On Carved Stone Seats (Metates): Honduras as Central American

Elaborated metates… are relatively rare in Mesoamerica, whereas they are virtually a defining trait of Lower Central American civilizations, and consequently remain almost unknown to Mesoamericanists.

–Mark Miller Graham (1992:167)

When I was beginning my career in Honduran archaeology, I was taught that it was the “frontier” of Mesoamerica, the culture area* that extended from central Mexico and included all of Guatemala and Belize, but only part of Honduras and El Salvador.

As a graduate student working in Honduras, I began to educate myself about what existed on the other side of that “frontier” by reading then-recent works by Fred Lange and Doris Stone, Paul Healy, and Olga Linares that grappled with defining the archaeology of Lower Central America, including Honduras.

Every discussion, sooner or later, mentioned the carved stone benches in the form of corn-grinding platforms, or metates, found from eastern Honduras to Costa Rica and Panama.

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Mercury, Cinnabar, and Honduran Archaeology

When the international press covered the news that researchers at Teotihuacan had encountered liquid mercury in their excavations of a tunnel associated with the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, I was called by a reporter interested in knowing whether similar finds existed elsewhere in Mesoamerica.

Luckily, I knew the answer: ancient Honduras (and adjacent Guatemala) were central locations for Mesoamerican use of liquid mercury. Here’s why.

Cinnabar, the red powdery mineral mercuric sulphide, was in use in Central America by the time when people in Formative Honduran sites like Puerto Escondido, Copan, Los Naranjos, and the Cuyamel Caves created pottery with deeply carved designs rubbed with red pigments. While red pigments on early pottery from Honduras have never (to my knowledge) been tested chemically, cinnabar has been reported from sites in Mexico, including La Venta, Chalcatzingo, and Izapa, and museums often describe the red pigment on ceramics similar to those from Honduras as cinnabar.

A long time later, liquid mercury appears in archaeological sites dating to the Classic Period (between 400 and 800 AD). The majority of reported finds are from the highlands of eastern Guatemala and western Honduras, at Lake Amatitlan, Kaminaljuyu, and Quirigua in Guatemala, and Copan and El Paraiso in western Honduras.

Outside of this area, two sites in Belize– Caracol and Lamanai— and now, Teotihuacan, in Mexico, have yielded liquid mercury dating to the Classic Period.

A major point of disagreement among archaeologists writing about finds of liquid mercury has been whether it was collected from naturally occurring deposits, or produced by processing cinnabar, burning it in closed vessels.

David Pendergast, excavator of a ballcourt cache at Lamanai, Belize described the liquid mercury there as likely collected in the highlands of Honduras or Guatemala as native drops of liquid mercury in cinnabar deposits.

USGS reports from the 1950s do describe some liquid mercury in Honduran cinnabar deposits near Tegucigalpa. Some of these deposits were exploited by Spanish colonial miners who used mercury in processing silver ore.

However, these geological resources are far from the zone where archaeological finds of liquid mercury are reported, and no archaeological sites in this area have produced evidence of contact with places like Copan or Quirigua, let alone sites in Belize.

Other cinnabar deposits are present in the Department of Santa Barbara, much closer to the archaeological locations where liquid mercury has been found. There are no reported incidences of native mercury in these deposits. But liquid mercury can be produced by burning cinnabar under certain conditions.

At Copan and Quirigua, there is evidence that this was how liquid mercury found there was actually produced.

A cache associated with carved stone Monument 21 at Quirigua contained a deposit burned in place. The excavator, Professor Wendy Ashmore of UC Riverside, argued that the burning of cinnabar in this cache produced the liquid mercury found there.

At Copan, a deposit in the Margarita tomb similarly includes signs of burning, with both unconverted cinnabar and liquid mercury present. Harriet Beaubien of the Smithsonian Institution commented that she

was involved in the excavation of a cache associated with the Margarita South Offering Platform at Copan in 1993, which produced a large quantity of liquid mercury. The stone “box” had, among other items, a large lidded ceramic bowl containing the remains of a turkey. Everything was very very heavily burned (blackened), and I believe that quantities of cinnabar were included in the deposit, transformed to liquid mercury in a reduction environment. Yellowish stains (not tested) suggest sulfur-rich products, the leftover component of cinnabar’s decomposition.

