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  • Writer's pictureMelissa Banigan

An Island Where Rocks Have Faces

First published March 22, 2017 in BBC Travel

Petroglyphs found throughout Guadeloupe’s rainforest provide a window into the island’s ancient indigenous peoples population.

Photo: Melissa Banigan

I was hiking through thick rainforest along a 5km trail that hugged the shore near Trois-Rivières, a town on the southwestern tip of Guadeloupe’s Basse-Terre island, when suddenly the canopy opened and the Coulisse River appeared, severing the trail in two. There was only one way across, but there didn’t appear to be strong currents and there were rocks along the way to grab hold.

The river’s headwaters were hidden far above me in the middle of a verdant, volcanic rainforest, and the river spilled down over a series of waterfalls before meeting the wild, undulating sea. Standing knee-deep in the river, it was easy to understand why the Island Caribs, a group of Amerindians who lived here more than 800 years ago, had named the island Karukera, or ‘the island of beautiful waters’.

More than 1,000 years before the Island Caribs settled Guadeloupe, the island had been inhabited by the Igneri, an indigenous Arawak people who left the Orinoco River basin in Venezuela to settle the Lesser Antilles, which spread like a crescent across the Caribbean Sea into the Atlantic Ocean.

Many scholars believe that the Igneri were a deeply spiritual people – animists who thought rivers, animals, rocks and even thunder and earthquakes contained spirits. The Igneri carved petroglyphs depicting abstract designs and round, hollow-eyed faces into stones along rivers, waterfalls and lakes.

In front of me, so close that I could’ve reached out and brushed it with my fingers, what looked like a relief of a man’s profile had been carved into a towering boulder. Although I can’t be certain that the markings weren’t formed by the river’s ebb and flow, I imagined an artist hunched over the rock as he or she worked amid the sounds of bird calls and the rustling leaves.

In 1995, a local archaeologist found petroglyphs on Basse-Terre island (Credit: Melissa Banigan)

Over the last few years I had developed a love affair with Guadeloupe, and I regularly took advantage of cheap winter flights that carried me between my home in New York City and the island’s capital, Pointe-à-Pitre. My Guadeloupean friends quickly learned that I never declined an opportunity to see more of their island, and they often invited me along for adventures.

It was usually my friend, Frédérique, who would pull up in her little car next to the modest apartment I’d rented. “Bonjour!” she’d call, which was enough to make me grab my things and rush down the stairs.

One morning at the crack of dawn, Frédérique’s voice rang through the air. I thought we were heading out to see a parade of traditional Guadeloupean musicians, and, still rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I threw on a pair of sandals and grabbed my camera. It was only after we reached the edge of Trois-Rivières, however, that I started to question our destination.

We turned down a road that didn’t appear to lead towards civilisation, but away from it into a deeply forested area. Frédérique expertly navigated the vehicle down a thin pass through the rainforest, ropes of vines above our heads. Finally, we turned into a small parking lot where about 10 members of Frédérique’s family stood in hiking gear and boots.

I graciously accepted the loan of a water bottle, but there wasn’t much I could do about my sandals. We strode down the path into the rainforest, and in just a little while, I found myself crossing the rocky river, sandals in hand.

Guadeloupeans have been hiking and picnicking in the coastal rainforest for generations (Credit: Melissa Banigan)

Guadeloupeans living in Trois-Rivières and surrounding towns have been hiking and picnicking in this coastal rainforest for generations, but it wasn’t until local archaeologist Carloman Bassette came across petroglyphs in 1995 that France’s Ministry of Culture and Guadeloupe’s National Office of Forests stepped in to protect the area and develop the trails along the coast, including le Sentier de la Grande Pointe ‒ or the ‘Great Point Trail’ – which we were following.

The Coulisse River splices the trail at its midway point. At the opposite end of the trail is Grand Ravine Cove, offering magnificent views of the Caribbean Sea, a group of islands called Les Saintes and, in the distance, the volcanic peaks of Dominica.

We hiked about a kilometre past the river before turning gently inland, and it was there, after a couple of hundred metres, that we came upon the site Bassette had found, now called Anse des Galets, or Stone Cove. A spring trickled from the rocks, feeding a small pool believed to have once been heated by geothermal vents. On one side of the pool stood a rectangular-shaped rock with a petroglyph of a man surrounded by ghostly faces. Jutting out of the pool, a second stone bore the carved image of a woman giving birth, an infant emerging from between her thighs.

Known as the ‘Man and Woman of the Stones’, these two petroglyphs are unique in that they are fully embodied anthropomorphic figures, while most carvings found in this area are simplistic or abstract. Many archaeologists believe that fertility rituals took place on the site.

Frédérique simply pointed down at the rocks and said, “That’s where women came to give birth.”

We continued through the rainforest. Half a kilometre from Stone Cove stood the crumbling ruins of an old sugar plantation. After Columbus first stepped foot onto Guadeloupe in 1493, smallpox and genocide decimated the island’s indigenous peoples populations. Colonisation took hold of the New World, and just like on many islands across the Antilles, white Creole settlers ‒ whose descendants in Guadeloupe are known today as békés ‒ developed sugar plantations. I couldn’t help noticing that the pre-Columbian petroglyphs located along the trail were still in such good condition while this vestige of the colonial era had nearly been swallowed whole by the rainforest.

At the end of the trail, we took in the views: on one side towering rainforest, while on the other, waves crashed heavily along the volcanic shore. Then, we turned to head back the way we came. 

We crossed the Coulisse River a second time with the sun beating down on us from directly overhead. Not long after, we emerged from beneath the leafy canopy where we had left our car. There, I shared a homemade lunch with Frédérique and her family at the edge of the rainforest.

I took a break at Duquéry Beach after the hike (Credit: Melissa Banigan)

Nearby, a thin, sinuous path wound its way along an old riverbed towards the sea. After lunch, I followed the trail to Duquéry Beach, named after the ruins of a nearby sugar plantation.

I doffed my sandals and buried my sore feet in the black volcanic sand. As I watched the variegated blue waves of the sea, weathered carved shapes peered out from brush-covered boulders behind me, and together we shared the view they’ve possessed for more than a thousand years.

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