When we look back on the colonization of America at the hands of the Europeans in the 1600s, we often describe it as a violent, oppressive and religiously zealous period in our checkered history that displaced an entire race of people and left us with phrases like "Indian-giver."

However, in some places, those interactions might not have been as clear-cut as once thought.

On the limestone walls of a network of caves deep in Mona Island in the Caribbean, there is evidence that the first generations of Europeans to cross the Atlantic and settle in the "New World" and the indigenous people of the Americas with whom they met there engaged in religious dialogue.

Led by Jago Cooper, curator at the British Museum in London, and Alice Samson, an archaeologist at the University of Leicester, a group of researchers spent years documenting the subterranean artwork at Mona Island, the third largest island in the Puerto Rican archipelago and an important stop on the sailing routes from Europe to America, and came across a series of signatures and inscriptions by Europeans — including Christian iconography and religious phrases in Latin and Spanish.

Finding these etchings, the archaeologists believe they were the remnants of a colonial-era religious dialogue, as Native Americans and Europeans learned about each other.

"It is proof that the first generation of Europeans were going into caves and being exposed to an indigenous world view," Dr. Cooper said.

Part of what makes this discovery so exciting for researchers is that the evidence suggests that Europeans didn't happen to find those caves by chance. Considering just how hard it was to access those caves back then, the only way Europeans could have come across that location was if the Natives led them there.

"What we're seeing here is a dichotomy between two very different sets of art," Dr. Cooper stated. "The later set is definitely drawn by Europeans who are having a reaction to, and a dialog with, the indigenous art."

Indeed, there are phrases throughout the cave that suggest this, such as: "Dios te perdone" ("may God forgive you") and "Plura fecit deus" ("God made many things"), which researchers believe expresses "the theological crisis of the New World discovery."

The team, which detailed these discoveries in the journal Antiquity, suggests intercultural artifacts can offer new perspectives on the ways the identities of both the Europeans and Native Americans changed during the 15th and 16th centuries as a result of their fateful encounter.

"This research reveals a new perspective on the personal encounter between indigenous populations and the first generations of Europeans in the Americas," Dr. Cooper concluded. "This is a unique site that helps us to understand the origins of cultural identity in the Americas, the start of a process that continues right up to the modern day."

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