Daniel Torres Etayo
Photograph by Yamila Lomba
Daniel Torres Etayo's fieldwork spans thick jungles, hidden caves, dune-swept beaches, and ocean depths—all within the archaeologically rich, yet largely unexplored, borders of Cuba. The societies he investigates are as diverse as his sites, ranging from 13th-century aboriginal Tainos to 19th-century New Yorkers. His personal passion and perseverance in exploring, communicating discoveries, and training new talent have been responsible for putting Cuban archaeology on the map.
"When I was a child," Torres Etayo remembers, "my father told me hundreds of fantastic stories about the Inca, Maya, and Aztec Empires; the European conquerors; and Cuba's own indigenous peoples. After hearing the magnificent achievements of those civilizations and visiting my first archaeological site at age 15, I knew I wanted this to be my life's work."
Today he hopes his own discoveries will inspire a new generation of young Cubans to explore and protect their heritage. "I know Cuba still has a wealth of unexplored archaeological sites. When I began researching the eastern region of the island, there were about 15 known sites. Today my own inventory includes more than a hundred, and this is just the tip of the island."
New finds won't be limited to land. Torres Etayo says almost 3,000 shipwrecks off Cuba's coast are noted in archives, only about a hundred of which have been located, and only 12 excavated.
Torres Etayo tackles Cuba's virtually unknown archaeological potential in myriad ways. His road hasn't been easy, with obstacles ranging from public apathy to a dearth of state-of-the-art tools. Through sheer determination, Torres Etayo is at the forefront of generating new excitement about archaeology within his country, introducing a new level of sophisticated technology to fieldwork, elevating scientific training and professionalism, advocating for protection and preservation of sites, launching efforts to inform and stimulate public interest in the island's rich history, and connecting Cuba to the larger world community of archaeologists.
One key project transports Torres Etayo to the tribal life of 13th-century Cuba. He explores massive ceremonial centers to gain new understanding of local history, customs, and world views, and to learn how native Taino societies were changed by European contact. At one site, he studies a huge 820-foot-by-440-foot space enclosed by almost 10-foot-high walls where tribal communities may have joined in Areito, a ceremonial music often accompanied by song and dance, as well as batey, a traditional ball game.
Torres Etayo investigates the plazas with an unprecedented degree of precision through remote sensing technology, an ingenious kite-based photography system, soil geochemistry surveys, and geographic information systems (GIS) for gathering and managing data. He hopes the high-resolution topographical maps his research produces will prove instrumental in having the structures designated and preserved as national monuments.
Other explorations plunge Torres Etayo into a spectacular 19th-century shipwreck more than 30 feet below the sea. "The City of Alexandria was a beautiful steamship that transported people, mail, and merchandise between New York City and Havana from 1888 to 1893," he describes. Future U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant spent part of his honeymoon aboard the elegant steamer. An explosion, fed by a considerable cargo of rum, sank the vessel in a blazing inferno, scattering fragments across the seafloor off Cuba's coast.
Torres Etayo not only explores and documents the find, but also is working to have it preserved as a local monument and sustainable biocultural reserve. Non-divers will be able to take a 360-degree virtual tour of the wreck, created with detailed photographs, historical archives, and information about local marine fauna.
Many of his innovative underwater search techniques are a first for Cuba. "We are making a mega-photomosaic of the entire site," he explains. "A diver navigates an underwater grid and shoots one photo every two seconds at fixed depth. The results produce an enormous scaled and geo-referenced photomosaic of the site. I hope that when people visualize this marvelous underwater world, they will be encouraged to be active in the protection and preservation of our submerged archeological heritage."
What's next? Intriguing unsolved mysteries of early shipwrecks beckon. But whether searching for clues below waves, sand, or tropical vegetation, Torres Etayo's enthusiasm persists. "My work lets me speak for humans who have been gone for centuries and who have been invisible in the history books. Once, after becoming lost in the middle of the jungle, I found an untouched Aboriginal grave in a small cave. Being the first to see those remains after more than 500 years was a very moving experience. My fieldwork also constantly puts me in touch with nature, sometimes in very dangerous situations, but you know—a little adrenaline never hurt anyone!"
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