So, did the people of the ancient southeastern Maya area invent this process, and innovate the use of liquid mercury?

Dating of the Teotihuacan cache suggests not.

The deposits being explored by the current Teotihuacan project under the Temple of the Feathered Serpent predate 400 AD. Sergio Gomez, the lead archaeologist on the team slowly excavating the contents of the ancient tunnel below the pyramid, has suggested that the tunnel might have been sealed off as early as 200-250 AD.

That would make the presence of liquid mercury substantially earlier at Teotihuacan than in the caches from Copan, Quirigua, and other nearby sites. Only the cache from Caracol has similarly early dates.

With the new discovery at Teotihuacan, we can now say with certainty that mercury was used in ritual before 400 AD in Mexico. The technology required to produce mercury from cinnabar was entirely within the reach of people in this area as soon as they were able to fire pottery (long before 1000 BC).

In Honduras and bordering Guatemala, the practice of burning offerings was an important part of ritual. The red pigment cinnabar, locally available, may have originally been burned as a ritual gesture– producing a model of transformation in color and texture from red powder to silvery liquid.

It may be no accident that this practice became important at the same time, and in the same area, where other burial practices, cache and burial contents, and imagery suggest that Teotihuacan was an important point of reference in political and religious life.

Los Pech y la Arqueología en la Moskitia

por Chris Begley:

Cada ciertos años un nuevo grupo de exploradores “descubre” un sitio arqueológico fabuloso en la selva tropical hondureña. Esto es elogiado en la prensa como un enorme descubrimiento, quizás sea la mítica ciudad perdida en la selva tropical hondureña, quizás aún una civilización perdida.

El problema es que esta no es una civilización perdida, o siquiera una mítica ciudad perdida. Sé esto porque he estado estudiando esta área por varios años. Otros arqueólogos y arqueólogas han trabajado allí antes que mí. Hay personas que viven cerca y viajan a través de la zona todo el tiempo.

Como siempre, hay bastante amarillismo y sensacionalismo, y la mayoría de los investigadores se indignan. Escriben cartas quejándose de la situación. El equipo de trabajo original se ve chistoso, como niños actuando una película fantasiosa. Los investigadores que se quejan se ven sin gracia, y quizás celosos de que ellos no pudieron jugar a explorador de la selva. Y si eso fuera lo único que sucediera, no importaría mucho, quizás. A nadie más le importaría.

Pero este tipo de sensacionalismo descuidado tiene verdaderas consequencias. El lenguaje utilizado evoca un tiempo en el cual exploradores extranjeros enfatizaron su superioridad a costa del conocimiento local. El sensacionalismo eclipsa la verdadera ciencia, y sabemos que este tipo de mentalidad de ciudad perdida/cacería de tesoros pone en riesgo a los recursos arqueológicos.

Aunque estas cosas son importantes, hay un costo más humano e inmediato, llevado principalmente por los grupos más marginalizados y menos poderosos de la región: pueblos indígenas como los Pech, quienes son los descendientes de aquellos que construyeron estos sitios.

Yo sé que esta no es una “civlización perdida” porque soy un arqueólogo, y he trabajado en esta área “desconocida” por casi 25 años. He vivido y trabajado casi exclusivamente con los Pech, porque pensé que era lo correcto, y porque ellos conocen la región mejor que nadie. Ellos tienen allí por lo menos mil años de historia.

Para los Pech, el pasado es absolutamente esencial para su futuro. Su historia no es simplemente un pasatiempo interesante; sino que crea y apoya al presente. Sienten curiosidad por la arqueología. He hablado en reuniones comunitarias espontáneas, he visto artefactos que han recolectado, y he escuchado sus interpretaciones. Les he visto hacer alfarería moderna que se parece a las piezas antiguas que encontramos en sitios arqueológicos, en un intento deliberado de conectar al pasado con el presente.

