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|Americas| |Harvest of Bones| |Talgua Archaeological Project| |Talgua Archaeological Project: A Technical Assessment|
 
Americas July/August 1993

Archaeologists have unearthed an astounding deposit of
skeletons and burial offerings in a cave in northeastern
Honduras, shedding new light on the rise of early
Mesoamerican society

Buried Secrets,
by James E. Brady,
George Hasemann, and
John H. Fogarty

     In April 1994 Jorge Yáñez and Desiderio Reyes led a group of nearly a dozen companions into the Cueva del Río Talgua in northeastern Honduras. Set a little above the eastern bank of the Río Talgua, the cave is located approximately four miles northeast of the town of Catacamas in the Department of Olancho. The cave, through which runs a tributary of the river, had been known and visited by the residents of Catacamas for generations. In fact, it had been professionally mapped ten years earlier; yet little did these young explorers realize what they would find.
     While the rest of the group waited below, Yáñez and Reyes scaled a sheer thirty-feet-high wall inside Mayan potterythe cave and found a previously unknown passage containing large quantities of human bone and almost two dozen intact or restorable vessels. This surprising discovery has contributed dramatically to our appreciation of the richness of Honduras's pre-Columbian past. But one of the most interesting aspects derives from the Olancho area's position on the border between the two great American culture areas-Mesoamerica on the north and the Andean or South American. The Talgua region may hold a key to how cultures survived and thrived in the buffer zone between these two.

James E. Brady is a professor of anthropology at George Washington University, Washington, D.C.; George Hasemann is the head of the Archaeology Section of the IHAH ; John H. Fogarty is a speleologist with years of experience mapping and exploring Maya caves.

Throughout the Americas, caves were of paramount importance to indigenous religions because they were believed to be entrances to the sacred, animate earth. While few persons would have difficulty in believing that gods controlling plant fertility would live in the earth, rain in all areas of Mesoamerica was also believed to be a terrestrial phenomenon. Clouds, lightning, and rain were believed to form in caves before the rain deities sent them into the sky. Caves, therefore, became associated with the most important elements to an agricultural people. Also, since caves penetrate the earth, they became entrances to the underworld, where the souls of the dead reside. Caves burial, then, would speed that journey, and perhaps ensure that the soul of the dead did not wander lost in the world of the living.
     The discovery of the Talgua cave ossuary is important because only a few burial caves have been reported from Honduras, and this is one of the first to be well investigated. Further, our subsequent investigations have also revealed a level of wealth and sophistication in an area that has generally been considered archaeologically marginal, that is, outside the mainstream.
     Attention in Honduras has traditionally focused on the magnificent Maya site of Copán. Known for its exquisite sculpture and long hieroglyphic texts, Copán is the southeastern most of the major ruins considered to be part of the southern Maya lowlands, and one of the few not located in the tropical jungles of Belize, Guatemala, and Yucatán. Copán was thought to be a major trade
Calcium carbonate covered skull
 
The Talgua region may hold a key to how cultures
survived and thrived in the buffer zone between two
great American culture areas--
Mesoamerican and Andean

