Tibes Indigenous Ceremonial Center

(Esbozo histórico)

by Arql. Luis Á. Rodríguez Gracia

In 1975, hurricane Eloisa passed near Puerto Rico with torrential rains that caused massive flooding. Don Luis Hernandez, a sugar cane worker and farmer from the Toma Vieja section of Tibes in Ponce, made charcoal as a part-time job. While searching for wood to make for charcoal, he discovered remnants of indigenous cultures that had been buried over time and were uncovered by the flooding.

As he walked through Vega de Tani he saw shells and pieces of "bricks" which prompted him to explore further. He found pieces of bone and shells and ceramic fragments. He felt he had discovered a great secret and he initially kept it to himself. Although he realized that the objects he had discovered belonged to Puerto Rico's Indian past, he never realized that he had discovered one of the most important archeological sites in the Antilles.

One day in 1976, while exploring archeological sites on the island, the Archeological Society of the Southwest arrived in the area of Tibes. While asking questions, they learned of Don Luis' discovery and he took them to Vega de Tani. In surveying the area. they realized it was an archeological site with a ball field and a large rectangular area, which turned out to be a large plaza.

Some months later, in a meeting of the Guaynia Society of Archeology and History at the Catholic University of Puerto Rico, members of the Archeological Society of the Southwest announced the discovery of a "very good" archeological site, including ball fields, in Ponce. Both groups made plans for further exploration.

When the Guaynia Society arrived at the site, they realized its immense magnitude. It was protected by dense overgrowth and bordered the Portuguese River (in pre-Columbian times called the Baramaya River) making access difficult.

Little by little the Vega de Tani began to reveal its secrets, for the benefit of Puerto Ricans and the scientific community, producing the most important archeological site of its type in the Caribbean.



They discovered the oldest Antillian Indian ceremonial complex yet uncovered in Puerto Rico, consisting of nine ball courts and three ceremonial plazas. Within its boundaries is the largest indigenous cemetery yet discovered - consisting of 186 human skeletons, most from the Igneri and the rest from the Pre-Taino Cultures.

In its beginnings, the Tibes Indigenous Ceremonial Center was inhabited by Indians of the Igneri Culture, who made ceramics dominated by the Hacienda Grande and Cuevas styles (which appeared on the island around 25 AD+/- and remained until 600 AD+/-, according to Rouse, 1982) when the site was abandoned, perhaps because of some natural disaster (Questell, 1978).

It was replaced by the Pre-Taina Culture which populated the Island during a rapid period of population growth. It was this Indian group that began the stone structures which make up the Ceremonial Complex of Tibes. Evidence points to the stone ball court called "The Chief's Ball Field," on the north side of the area, as the earliest structure. Other structures are contiguous, including a unique structure called the Star Plaza because of its shape.

Around 1,000 A.D. the Tainos appeared, repopulating an abandoned Tibes. Some archeologists think that later generations of Taino peoples, whose origins in Tibes are demonstrated by the construction of the ball courts and plazas, later constructed the Caguanas Indigenous Ceremonial Center for political/economic/religious reasons. (Oliver, 1991)

At Tibe's discovery, the Guaynia Archeological and Historical Society took charge of the field archeology work, including the restoration of the stone structures. At various times, they were assisted by well known Antillian archeologist including Richard Alegria, Irving Rouse, Marcio Velez Maggiolo, Victor Carbone, Plinio Pina Peña, Carlos Alberto Martin, Mario Sanoja, Fernando Luna Calderon, Renatto Rimoli, Ovidio Davila among others.

Juan González Colón (principal investigator), Pedro Alvarado Zayas, Jesús Figueroa Lugo, Luis A. Rodriguez Gracia (archeological photographer), Miguel Rivera Puig (photographer) and Edgardo Maíz participated in the excavations. A group of archeological technicians provided unending assistance.

There have been many findings of significant archeological impact at Tibes, resulting in the revision of Antillian archeology. The twelve stone structures, including ceremonial plazas and ball courts (nine of which are open to the public today), demonstrate that the ball courts and plazas in the Antilles are much older than originally thought.

The Indians that inhabited Tibes, as an agricultural/ceramic society, needed to know the seasons by observing the stars and their movements in order to properly cultivate the crops on which their survival depended. As a result of archeological-astronomical investigations conducted by Archeologist Osvaldo García Goyco, "there is evidence that some of the plazas are orientated in relation to the equinox and solstice of the four seasons of the year"... "this makes the Tibes Indigenous Ceremonial Center the oldest astronomical observatory in the Antilles" (García Goyco).