He vivido con los Pech en varias ocasiones en las últimas dos décadas. Hemos vivido en pequeñas aldeas sin luz ni agua. Hemos pasado todo el dia, cada día, juntos. Nos hemos sentado y hemos platicado cada noche. Hemos jugado cartas. Hemos tomado viajes a través del bosque por dos o tres semanas a la vez, mapeando sitios arqueológicos a lo largo del camino. En total, los Pech y yo hemos documentado cerca de 150 sitios arqueológicos.

Los Pech ya sabían donde estaba ubicado cada sitio de gran tamaño. Todos y cada uno de ellos. Sabían donde crecían los árboles frutales y donde estaban los buenos pozos para pescar. Podían encontrar los caminos que yo apenas podía divisar. A veces seguíamos un viejo camino al buscar donde habían crecido de nuevo cortes de machete sobre las ramas. Ellos conocían el bosque como yo conozco el pueblo en donde nací.

Los Pech vivían en estos lugares ahora remotos tan recientemente como 150 años atrás, y regresan a cazar o pescar o a cosechar el liquidámbar. Han perdido sus tierras tradicionales a causa de agricultures y ganaderos invasores. Han sido removidos y ahora viven principalmente en el borde del bosque tropical, en un puñado de comunidades.

Tengo una gran deuda con los Pech. Me han cargado a través del bosque. No literalmente, excepto quizás una vez, pero de una u otra forma en cada viaje. Ellos hacían todo mucho mejor de lo que yo podía. Fue una experiencia reveladora. La mayor parte del tiempo me sentía como niño. De hecho, uno de los cumplidos más grandes que jamás he recibido fue cuando escuché a mi amigo Pech asegurarle a otra persona que yo podía, después de muchos meses, finalmente mantener el ritmo. Si eso fue cierto alguna vez, fue solamente por un momento, pero lo dijo, y lo dijo en serio.

Los Pech me enseñaron a vivir en el bosque, a crear fuego en la lluvia, a buscar comida en el bosque, a pescar allí, a construir cayucos y refugios. Me mantuvieron andando cuando todo era demasiado. Fueron amables y atentos, creando débiles excusas para tomar descansos cuando pensaban que yo necesitaba uno, para no avergonzarme. Me miraban a los ojos y me decían que me agarrara y me aguantara cuando teníamos que caminar toda la noche para salir de una mala situación.

Me mostraron sitios arqueológicos. Me mostraron rasgos tales como qué cerros habían sido remodelados por personas, porque ellos lo sabían y yo no. Me explicaron lo que ellos pensaban que significaban. Criticaron mis interpretaciones.

Los Pech hicieron todo esto mientras encaraban serias amenazas a su continua existencia. Lucharon por mantener las tierras tradicionales que tenían, y por mantener viva su lengua. Enterraron a personas asesinadas por extranjeros que querían intimidarlos fuera de sus tierras. Yo odiaba esos funerales, donde esas caras animadas que conocía estaban rígidas. Odiaba ver eso. A veces no quería ir.

Entonces, ¿Cuál es el daño de este tipo de amarillismo y sensacionalismo? ¿Qué diferencia hace si, en su ignorancia, estos “exploradores” proclaman que descubrieron algo que nadie ha visto en 600 años? ¿Cuál es el costo de estos recién llegados, sin experiencia en este bosque, declarando, disimuladamente, haber descubierto una “civilización perdida”? ¿Porqué estoy movido a pasar unas cuantas horas escribiendo algo como esto?

