|Harvest of Bones| |Talgua
Archaeological Project| |Talgua Archaeological
Project: A Technical Assessment|
SKULLS & BONES
A 3,000-year-old ossuary in northeastern Honduras
yields ritual burials
April 1994 Jorge Yanez, Desiderio Reyes, and two Americans, Greg Cabe
and Tim Berg, were exploring a cave on the eastern bank of the Talgua
River, four miles from Catacamas in the Olancho Valley of northeastern
Honduras. Some 2,000 feet inside they spotted a small opening in the
limestone 30 feet above them. The two Hondurans scaled the cave wall
for a closer look. Shining their lamps through the opening, they saw
hundreds of human bones. Some of them had been set on ledges or stuffed
into niches, while others had been preserved under a layer of glistening
calcite deposited over millennia by rainwater seeping through the
cavern's limestone walls.
Shortly after the discovery we began
a formal investigation of the cave for the Instituto Hondureño de
Antropología e Historia. So far we have determined that the bones
were probably placed there 3,000 years ago, along with offerings of
jade, marble, and ceramics, by the inhabitants of a nearby village.
The excellent preservation of many of the bones, and the fact that
they are contemporary with the earliest known cultural development
in Honduras, make this site particularly important, if not unique.
The cave, through which runs a small tributary
of the Talgua River, had been explored by local inhabitants for decades
and mapped by American speleologist Larry Cohen in the early 1980s.
But the burial chamber had escaped notice. So far we have identified
deposits of human skeletal material, 20 of which contain the remains
of more than one person. As many as 200 people may have been buried
in the chamber. The majority of the deposits appear to be secondary
burials. The bones had been defleshed, painted with red ochre (iron
oxides, including. hematite), and stacked and wrapped in small bundles.
Generous amounts of red ochre had also been sprinkled underneath many
of the bundles, staining large portions of the chamber's floor and
Some of the deposits were in or near rim-stone
dams, natural retaining walls that formed around pools of still water.
These were encased in calcite; only the bones near the surface were
visible. In one deposit there were seven skulls at one end and the
long bones of at least as many individuals, still bound together,
at the other. Bones placed on ledges or in niches were not as well
preserved as those in or near the dams. Exposure to dripping water
and high humidity had reduced several of these deposits to bone mush,
making it difficult to determine how many individuals were buried
Talgua Cave is important because few burial
caves have been found in Honduras, and it is the first to be well
investigated. In 1898 American ethnologist George Gordon reported
a small cave with hundreds of burials just a few miles from Copán
in the western part of the country. Unfortunately, details regarding
those burials are somewhat sketchy because the cave was never carefully
excavated. A second well known ossuary, found in the Cuyamel Caves
in northern Honduras, was reported by Paul Healy of Trent University,
Ontario, in the early 1970s. Healy, however, lacked the proper equipment
to conduct an excavation within the cave and did little more than
collect ceramics and note the human remains. The vessels from both
of these caves, which dated to the Middle Preclassic period (900-300
B.C.), were found atop masses of bone. Since there was no clear association
with specific burials, it has been suggested they were communal offerings
to ancestors rather than individual grave goods.
Dating Talgua Cave by its ceramics was initially
difficult since there is no established ceramic chronology for this
part of Honduras. The marble and ceramic vessels that we recovered
differ from those at Copán, Cuyamel, and other sites in Honduras,
suggesting that cultures of the northeastern part of the country developed
along independent lines. We were able to obtain radiocarbon dates
on several bits of charcoal - probably the remains of torches-associated
with two of the burials. These indicated that the cave was in use
ca. 980-800 B.C., at about the same time as those at Copán and Cuyamel.
At first glance the offerings at Talgua Cave
seemed to follow the pattern of communal burial goods observed at
Copán and Cuyamel. Bones in one deposit, now badly deteriorated,
had been placed in a natural circular depression five feet in diameter
and nearly one foot deep. Apparently, the cavity had once overflowed
with bones, several of which are now encased in calcite along the
edge of the depression. Four vessels, two of which were large marble
jars, were found atop the bone fragments. A hole had been deliberately
punched in the bottom of one of them, ceremonially "killing" it, a
widely practiced Mesoamerican mortuary custom.
In two of three exposed single burials, offerings
were clearly meant for specific individuals. In one deposit the skull
and long bones of a young person had been placed in a small niche
with a ceramic vessel set on a ledge just a few inches away. In another
the skull and bones had been stacked and placed in a niche some ten
feet above floor level, along with a broken ceramic vessel and two
broken pieces of finely worked jade. The jade pieces were different
in color, indicating that they had not been part of the same ornament.