The finding of courts for ball playing indicates that this custom is much older in Puerto Rico than was originally thought and that the Indians excavated and leveled a large quantity of earth in order to construct these ball courts and plazas. In addition, it represents the magical-religious tradition of their ancestors, since the principal plaza was built over a cemetery.

It also shows that, in Pre-Taino times, the indigenous society was very well organized with a stratified social structure. To construct the variety of stone structures required an ability to carefully plan, mobilize, direct and maintain many workers. They transported tons of rock from both the nearby Baramaya River and from distant places to complete the structures.

In addition, the excavations have provided important information in respect to the inhabitants stone and shell carving, ceremonies, eating habits, ceramic styles, etc.

In ceramic styles, there is information on the "Cuevas" style of the Igneri Culture and its possible evolution into the "Elenoide" style of the pre-Taino Culture. (Pedro Alvarado Zayas, thesis, 1981)

In the area of physical anthropology, there are sufficient human remains (186) to give important information on demographics, eating habits, illnesses and mortality indices, among others. It may also provide DNA information that could resolve the question as to where these people came from originally.

Among the structures of great importance are the ball courts, of which nine have been restored. They are:

    Ball Court # 1
    Un-named, it is the most southerly of the structures. Rectangular, with open ends, its sides are formed by two rows of stones in an east-west orientation. It measures 12.8 meters long, by 10.9 meters wide. It was constructed by the pre-Taino culture.

    Ball Court # 2

    Called the "Horseshoe Ball Court" because of its shape, its "U" is orientated east-west with an open end. On the north and east, it has stone walks. On the south side, it has a row of stones that increase in size from east to west. It measures 35.1 meters long by 9.3 wide and was constructed by the pre-Tainos.

    Ball Court # 3

    Called the "Cemi Ball Court," it was built with a north- south orientation paralleling the Baramaya River. Originally, the western side extended to the river's bank. During archeological excavations, they found eleven burial sites with offerings associated with the first phase of Tibes's occupation: "Hacienda Grande" y "Cuevas" style ceramics. It is the largest ball court in Tibes, measuring 76 meters long by 15.15 wide. It is "U" shaped and was constructed by the pre-Tainos.

    Ball Court # 4

    Called the "Santa Elena Ball Court," it is formed by two parallel rows of stones. It is oriented east-west, with two sides open, and measures 14 meters long by 8.4 wide.

    Ball Court # 5

    Called "One Row Ball Court," it is oriented north-south and consists of a single row of stones with a depression forming the remainder of the ball court. Three sides are open and it measures 13 meters long by 10.3 wide.

    Principal Plaza # 6

    It is orientated north-south. The north and south sides are formed by stone rows; the east-west by two walks. It has a single monolith in the center which was possibly used in magical-religious ceremonies. An infant was found buried below it, which may suggest a funeral ritual. It measures 39.6 meters long by 36.6 wide.

    Oval or Elliptical Plaza #7

    This is the most recent structure in the Ceremonial Complex of Tibes and is composed of 6 triangular stone platforms. According to one archeologist, "the eclipse consisted of 8 triangles, separated into three sections by three entrances" (Gonzalez, 1987). It measures 30 meters long by 25 wide. It is orientated north-south.

    Ball Court # 8

    Called the "Bat (as in the flying mammal) Ball Court," Rectangular with open ends oriented in an east-west direction, it consists of a stone walk on the north and a stone row on the south, measuring 17.5 meters long and 11.9 wide.

    Ball Court # 9

    named the "Chief Ball Court", it is rectangular and is located at the north of the complex running north-south. It has two parallel rows of stones and open ends. It is the oldest ball court at Tibes and measures 15.2 meters long by 10.4 wide


The stone structures of the Tibes Ceremonial Center were used by the pre-Tainos, for two possible purposes:


  1. The plazas were used to celebrate ceremonies of great importance, where a large number of people could congregate.
    The ball courts were used to play ball. This does not mean that the plazas were not also used for ball playing. According to Fray Bartolome de las Casas, the ball game was played in the following manner:

    "One team served the ball and the other team returned it, using anything but the hands. If the ball arrived at shoulder height, it was returned like lightening. When it came in near the ground, the player rapidly hit the ground, striking the ball with his buttocks. Play continued from side to side until an error was made."