Escribo esto porque estas declaraciones, amarillismo y sensacionalismo invaden uno de los pocos espacios restantes en los cuales los Pech, y gente como ellos, tienen poder. Estas declaraciones le roban a los Pech de su historia y les niegan el respeto que merecen y el reconocimiento a su contribución hacia nuestra comprensión del pasado. Estas narrativas sensacionalistas, poderosas porque son hechas por gente poderosa, continuan marginalizando y privando de derechos a las personas. En ignorancia y bravuconería, estos descubridores hacen difícil escuchar la voz crucial de los verdaderos expertos.

 

traducido por Alejandro Figueroa

Juegos de Pelota en la Arqueología de Honduras

Juegos de pelota – espacios formalmente construidos para jugar partidos con pelotas de hule – se encuentran en la mayor parte del territorio hondureño, aunque no cada asentamieto, o siquiera cada asentamiento grande, tiene un juego de pelota.

En hallazgo de juegos de pelota fue inesperado cuando un estudio de patrones de asentamiento fue llevado a cabo en Yoro y en la Moskitia en los años noventa.

En 1939, Samuel Lothrop utilizó los juegos de pelota como puntos clave para definir la “frontera” de Mesoamérica, la cual pensó cruzaba a través del oriente de Honduras. Esta frontera cruzaba a través del Valle del Río Ulúa en la costa caribeña de Honduras, y la frontera oriental del Valle de Comayagua en el centro del país. Esta zona incluía todos los sitios con juegos de pelota conocidos hasta la fecha, los cuales se pensaba eran evidencia de una identidad Mesoamericana.

Cuando se encontraron juegos de pelota al este de esta lína, en las riberas del Río Cuyumapa en el departamento de Yoro, y aún más al este, en la Moskitia, estos hallazgos desafiaron el modelo tradicional. ¿Qué hacían juegos de pelota “afuera” de Mesoamérica? ¿Qué estaban haciendo allí?

Respuestas a estas interrogantes en la arqueología moderna no implican el trazado de la frontera de una “civilización”: suponen en vez tratar de pensar sobre el porqué los grupos viviendo en estos lugares particulares se esforzaron en construir estas canchas de piedra; cómo las canchas que estos grupos construyeron se comparan con aquellas conocidas en áreas aledañas; y qué hacían estos grupos en estas canchas.

Ya que los juegos de pelota requieren de dos equipos, cada cancha implica dos lados, ya sean dos facciones dentro de un solo pueblo o grupos de locales y visitantes. Los juegos de pelota son vistos como indicadores de competencias amistosas, las cuales son contenidas al ser canalizadas en forma de deporte. Éstos también eran oportunidades para que participantes individuales sobresalieran a través de sus habilidades atléticas. Además de jugar juegos de pelota (lo cual puede ser inferido únicamente a partir de la cancha en si), excavaciones en los alrededores de los juegos de pelota en Yoro encontraron evidencia de gente que bebía durante los eventos llevados a cabo en las canchas.

En Yoro, los juegos de pelota fueron contruídos en dos diferentes tipos de sitios: grandes y pequeños; los sitios más grandes estaban ubicados centralmente en las riberas de ríos y los pequeños río arriba. Estos juegos de pelota grandes y pequeños están orientados a direcciones cardinales ligeramente distintas: algunos aproximadamente hacia el horizonte este, donde el sol nace en la época de invierno, y otros en el área del horizonte este donde el sol nace en la época de verano.

traducción por Alejandro Figueroa

Cerveza de chocolate: un manjar hondureño temprano

Editor’s note: going forward, new blog posts will be translated into Spanish to provide bilingual access to the information provided on this blog.

En 1993, trabajadores nivelando un campo no muy lejos de La Lima, en el Departamento de Cortés, reconocieron que estaban perturbando un sitio arqueológico enterrado. Nombrado en honor del pequeño pueblo donde está ubicado, Puerto Escondido se convirtió en el enfoque de excavaciones arqueológicas durante los siguientes siete años.

Originalmente, estas exavaciones fueron llevadas a cabo por el Instituto Hondureño de Antropología e Historia a manera de mitigación de patrimonio antes de la construcción de una residencial sobre el sitio. Lo que se encontró en el sitio cambió rápidamente estos planes, y un espacio verde se dejó para proteger el sitio enterrado.

