16-2020, tome 117, 4, p. 673-707 - Monney J. – Interactions symboliques en milieu insulaire : les roches gravées précolombiennes de Guadeloupe et leur relation au paysage

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16-2020, tome 117, 4, p. 673-707 - Monney J. – Interactions symboliques en milieu insulaire : les roches gravées précolombiennes de Guadeloupe et leur relation au paysage

Les roches gravées précolombiennes de Guadeloupe et leur relation au paysage


Julien Monney


Résumé :

Située au coeur de la Caraïbe, l'île volcanique de Guadeloupe, ou Basse-Terre, recèle le plus important ensemble d'art rupestre précolombien des Petites Antilles. Ces manifestations graphiques sont généralement attribuées aux communautés céramistes horticoles très mobiles ayant vécu dans les Antilles au Néoindien entre env. 300 av. et 1200 apr. J.-C. Suite aux récentes recherches de terrain menées sur ces sites ornés de plein-air, de nombreuses données nouvelles ont été acquises. Leur analyse spatiale est proposée ici sur des bases quantitatives afin d'aborder les modalités socioculturelles d'ornementation et de fréquentation des sites ornés et, plus largement, le rapport à l'espace insulaire des sociétés précolombiennes ainsi que leurs interactions physiques et symboliques au sein de ce dernier.

Les résultats obtenus font ressortir l'existence de plusieurs contextes topographiques distincts du point de vue de l'altitude et de la distance aux ressources en eau douce (source et/ou rivière). Ils montrent par ailleurs que les sites côtiers occupent préférentiellement les zones du littoral les plus favorables au niveau pluviométrique, mais aussi les plus proches des îles avoisinantes. Une corrélation directe entre la position topographique des sites ornés, le degré d'élaboration et les dimensions des figures qu'ils comprennent est également relevée. Cette corrélation se traduit par une plus forte proportion de grandes figures élaborées aux embouchures et/ou près de sources côtières comparativement aux sites de plateau et de rivière.

Mis en perspective avec les réflexions actuelles sur la dimension archipélique des territoires précolombiens, ceci suggère une utilisation des sites ornés du littoral par une pluralité de groupes différents dans le cadre de leur approvisionnement en eau lors de trajets interinsulaires ou lors de rassemblements périodiques. Par contraste avec l'art rupestre de l'intérieur des terres, la forte proportion de grandes figures élaborées présentes sur les côtes est alors à envisager comme l'expression performative d'un rapport à des espaces partagés et aux autres groupes humains susceptibles de les fréquenter également.


Mots-clés : art rupestre, Précolombien, pétroglyphe, roche gravée, Guadeloupe, Petites Antilles, aire caraïbe, analyse spatiale, paysage, anthropologie sociale, territoire.



Located in the heart of the Caribbean, the volcanic island of Guadeloupe, or Basse-Terre, presents the most important concentration of pre-Columbian rock art in the Lesser Antilles. Comprising as many graphic entities as all the Lesser Antilles together, it is sometimes considered to be the only island, which by the number and complexity of its rock art, can stand comparison with Puerto Rico and the Greater Antilles in general. This rock art is attributed to the Ceramic Age societies that lived in the region between approx. 300 BC and 1200 AD. Following extensive field research recently carried out on these open-air rock art sites, a great deal of new data has been acquired. A spatial analysis of these data is proposed here on the basis of quantitative methods in order to address the sociocultural conditions of rock art and sites uses. The physical and symbolic relationships between the pre-Columbian societies and their geographical environment is addressed.

The results show that in Guadeloupe there are several distinct topographic contexts in terms of elevation and distance to freshwater resources (spring and/or river): 1: River mouth and/or coastal spring, 2: River, 3: Plateau. They also show that coastal sites (type 1) preferentially occupy the portions of the coastline that are most favorable in terms of rainfall rates, but also the closest to the following islands.