center where products from the Maya area and lower Central America were exchanged. Although the spectacular ruins seen today date from the Classic Period (300-900 A.D.), the earliest settlement at the site dates to about 900 B.C. Slightly before that time, about 1000 B.C., Honduras map the Talgua cave ossuary was already being used for burial rituals that included elements possibly borrowed from the Maya area over two hundred miles west. To put the Talgua site into Maya perspective, the Talgua people may have been interacting with the Maya and had developed a level of civilization equal to any society known in the Maya area at that time.
     Because of the danger of looting, the young explorers photographed many of the vessels in place, removed them from their contexts, and reported the discovery to Miguel Rodríguez, head of the Department of Protection of Cultural Patrimony at the Instituto Hondureño de Antropologia e Historia (IHAH). Rodríguez immediately visited the site and accepted delivery of the vessels for registry, study, and storage at the IHAH facilities in the capital, Tegucigalpa, where at the present time the entire collection is being stabilized, cleaned, consolidated, and restored. The next month the IHAH sent its own archaeologist to examine and register the ritual chamber of the Talgua cave. In order to expedite research and further protect the area, the IHAH authorized a joint investigation to be carried out the following September. This coordinated effort by the IHAH and a private organization, known as CPI-Project 1, was responsible for the systematic registry of the ritual chamber and the instrument mapping of the nearby Talgua village.
     Our investigation of the Talgua cave lasted less than one week. We soon discovered that the new tunnel was actually a complex of three passages, one set vertically above another. Twenty-three deposits of human skeletal material were located, at least twenty of which contained the remains of multiple individuals. All appeared to be secondary burials, or sites containing individuals who probably had been interred elsewhere for a time. At the very least, the flesh had been removed and the bones were stacked and wrapped in small bundles before being brought to the cave. Finally, all the bones had been painted red, and a red mineral pigment was sprinkled on the ground below the bones. The use of the red pigment, which was used so liberally that it stains many sections of the cave wall, is unique among the few Honduran cave ossuaries that are known. With X-ray diffraction and a scanning electron microscope, the pigment was identified as red ocher consisting of a number of iron oxides including hematite. (Red pigment seems to have been extremely important in Mesoamerican cultures. Temples and even entire pyramids were painted red, and we have found Maya caves where ceremonies had been conducted on mud surfaces covered with ocher.)
     We found bones in two quite different contexts, above and below the water level, which affected what we were able to learn from them. Burials on ledges and in niches above the water level were badly deteriorated from the natural process of dripping water through limestone as well as the high humidity, and vandals had reduced several of the deposits to little more than bone chips. Nevertheless, all of the offerings we have found so far come from deposits above the water line.
     Those bones found below the water level had been placed behind formations called rimstone dams, which are natural retaining walls formed around pools of still water. Calcite dissolved in the water is deposited along the lip of the wall so the dam slowly grows over time. While rimstone dams are a common cave feature, the dams in the Talgua cave were three feet deep, indicating that these are very ancient formations. Here, we also found that a fascinating geologic accident had taken place. Calcite dissolved in the water was deposited on the bundles, preserving the bone in a white casing that had cemented them to the floor. Crystals in the calcite sparkle in the light, giving rise to the misnomer "glowing skulls." These

view deposits of sparkling, white bone are a spectacular sight, which have captured the imagination of the public, but even the seasoned archaeologist is not immune. In most of the tropics, bone deteriorates rapidly, including bodies in huge tombs. While bone protected in calcite is not unique to this cave, in our years of experience we have never before seen or heard of skeletal material preserved on such a tremendous scale. In these areas, the original placement is, so to speak, set in stone-the archaeological record is laid out like an open book for us to read. Such contexts allow us to reconstruct the original burial practices as well as to compare them to other ossuary sites of which we have knowledge.
     In 1898 pioneering American archaeologist George Gordon reported a small cave with hundreds of burials located a few miles womannorth of the site of Copán. Unfortunately, the ossuary was never carefully excavated, so many questions are still unanswered concerning the nature of these burials. A second, well-known ossuary, the Cuevas del Cuyamel in northern Honduras, was reported in the 1970s by Paul Healy, of Trent University in Ontario. However, since Healy lacked the equipment to conduct a cave excavation, he was not able to do more than make a ceramic collection and note the presence of the burials.
     Archaeologists working at Copán in the 1980s suggested that the ceramic vessels recovered from the ossuary represent communal offerings left to ancestors in general rather than to specific individuals. Their conclusion was based on vessels being found on top of a mass of bone with no clear association with a single, discrete interment. They surmised that the early society was not highly stratified because there was little difference in individual wealth levels. And, given that the context at Copán is similar Hasemann in cave
to those multiple burials at Talgua that were deposited above the water line, we could easily have argued for the same interpretation. This large deposit of bones at Talgua were preserved by calcite, which cemented them to the floor of the cave. The ossuary also contained numerous burial offerings such as 3,000-year-old ceramic vessel decorated with a face. The Talgua region may hold a key to how cultures survived and thrived in the buffer zone between two great American culture areas- Mesoamerican and Andean The mounds at Talgua village on the edge of the Mosquitia rainforest, opposite, are among one hundred unexcavated structures aboveground. Archaeologists hope to identify the ethnic affinity of the ancient inhabitants, whose modern descendants may include the Pech , Tawahka, Tol and Lenca. Stalagmite formation
     However, our analysis over this past year has yielded some different findings. In one of our deposits, a natural circular depression four feet in diameter and ten inches deep had been filled to overflowing, judging by the bones lying along the ledge bordering the depression. In one case, a femur that had been teetering on the edge of the rim is now firmly cemented in that precarious position. Centuries of deterioration have reduced the bone in the depression to a layer of mush three to four inches deep, and recent vandalism has badly fragmented the remaining bone. Four vessels were found on top of the mass of deteriorated bone. Two of these were large marble jars whose manufacture must have represented an enormous amount of work since metal tools were unknown at that time. A hole had been deliberately punched into the bottom of one of the marble vessels, ceremonially "killing" it, a custom widely practiced with mortuary offerings. The extensive deterioration opens the door to speculation on whether or not the vessels represent individual offerings.
     The three individual burials provide a less ambiguous context and convinced us that the offerings found with two of them pertained specifically to those individuals. One of these burials consists of a neatly arranged stack of parallel bones that have been cemented into a small niche with the now badly deteriorated skull set on top. A small ceramic vessel was placed a few inches away on another level space. The final single burial was located in a niche some ten feet above the floor level. The bones once again had been placed in a parallel stack and were painted red. Although the skull had disappeared, we discovered teeth on the surface indicating that it had been set on top. A ceramic vessel was broken and left with the bones. Two broken pieces of finely worked and polished jade were also recovered on the surface. The two pieces were very different in color so they obviously were not part of the same ornament. Cave formation
Because they were so fragile we did not attempt to move the bones in order to search for more offerings. Even with this small sample, the offerings included with the dead varied, suggesting that differences in wealth had already begun to develop in the society.
 

