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|Americas| |Harvest of Bones| |Talgua Archaeological Project| |Talgua Archaeological Project: A Technical Assessment|
 
Cover of Archaeology Magazine
 
HARVEST OF
SKULLS & BONES

A 3,000-year-old ossuary in northeastern Honduras yields ritual burials
 
Dr. Brady in cave     In 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 23Skulls and pottery
Map of Talgua Cave
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 walls.
     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 there.
     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, Map of Cave
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.
quote     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 residential area.
     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 red pigment.

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