The petroglyphs – which appear to depict geometric designs as well as beings of some kind – were carved into the side of a mossy boulder in the densely forested hills in the island’s north.
Petroglyphs left behind by the Caribbean’s indigenous peoples have been found throughout the region but until now had never been seen on Montserrat or nearby Antigua.
Locals stumbled across the carvings while hiking through the island’s densely forested hills in January, but officials delayed announcing the discovery until the petroglyphs’ authenticity could be confirmed by researchers.
“We have Amerindian artifacts on the island, but had not seen petroglyphs,” said Sarita Francis, director of the Montserrat National Trust. “These are the first, that we know of, that have been found here.”
Initial analysis suggests Montserrat’s petroglyphs are between 1,000 and 1,500 years old, Francis said, though carbon dating will paint a clearer picture of the images’ origins.
On social media, Montserratians commented on the petroglyphs’ similarities to those that have been found on St Kitts, another nearby island. Mentore said that indigenous Arawak petroglyphs and other evidence of pre-Columbian settlement have been as far north as Cuba, Puerto Rico and Hispaniola.
Francis said that she hoped further studies will reveal the messages, if any, encoded in the carvings. “They really add to Montserrat’s unique history,” she said. “To the history of people being on Montserrat, throughout time.”
Archaeological evidence suggests that ancient peoples first lived on Montserrat – today a British Overseas Territory – between 2,500 and 4,000 years ago. Arawak-speaking groups later inhabited the island, but are believed to have vacated it by the late 1400s following raids by another indigenous group, the Caribs.
Montserrat, which is approximately 16km (10 miles) long and 11km wide, came under British control in 1632. Today, the majority of the population is descended from colonial-era Irish settlers and African slaves.
George Mentore, a University of Virginia anthropologist who studies the indigenous cultures of the Caribbean and Amazonia said that similar engravings had been found along rivers in the north of South America where Arawak- and Carib-speaking groups live today.
“They’re obvious statements of human presence,” he said. “I think it’s pretty obvious that they’re sacred, in one way or another.”