The offerings included with the dead varied,
suggesting that differences in wealth had
already begun to develop in the society

    We believe that the offerings in multiple burials were also connected to particular individuals. While it is possible in certain deposits that multiple individuals were left at one time, most multiple burials were probably formed by the repeated interment of single individuals in the same place over a period of time. If this is true, then the treatment accorded the single burials probably provides a good model for what occurred in the multiple context. It seems likely, therefore, that the vesselsMesoamerican skull found with the multiple burials were brought to the cave at the time that a particular individual was interred and were directly associated with those bones. Sadly, as the bone deteriorated into an undifferentiated mass of fragments, the association between individuals and their particular offerings was lost. However, the question of offerings occurring with individuals in multiple burials could be conclusively answered by the deposits located below the water level. If offerings were made, they are still securely cemented exactly where they were left; but until a way is found to remove the calcite without destroying the bone the question must remain unanswered.
     Situated near the Río Talgua cave is a settlement, lying along an ancient terrace on the river's west bank, less than a half-mile downstream from the cave's entrance. Last May a preliminary examination of the stratigraphy running through the site suggested that the settlement had only a single occupation or component. Collected ceramics appeared to be similar to those from the ossuary. Based on these findings, we initially concluded that this settlement flourished sometime between 300 B.C. and 500 A.D. and was similar to scores of other small contemporaneous Honduran villages. But, because so little has been known about the region archaeologically, there is no established ceramic chronology; therefore, such dating was far from certain. Throughout much of its prehistory, the northeastern zone of Honduras developed independently from the rest of the region, so ceramics from other areas were of little help in dating the twenty intact or restorable cave vessels.

pottery

skull
 
     However, we were shocked when we ran two radiocarbon dates on charcoal associated with two individual burials from the cave and found that the first dated to 800 B.C. And the second to 980 B.C., which, at the time, was the earliest radiocarbon date from Honduras. These dates fundamentally changed our view of the Talgua village site. Rather than being a rather late settlement, we immediately realized that the village dated to the period when complex society was beginning to coalesce and, therefore, provided an important glimpse of the rise of Central American civilization.
     Yet, establishing an identity for these inhabitants is complicated by the fact that in the seventeenth century the Río Talgua area fell on the border among a number of ethnic groups. In 1674 a Spanish missionary, Father Fernando Espino, stated that there were two hundred different nations and languages in the Olancho Valley. While Father Espino may have been including far more territory in his definition of the Olancho Valley, it is nevertheless clear that this was an area of considerable diversity. The Olancho Valley is a good distance east of the Maya, so we can at least say with some certainty that they were non-Maya. Among the chief candidates are the Lenca, a group generally considered to be Mesoamerican, and the Pech (Paya), whose language is related to the Chibcha linguistic family of South America. Until extensive surveys are completed, however, it will be impossible to draw the boundaries between groups and determine the full identity of those buried in the cave.