La razón: Puerto Escondido, ocupado hasta aproximadamente 1000 d.C., tuvo una historia de ocupación contínua que inició antes de 1500 a.C. Todo esto sugiere que este sitio es una de las aldeas más tempranas conocidas en Honduras.

Investigaciones en el sitio sugieren que los habitantes de Puerto Escondido disfrutaron de joyería de concha marina, alfarería de alta calidad, y utensilios de piedra hechos de obsidian importada. Y una cosa más: chocolate.

El análisis de cuencos y botellas del sitio en búsqueda de residuos de la sustancia química teobromina – un químico distintivo producido por la planta del cacao, Theobroma cacao – conllevó a la determinación de que el cacao estaba presente mucho más antes de lo conocido; cerca de 1100 a.C., los habitantes de Puerto Escondido tomaron una bebida de chocolate almacenada en botellas distintivas con cuellos largos y angostos.

Este hallazgo no solamente fue fechado a 500 años antes de otros sitios en donde se ha identificado el cacao: la botella que contenía la bebida de cacao más temprana en Puerto Escondido era enigmática. Las botellas utilizadas en Honduras y Belice antes de 900 a.C. tienen cuellos acampanados más anchos. Llamadas ollas de chocolate por algunos arqueólogos, estas se parecían a ollas en las cuales el cacao era mezclado con un batidor de madera para crear una espuma.

Nadie pudo haber utilizado una herramienta similar para crear espuma en las botellas de cuello angosto en Puerto Escondido antes de 1100 a.C. Este cambio en la forma de la botella implica que la bebida de chocolate temprana era diferente. Ya que la espuma fue uno de los principales atractivos del cacao en épocas posteriores, la pregunta que se plantea es, ¿qué estimuló la cultivación del cacao y la bebida del chocolate tempranas?

La propuesta que se hizo fue que el cacao temprano fue utilizado, al igual que un gran número de otras plantas, para crear una bebida alcohólica – chicha de cacao o cerveza de chocolate. Las botellas de cuello angosto contenían el líquido hasta que éste era servido en tazas de tomar. No había necesidad de aperturas anchas en las botellas ya que la bebida de cacao alcohólica no era batida para crear espuma. La fermentación hubiera creado una espuma natural en esta bebida, quizás la característica que futuros bebedores de chocolate no alcohólico trataron de imitar.

En ese momento, especialistas de arqueología en la región no consideraron al cacao como una posible fuente de alcohol, esto a pesar de que la fermentación es en realidad un paso en el procesamiento de vainas de cacaco para obtener virutas de chocolate: las semillas deshidratadas de la vaina de cacao, su química alterada por el alcohol.

Una vez que se hizo la propuesta de que el cacao fue cultivado inicialmente como fuente de alcohol, especialistas identificaron descripciones Mexicas (Aztecas) de una bebida descrita como “cacao verde”, la cual “intoxicaba” a las personas. La cerveza de chocolate recuperó su lugar en la historia del chocolate Precolombino – todo a causa de la investigación en una pequeña aldea en Honduras.

traducción por Alejandro Figueroa

Images of Stone Sculpture in Eastern Honduras

One of the amazing things about sites in eastern Honduras is the amount, and variety, of stone sculpture found– right on the surface. Stone sculptures from this area are the first identifiable artifacts from Honduras collected by European museums…

Archaeology of the Mosquito Coast

Here are a number of images of the impressive stone sculpture found all throughout eastern Honduras. Sites in more remote locations, where they have not been picked over as much by nearby residents, often have dozens or hundreds of small metates, or grinding stones. The region is famous for the large grinding stones, which are very elaborate and possibly served as seats of power or thrones. We don’t know the dates for all of these types of stone artifacts, but the larger metates most often occur with Period V pottery (Late Classic, probably 800 to 1000 AD).

smallmetates1 Don Faustino and Linton, Pech from Subirana and El Carbon, hold up two small metates at a site along the Rio Platano. Almost every one of the larger sites has dozens or more of these, although those sites nearer to a village have often been looted heavily.

