Early Ancestral Mountains? Yarumela and Los Naranjos

Along the shore of Lake Yojoa in Honduras lies the Parque Eco-Arqueológico Los Naranjos. A legacy of the energy of the archaeologist, George Hasemann, the park preserves a rich habitat for birds. Following one of the paths through the park, visitors arrive at a clearing where they face a monumental platform, 100 meters on the side, about 20 meters tall.

Structure IV, the unglamorous name of this platform, is one of three similar, monumental platforms at Los Naranjos. Constructed primarily of earth, with stone used for areas of facing such as the paving of a monumental ramp on Structure IV, these are the tallest individual constructions made in Precolumbian Honduras outside the small zone in the extreme west of the country where Classic Maya sites, including Copan, are found.

The monumental platforms at Los Naranjos are much earlier than the Classic Maya occupation of Copan as well. French excavators who published a book about their investigations of the site obtained a radiocarbon date from fill in Structure IV, and suggested it was built around 700 BC. That date, consistent with findings of work at the site from 2002 to 2004, makes the building of the monumental platforms at Los Naranjos contemporary with monumental platforms built across an area stretching from Mexico’s Gulf Coast to El Salvador and Honduras, where at least two sites saw such early buildings. In addition to Los Naranjos, the site of Yarumela, in the Department of Comayagua, also includes a monumental earthen platform of similar size and equally early date.

The development of this kind of monumental architecture is often interpreted as emulation of the Olmec archaeological site of La Venta in the Gulf Coast of Mexico. And it is true that Los Naranjos and Yarumela both had objects with imagery related to Olmec sites on the Gulf Coast, ranging from cylinder seals to monumental sculpture. Archaeologists specializing in the archaeology of Mexico identify the pyramid at La Venta as a sacred mountain, part of a built environment presenting a sacred landscape.

There is good reason to think that Honduran people regarded caves in the mountains as powerful places already by the time the platforms at Yarumela and Los Naranjos were built. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we can assume they originally built these platforms as images of sacred mountains.

At Los Naranjos, in fact, the original platform was not as much tall, as broad. It would have elevated people standing on it above the heads of others, who would then be able to see what was done on the platform: perhaps dances or ritual performances, by people dressed in special jade costumes, like the one worn by a person buried in Structure IV.

It was only after the first, broad platform that builders at Los Naranjos piled earthen fill higher, creating a tall platform. If we pay attention to the sequence of construction, then what we see is the building of a broad platform followed by the conversion of that platform into the base of a taller earthen mound.

We could even see the conversion of the original platform into the base of a small “sacred mountain” as a case of unintended consequences when the original platform, built of the same materials as everyday houses but at much larger scale, resisted erosion that would have eliminated the kind of low platform that supported everyday houses.

By paying careful attention to the archaeological traces, we can follow the historical unfolding of the creation of monumental architecture, instead of assuming that we know why people built these platforms. We can get a little bit closer to the decisions made by people more than 1700 years ago, and allow for the possibility that different people had different reasons to do things. We come a little closer to seeing the ancient people of Honduras as authors of their own destiny, instead of imitators of others living far away.

And that may help us begin to think more carefully about the local reasons people in Honduras might have begun to produce stone sculpture similar to sculptures in the Gulf Coast of Mexico, what they wanted to do with those platforms and plazas ornamented with unique images.

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