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Petroglyphs reef Bay Trail

Petroglyph Trail
Excerpted From St. John Off The Beaten Track
By Gerald Singer

Petroglyphs Reef Bay Trail St. John USVI

In the lower section of the Reef Bay valley there is a freshwater pool surrounded by large, smooth rocks. It is fed by a waterfall that cascades down a 40-foot cliff where strangler figs and wild orchids have taken root using cracks and crevices in the rock face as footholds.

Dragon Fly at Petroglyphs

The pool provides an environment for shrimp, frogs, small fish, dragonflies and hummingbirds, and at night bats zip back and forth attracted to the sweet water. The vegetation is lush and tropical and the ambiance is serene and tranquil. There is an air of magic and spirituality here that undoubtedly inspired previous inhabitants of St. John to carve drawings and symbols into the rocks surrounding the pool. We call these rock carvings the petroglyphs.

If you're coming down the Reef Bay Trail from Centerline Road the Petroglyph Trail will head off to your right at a point 1.6 miles from trailhead. Coming up from the sugar mill it is 0.8 miles to the Petroglyph Trail, which will be on your left. From the intersection of the two trails it only requires an easy half-mile walk over flat terrain in order to reach the petroglyphs.

See map

There are several theories on the origin of the petroglyphs, but none can be absolutely proven. Apparently, there is not yet a reliable scientific method for dating the carvings.

The most popular (and most plausible) theory attributes the petroglyphs to the pre-Columbian inhabitants of St. John.

Reef Bay was a settlement site for a wave of pre-ceramic hunters and gatherers that came up the island chain of the Lesser Antilles and arrived on St. John about 3,000 years ago.

Around the time of Jesus Christ a new group of migrants arrived on St. John. They were a more advanced society of farmers and artisans who worked with clay and fabricated distinctive pottery. They also originated on the South American mainland and migrated throughout the Lesser Antilles and on to the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. With the arrival of the newcomers the previous inhabitants of these islands were absorbed into the new society, killed or driven off.

When they reached Hispaniola, however, the newly arrived immigrants came into contact with an ancient people who were the very first human beings to occupy the islands of the West Indies. This group of pre-ceramic hunters and gatherers were strong enough to halt the advance of the farmers, and for the next few hundred years the two societies faced each other off in the region of the Mona Passage between western Puerto Rico and eastern Hispaniola.

The interaction of the two cultures eventually gave rise to the great Taino nation that spread westward throughout Hispaniola, Jamaica, Cuba, and the Bahamas, and eastward into Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

Archeological evidence, especially the dig at Cinnamon Bay, proves conclusively that the Taino and their ancestors once lived on St. John. Moreover, a characteristic of Taino society was their propensity to carve pictographs around freshwater pools, along streams and rivers, on rocks found in caves, on coastlines, and at ceremonial sites such as ball courts. Petroglyphs similar to the ones at Reef Bay have been found at other former Taino settlements in Puerto Rico, Hispaniola and on various other islands throughout the West Indies.

Archeologist Ken Wild points to a bat motif found on many Taino artifacts, and historians have learned from the writings of the early Spanish chroniclers, who met the Taino, that the bat was an important religious symbol. Furthermore, what appears to be bat noses on a human faces can be seen on some petroglyphs. An interesting concept is the fact that petroglyphs are often found in areas frequented by bats such as water sources and caves. The petroglyph pool on St. John is one of these places. At night the sky over the pool is full of bats that come there to get water.

Given the overwhelming historical and archeological evidence, the vast majority of archeologists, historians, anthropologists and ethnologists have concluded that it was the Tainos who carved the petroglyphs in Reef Bay.

However, there are other theories.

One hypothesis is that Africans carved the petroglyphs. In 1971 the visiting ambassador from Ghana noticed a striking similarity of one of the pictographs to an Ashanti symbol that means, “accept God”.

Going further afield is the research of the eminent cryptographer, Dr. Barry Fell, who identifies the petroglyphs as being similar to “the Tifinag branch of a medieval Libyan script ... used by multi-racial peoples in South East Libya as well as by black Africans in the Sahara and the Sudan.”

According to Dr. Fell the petroglyphs are “script reflected and inverted in the mirror of the water” and would be translated into Modern English as “Plunge in to cleanse and dissolve away impurity and trouble; this is water for ritual ablution before devotions.”

As you can see the petroglyphs can inspire the imagination and produce many different explanations as to their origin and their meaning, and with the lack of conclusive, scientific evidence to explain them, many theories are possible.

What's yours?


Michael Gannon, a biologist who has worked studying bat ecology in the Caribbean for many years, located an extremely rare species of bat, Stenoderma rufum, at the petroglyph pools on St. John in August of 2003.

Stenderma rufum

Professor Gannon reports that this species has been recorded on St. John back in the late 1950s, but not since.

For more information on bats visit Professor Gannon’s website.

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