2010 338 Dozens of small metates along the…

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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.

Chocolate Beer: an Early Honduran Delicacy

In 1993, workers bulldozing a field not far from La Lima, in the Department of Cortés, recognized that they were disturbing a buried archaeological site. Named for the small village where it was located, Puerto Escondido became the focus of archaeological excavations for the next seven years.

Originally, these excavations were undertaken by the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History as cultural resources management, mitigation before a housing development would be constructed. What was found quickly changed the plans, and a green space was left to protect the buried site.

The reason: Puerto Escondido, occupied until about 1000 AD, was found to have a continuous history of occupation starting before 1500 BC. That made the site one of the earliest villages known from Honduras.

Research at the site found that the people living at Puerto Escondido enjoyed shell jewelry, beautiful pottery, and stone tools made of imported obsidian. And one other thing: chocolate.

Testing of bowls and bottles from the site for residues of the chemical theobromine– a distinctive chemical produced by the cacao plant, Theobroma cacao— led to the determination that cacao had been present much earlier than was then known; by 1100 BC, people at Puerto Escondido were drinking a chocolate drink stored in distinctive bottles with narrow, tall necks.

Not only was this around 500 years earlier than sites where cacao had been identified up until then: the bottle that contained the earliest cacao drink at Puerto Escondido was puzzling. Bottles used in Honduras and Belize after 900 BC have wider flaring necks. Actually called chocolate pots by some archaeologists, these resembled pots in which cacao was stirred with a wooden beater to bring up a foamy froth.

No one could have used a similar tool to stir up foam in the narrow bottle necks current at Puerto Escondido before 1100 BC. This change in bottle shape implied that the earlier chocolate drink was different. Since the froth was a major attraction for later cacao, the question raised was what would have encouraged early cacao cultivation and chocolate drinking?

The proposal made was that early cacao was used, as were a number of other plants, to make an alcoholic drink– cacao chicha or chocolate beer. The narrow neck bottles contained the liquid until it was poured into drinking cups. There was no need for a wider mouth on the bottles because the alcoholic cacao drink was not beaten to create a foam. Fermentation would have built some natural foam on this beverage, perhaps the feature later drinkers of non-alcoholic chocolate were trying to mimic.

At the time, specialists in archaeology of the region did not consider cacao as a possible source of alcohol, even though fermentation is actually one step in processing cacao pods to obtain chocolate nibs: the dehydrated seeds of the cacao pod, their chemistry altered by alcohol.

Once the proposal that initially cacao was cultivated as a source of alcohol was made, specialists were able to identify Mexica (Aztec) descriptions of a beverage described as “green cacao” that “intoxicated” people. Chocolate beer was restored to its place in the history of Precolumbian chocolate— all because of research at one early village in Honduras.

Ballcourts in Honduran archaeology

Ballcourts– formally constructed spaces for the playing of games using rubber balls– are found across much of the territory of modern Honduras, although not every settlement, or even every large settlement, has a ballcourt.

Finding ballcourts was unexpected when settlement pattern research was conducted in Yoro and the Mosquitia in the 1990s.

In 1939, Samuel Lothrop had used ballcourts as a key to defining the “frontier” of Mesoamerica that he thought ran through western Honduras. His frontier went through the Ulua River valley on the Caribbean coast of Honduras, and the eastern edge of the Comayagua valley in central Honduras. It included all the sites then known that had ballcourts, which he thought were evidence of a Mesoamerican identity.

When ballcourts were found east of this line, along the Cuyumapa River in the modern Department of Yoro, and even further east, in the Mosquitia, those findings challenged the traditional model. What were ballcourts doing “outside” Mesoamerica? What were they doing?

Answers to these questions in modern archaeology don’t involve trying to trace the boundary of a “civilization”: they involve trying to think about why people living in these particular places went to the effort to build these stone courts; how the courts they built compare to those known from neighboring areas; and what they were actually doing in these courts.