It was also clear from these offerings that the quality of burial
goods varied widely.
Most of the multiple burials were probably
formed as individuals were interred in the same place over time. Grave
goods associated with the two single burials suggest that vessels
found with the multiple burials had been intended for specific individuals.
The association between the deceased and their offerings was lost,
we believe, as the bones deteriorated into an undifferentiated mass.
We will test this hypothesis when a way is found to remove the calcite
from the deposits without destroying the bone.
Caves have played an important sacred role
in Mesoamerican religion and culture. Since they penetrated the earth,
they were believed to be entrances to the underworld where the souls
of the dead resided. Many indigenous groups today tell stories about
the final journey that the soul must make; some of them describe its
entry into a cave. Burial within a cave would speed the soul's journey
to the afterlife and guard against the frightening possibility of
it wandering the earth causing mischief. In 1600 Alonso Criado de
Castilla, a missionary doctor, wrote that in the Olancho area "soldiers
found many houses with vaulted underground compartments where they
buried the dead and there the bodies stayed dried and whole with their
meals," suggesting that multiple burials in a cave-like chamber may
have been the norm. Today in the Maya highlands northwest of our site
kin groups are associated with particular caves thought to be the
dwelling places of ancestors, who control rain and crop fertility.
Important men were still being buried in their lineage caves at the
beginning of the twentieth century.
We believe that Talgua Cave may be a lineage burial site. The amount
of human bone found there clearly represents only a small portion
of the population living in the region over several centuries. The
presence of marble vessels and jade reflects the high status of those
buried there, possibly influential lineage group leaders. A comparison
of DNA from bone protein, and analysis of the age and sex of those
buried in the cave, will allow us to determine the relationship between
the individuals and confirm or refute our lineage hypothesis.
Those buried in the cave were probably
from a nearby village, the remnants of which we discovered in an overgrown
pasture on the west bank of the Talgua River, less than one-half mile
downstream from the cave's entrance. Ceramics collected at the settlement
match those found in the cave. In a preliminary survey of the site
we located more than 100 structures. Although none of these has been
excavated, the shapes, sizes, number, and distribution resemble patterns
noted elsewhere in Mesoamerica.
The largest structures, rectangular platforms
measuring ten to 13 feet high and nearly 100 feet long, are arranged
around rectangular plazas much as they are throughout Mesoamerica.
Elsewhere are mounds less than three feet high and 15 to 25 feet on
a side. In two areas of the site these smaller and more numerous structures,
possibly house-mounds, appear to be clustered in groups. Local residents
have reported that burials have been found in two of these clusters,
which may be residential areas of kin groups. If such is the case
those buried in the cave may be related to those buried in a specific
Preliminary analyses of the stable carbon
isotope ratios in bone protein extracted from remains found in the
cave, conducted by David McJunkin of the Radiocarbon Laboratory at
the University of Wisconsin, Madison, showed that the people buried
there had not subsisted on maize. This is surprising since Mesoamerican
cultural development has traditionally been linked to the domestication
of maize. We suspect that the people living at the Talgua site cultivated
manioc, a root crop commonly grown in southern Central and South America.
Sites such as Talgua Cave and its associated
settlement in a region where so little archaeology has been done raise
questions about the culture that flourished there. The Olancho Valley
is a good distance east of the Maya region so we can say with some
certainty that its inhabitants were non-Maya. They may have been Lenca,
a Mesoamerican group whose descendants occupied eastern Honduras well
into the seventeenth century, or Pech (Paya), a group currently living
in the area whose language is related to the Chibchan linguistic group
of South America. Plans for a summer field school sponsored by George
Washington University and the Instituto Hondureño de Antropología
e Historia are being made to further study the history of this little-known
area. Meanwhile, the cave has been closed to the public and armed
guards are posted night and day.
|JAMES E. BRADY, a professor
of anthropology at George Washington University, codirects the TaIgua
Cave Project with
GEORGE HASEMANN, the head of the archaeology section for the Instituto
Hondureño Antropología e Historia in Tegucigalpa.
JOHN H. FOGARTY, a speleologist, has worked at the Maya sites of Dos
Pilas and Naj Tunich. The authors would like to thank the following
for their support: Nissan Motors, Taca Airlines, and Dole Foods for
funding fieldwork; The Discovery Channel for funding radiocarbon dating;
and Camie Campbell of the Smithsonian Institution for analyzing the