The ball game was played for a variety of reasons: sport, diversion, magical-religious ceremonies where they bet - from fruits to ritual compensation. An example of this was seen during the revolt of the Indians in 1511, when the Indians captured a young Christian and decided his fate by way of a ball game:

"A chief called Aimanio took a young Christian man, son of one Pedro Xuarez de la Camara, native of Medina del Campo, tied him up and ordered the people to play ball (the ball game of the Indians) with the winners having the right to kill the young man." (Oviedo)

The indigenous used the plazas and ball courts for other activities, such as simulated fights. This was for the men and simulated a battle or war. It was conducted when one group visited another and required a lot of people and large spaces like the plazas. Pedro Martir de Ángleria writes that, in the Jaragua region of Haiti, they gave Don Bartolome Colon a reception in which, after dancing and singing, they conducted a great fight, to the delight of the guests. They described the event as follows:

"... fighting man to man like enemies, they clashed in defense of their possessions, . . .and so these squadrons joined in combat with bows and arrows. Four men died in the space of one hour and many others were injured; and even though they had fought with utmost strength, without a signal from the Chief given at our request, the contest did not end" (Angleria)

Besides these activities, they celebrated "areytos," celebrations of music, dancing, singing and ceremony, which served as an oral history. It was celebrated often, sometimes with only men, or only women, or both together. They danced the "areyto" for many hours until they were exhausted. Fray Bartolome de las Casas writes:

"And on this island what I could understand was that their songs which they call 'areytos,' were their history passed from person to person, fathers to sons from the present to the future, as here uniting many Indians... passing three or four hours or more until the teacher or guide of the dance finished the history, and sometimes they went from one day to the next."(Las Casas)



During the process of excavation and restoration, Guastella Films was commissioned by General Foods to make a documentary on the indigenous theme, "Herencia Taina" (The Taino Inheritance), a large part filmed in Tibes. An Indian village (Yucayeque) was constructed, according to the description of Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo, and it remains as an attraction today.

According to the accounts of Fray Ramon Pane, the Yucayeque consisted of a "caney" or rectangular house used by the Chief. There, they stored the main cemi of the tribe. It was on the edge of the village near the ball court. The other "bohios" or common persons' houses, were round or oval, large or small, for one family or many. When the Chief or someone important like the head of a family died, they burned their house for religious or hygienic reasons.

According to the chroniclers the settlement pattern was as follows: the houses were arranged around the plaza or ball court with the "caney" at the end.

"... in front of the Chief's house was a large rectangular plaza flat and well swept, which was called in the language of these islands, batey..."(Las Casas)

The Tibes Indigenous Ceremonial Center opened its doors in 1982, for the benefit of all Puerto Ricans and tourists who desire an encounter with the past.

The material recovered from the archeological excavations is stored in a laboratory at the Tibes Indigenous Ceremonial Center where the second phase of the investigation, the laboratory analysis, will be conducted. This analysis will provide data about demography, alimentation, diseases, life spans, DNA, etc.

In addition, they will gather information about stone and shell skills. The most important part of Tibes is its magical-religious nature: the ball courts, petroglyphs, amulets, cemis and evidence related to burials which provide information about their belief in an after-life.

They will conduct studies on the prehistoric fauna and flora, now extinct. They will also study the construction of the ball courts and the plazas, their age and possible relation to other areas in Puerto Rico and the Antilles.

Tibes, by its very nature, is a center for scientific-historical investigations. Plans are underway to develop it as an archeological investigation center for Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, using the latest in technology and an extensive specialized library to form a computerized informational network for use by archeologist and investigators in Puerto Rico and beyond.

They hope to begin publishing archeological and historical material to benefit both the scientific community and the general public.

At the present time, the Tibes Indigenous Ceremonial Center has the greatest number of visitors, for a site of its type, in Puerto Rico and the Antilles - more than 80,000 a year. Many of these visitors are students, which furthers their mission of educating new generations of Puerto Ricans about their roots and indigenous heritage.

The Tibes Indigenous Ceremonial Center, is the heritage of all Puerto Ricans "here lived our indigenous ancestors, here are our roots; it is the legacy which we received from our ancestors - our inheritance".