At the southern end of the island, the sites complex of Trois-Rivières and, to a lesser extent, the rock art sites on the east coast, are located along the shoreline closest to Les Saintes and Dominica islands to the south, and to Marie-Galante Island to the east. This portion of the coastline receives the highest amount of rainfall. The river system of the area also proves to be the most dense and stable of Guadeloupe Island. In fact, the recent volcanic rocks in the southern part of Guadeloupe Island in general constitute freshwater reservoirs that ensure great stability of water flows, even in periods of low water levels or drought.

A very comparable case is observed at the other end of the island. The only rock art site identified there so far - La Ramée - is less than 5 km away from the nearest point to the next island (Montserrat). It is also located precisely in the coastal area receiving the highest annual rainfall rate in northern Guadeloupe. In terms of rainfall, this area constitutes a small but significant local maximum. Coming from Montserrat, it is the first area of high rainfall encountered when one follows the coastline from the closest point of landing.

Thus, when taking into account the "highest coastal rainfall rates", "stability of water resources" and "minimum distance to neighboring islands", the sector that emerges first matches with the highest concentration of rock art, namely the southeastern coast of the island. To a lesser extent, the second sector to emerge is the northern end of the island where at least one site is known.

A direct correlation between the topographical environment of the rock art and its dimensions and complexity index is also to be noted. This results in a higher proportion of large elaborate figures at river mouths and/or in close proximity to coastal springs, and a higher frequency of small simple figures in the hinterland, be it on plateaus or, more markedly, along rivers. The very high concentration of rock art in Trois-Rivières - which comprises 92.2% of all the engraved rocks on the island and 85% of the rock art - plays here a major role. However, the same applies to the other rock art sites on the island outside this exceptional concentration.

In view of the topographic and morphometric differences existing between the rock art sites, the possibility of different sociocultural contexts and even different times of production and use as well as different motivations must be taken into account.

The presence of rock art on the coasts of Guadeloupe Island, and in particular the presence of monumental rock art at its southeastern end, is discussed in terms of seafaring, multi-islands territories and accessibility of freshwater resources for groups passing through to other islands. From this point of view, the density of rock art, the large dimensions and high degree of complexity of the figures observed in the mouth and/or coastal spring sites (type 1) is probably a consequence of the frequentation of these sites by a plurality of human groups taking advantage of the same resource, whether alternately during inter-island journeys or simultaneously during episodic gatherings. The highest proportion of large elaborate figures present on the coasts would then be the graphic expression of a relationship to shared places and to the other groups likely to frequent them as well. Ethnoarchaeological models show in fact that the interface zones between groups are likely to generate an open resurgence of symbolic expressions, especially when resources are scattered in an inhomogeneous and sporadic way over the territory or in the case of aggregation sites.

The existence of rock art sites further inland (types 2, 3, 4) raises the question of their articulation with the coastal sites (type 1). In the current state of research, two possibilities are theoretically conceivable. Either the sites on the plateaus were part of the same rock art complex as the coastal sites and had different but complementary uses; all the human groups frequenting the coast having then an equivalent collective or individual access to inland sites (hypothesis A). Or the inland sites constituted independent rock art complexes, distinct from the coastal areas both in terms of uses and users; this may imply a temporal dimension (hypothesis B).

In the absence of batey and/or of large rock structures to support the existence of ceremonial centers indicating intercommunity uses, the engraved rocks found on the plateaus are compatibles with private practices. Linked with the nearby presence on the plateaus of archaeological remains left by resident groups semi-permanently settled at a distance from the coast, it could then suggest the creation of rock art on the outskirts of the settlements or in garden areas. Nevertheless, the underlying motivations or symbolism associated with such practices (horticultural or other) still remains to be defined. These different results obtained on the basis of a spatial analysis of rock art in Guadeloupe Island thus contribute to current debates on the definition of territories in the Caribbean insular context.


Keywords: Pre-Columbian archaeology, rock art, petroglyph, Guadeloupe, Lesser Antilles, Caribbean Islands, spatial analysis, landscape, social anthropology, territory.