Crystals in the calcite sparkle in the light,
giving rise to the misnomer
"glowing skulls"
     At the very least, the Talgua village site represents a well-organized and densely settled population which, based on architectural patterns, is affiliated with Mesoamerica. Consistent with our cave findings, the differences in size and complexity of architecture also suggest a degree of social stratification. The presence of such prestige items as jade and marble vessels indicates that, even in relatively small potterycommunities, the differences in wealth and status were already developing or had developed. Furthermore, this was no isolated backwater area. We found a large quantity of obsidian, a volcanic glass imported from the highlands, as well as jade, which appears to come from the Maya area in Guatemala. Clearly then, the Talgua area was tied into an extensive trade network that supplied not only obsidian for tools but luxury items as well.
    Because of the ties to Mesoamerica, it was surprising when a preliminary analysis of the stable carbon isotope ratios in the bone protein demonstrated that two individuals from the cave were not subsisting on maize. Since the rise of Mesoamerican civilization is routinely linked with the domestication of maize, future research will focus on the nature of the subsistence base that supported the village's large population. Our suspicion is that they were growing manioc, a root crop used in lower Central America and tropical South America. The combination of Mesoamerican cultural patterns with a lower Central American subsistence pattern is exactly what one would expect from an area lying right along the southern boundary of Mesoamerica.
     When the village site was mapped last fall, over one hundred standing structures were found in an area extending for at least a third of a mile. Now, rather than having a small village, we had the largest site known from this early period anywhere in the country. Although no architecture at the village site has been exposed through systematic excavation, the shape, size, number, and distribution of the architecture resemble patterns noted elsewhere in southeastern Mesoamerica. The largest structures are rectangular platforms that measure between ten to sixteen feet in height and nearly one hundred feet long. These dominant structures are arranged around recognizable rectangular plazas, like many of their more recent Mesoamerican counterparts. The vast majority of the architecture, however, is less than three feet high sixteen to twenty-six feet long on a side. But even here provocative patterns emerge. In at least two cases these smaller and more numerous minor structures appear to be clustered, forming groups of mounds that are clearly indistinguishable from other groups. Believed to be the entrance to the spirit world, caves were also considered the home of lineage ancestors. These skulls, opposite, may belong to members of the same kin group. The marble vessel above was ground from a single block of stone without the use of metal tools. Researchers now believe that the Talgua settlement could date to as early as 980 B. C. Who, then, are the individuals in the cave, and what distinguished them from those interred at the nearby village? Evidence suggests that the Talgua cave is a lineage burial site. In the Maya highlands to the west, kin groups such as lineages are each associated with a particular cave, which is thought to be the dwelling place of lineage ancestors who control natural forces such as rain and crop fertility. Burial in the cave was an honor bestowed on individuals, signifying that they were becoming revered ancestors.
     While the questions concerning the cave ossuary are very finely focused, the majority of work taking place this summer field season is designed to assemble the most basic types of data. Having found this new and little-known civilization, we must now begin to ask: How big was it? How much territory did it cover? How many other sites remain as testimony to these people? How long did they flourish? What became of them and why? The village and cave site that we have already seen are certainly not the only sites in the Talgua region, and there is no reason to believe that these were even the most important in the area. As spectacular as the cave is, the find represents only the first glimmer of a discovery that will last for years to come.


The authors would like to acknowledge the support of the Discovery Channel, Nissan Motors, Taca Airlines, Dole Fresh Foods, Islena Airlines, and Maya Tropic Tours. They are also grateful for the contributions of Laurence August, CEO, CPI-Project 1; Steve Elkins; CEO, Pal-America Films, speleologist Eric Fernandez; Ana Maria Calas, Ceramic Conservation Unit, IHAH; Camie Campbell, Smithsonian Institution Conservation Analytical Laboratory; and Dr. David McJunkin, director of the Radiocarbon Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

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