Jamaica Frontiers: Cave Deposits and Past Climate
Updated: Aug 20, 2019
"Now I know there is beauty in darkness." -Persophone
There are over 1000 documented caves in Jamaica. In my year exploring these caves, led by cave experts Jan Paule and Stefan Stewart of the Jamaica Cave Organization, I visited less that 0.004% of them.
Caves have been used through out human history for shelter, burials and as sacred ceremonial sites by indigenous cultures. As a result, there is often a wealth of archaeological information preserved in them.
Caves are also home to numerous plants, animals, fungi and bacteria which create unique ecosystems found nowhere else on earth. In Jamaica, the extinct endemic Jamaican monkey (Xenothrix mcgregori) was first discovered at Long Mile Cave by Harold Anthony in 1920. More on this unique New World monkey can be found in publications by Macphee and Fleagle 1991, Macphee and Horovitz 2002, and Woods et al. 2018.
Palaeoclimatologist study past climates. They can examine fossil rock deposits in caves known as speleothems to reconstruct how climate changed in the past. Speleothems are fossil rock deposits that from in drip water that percolates through the roof of the cave when it rains. As the water dries, the minerals that were dissolved in the water leave mineralised layers that build through time. As long as precipitation continues to drip through the cave, speleothems will continue to grow. Palaeoclimatologists can then examine these layers in the speleothems to reconstruct past precipitation.
The aim of our project Jamaica A Last Island Frontier, is to reconstruct how human colonization impacted the vegetation and natural fire regimes on the island. In order to differentiate natural and human influences on vegetation and fire, we need to know how climate changed in the past. Speleothems are one of the ways we are able to reconstruct long-term records of past precipitation.
Thus, in the summer of 2019, our National Geographic Team, accompanied by the Jamaica Cave Organization, explored 4 caves on the southern coast of Jamaica. Unfortunately, preliminary speleothem analysis from these caves has determined that in the past, the caves became too dry and the speleothems stopped forming. Without a continuous source of mineral deposition, the speleothems start to breakdown and our record of past precipitation is lost. The poor preservation of our speleothems suggests that, at some point in the past, climate conditions in this part of the island were drier than they are today.
Despite this setback, I am hopeful that with over 1000 caves left to explore on the island, we will find a suitable cave site to develop a beautiful record of past precipitation. Stay tuned as our search continues...
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