before the Spanish conquest. The site was inhabited for 1500 years by a series of migrating peoples and primarily used as a burial ground and ceremonial centre, littered with ball-courts and standing stones. Like Caguana, this has none of the grandiose ruins of Central America, but the guides do their best to bring the site alive with illuminating facts and anecdotes, and if you visit early, you’ll almost certainly have it to yourself. Tibes is clearly signposted off PR-503 at km 2.2, due north of central Ponce. Note that you can only visit the site with a guide (free; tours last up to 1hr): weekdays you should be able to pick up an English-speaking one at the entrance, though if the park is busy (unusual), you may have to wait. Note that the site cannot be reached by public transport.

Brief history

In 1975, a local farmer stumbled across ancient ruins uncovered by flooding in the wake of Hurricane Eloise, and archeologists finally got working on the site a year later. They found nine ball-courts, three plazas and the largest indigenous cemetery ever discovered on the island, comprising 187 human skeletons (one of which is displayed in the museum) from the Igneri and Pre-Taíno periods. The Igneri people established Tibes and used the site from around 300 to 600 AD as a sacred burial ground, but it was later re-inhabited by Pre-Taíno peoples, who constructed the ball-courts and seem to have used it primarily as a ceremonial and burial centre (the remains of which survive today). The Igneri may have played an early form of the ball-game (see The museum), but just for sport, while it started to assume a more spiritual and symbolic meaning under the Pre-Taínos.

Our understanding of el batey or the ball-game (pelota in modern Spanish), is almost completely based on a few early Spanish accounts. Played with two teams, passing a rubber ball between them (with anything but the hands), it had many similarities to the game played in Mesoamerica, and had a serious ceremonial function.

In around 1100 the site was abandoned after extensive flooding of the Río Portugués, and it remained lost for almost nine hundred years. The academic impact of Tibes was seismic: previously, little was known about Pre-Taíno cultures, and the ball-game was considered a relatively recent phenomenon, while the construction of so many stone structures implied a highly organized society able to plan, mobilize, control and sustain many workers. Some experts go further, claiming that the plazas were positioned to reflect the seasonal solar equinox and solstice, making Tibes the oldest astronomical observatory in the Caribbean.


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