Because ball games require two teams, each ball court implies two sides, either two factions within the local town, or locals and visitors. Ballcourts can be seen as indications of friendly competition, contained by being channeled into a sport. They were also opportunities for individual participants to stand out through their athletic abilities. In addition to playing ball games (which can only be inferred from the ball court itself), excavations around ballcourts in Yoro found evidence that people were drinking together during the events held at the ballcourts.

In Yoro, ballcourts were built in two different kinds of sites: smaller and larger, the larger more centrally located on main rivers, the smaller upstream. These smaller and larger ballcourts were turned in slightly different directions: some roughly at the part of the eastern horizon where the sun rose in the winter, others at the area on the eastern horizon where the sun rose in the summer.Seasonal

This gave a pattern where some ballcourts were located in locations that would have been gathering places in summer, and others in locations that would have been visited in winter.

The summer ballcourts were located upriver, near where most of these farmers had their agricultural fields. The winter ballcourts were on the main rivers, convenient for visitors coming along the rivers from farther away, but requiring local farmers to leave behind their own villages if they wanted to witness, or compete in, ball games.

The different orientations of ballcourts in Yoro not only associated them with different seasons: they emphasized that ballcourts and ballgames were tied to beliefs about the origins of the world, about supernatural beings and the relations of the living to the dead. The sun’s rising and setting every day, replayed the first sunrise of legend, and its seasonal movement related the ballcourt to cycles of growth of plants, and through them, of people. It was not surprising to find evidence around ballcourts that people burned resins, a gesture used to honor ancestors and gods.

Ballcourts in other areas of Honduras would have had their own local significance, not necessarily similar to those in Yoro. But in each area, the presence of ballcourts implies playing a game with two teams, in which the outcome of the game created a hierarchy between the teams. That hierarchy at the same time showed that both teams shared a level of identity sufficient to allow them to follow the same rules.

When visitors played ballgames in the Mosquitia, they would have used the same techniques of play as those playing ballgames in Yoro, and at other places like Copan, Tenampua, Los Naranjos, La Sierra, Travesia, and Cerro Palenque. Playing ballgames in courts of similar size, shape, and construction created an identification among the people from these and other ball-game playing sites across wide regions, much like today, international players who learn the rules and manner of play of soccer, baseball, or basketball can compete with each other without any other form of connection. Ballcourts, which required certain manners of playing, helped shape players from different areas who could recognize each other as sharing this one practice, even if in many other ways, from language to political authority to family ties, they were quite different.

Modern archaeological projects since the 1960s (a work in progress)

International archaeologists resumed work in Honduras in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the Instituto Hondureño de Antropología e Historia began to be reconfigured. This list is a beginning inventory of projects since that time, through 2009. Leave a comment if you were part of one of these projects and want your name to be added, or have another project to add to the inventory.

1960s-1970s   Proyectos de Fonseca, Comayagua, Los Naranjos: Claude Baudez, Pierre Becquelin


1970s            Proyectos valle del Río Aguan, cavernas de Cuyamel, Selín Farm, Cocal: Paul Healy


1970s           Playa de los Muertos: Nedenia Kennedy

1970s           Curruste: George Hasemann, Vito Veliz

1970s           Travesia

George Hasemann, Eugenia Robinson, Charles Lincoln; James Sheehy, Vito Veliz

1970s           Choloma: James Sheehy


1970s            Proyecto Arqueológico Valle de Naco

John Henderson, Edward Schortman, Patricia Urban, Anthony Wonderley, Rosemary Joyce


1974-1980s   Proyectos en Copán

Gordon Willey, Claude Baudez, William Sanders, Richard Leventhal, William Fash, Rene Viel, Julia Hendon, David Webster, Rebecca Storey, Dolph Widmer, Steve Whittington


late 1970s     Rio Amarillo: Gary Pahl


1978-1984      Proyecto Arqueológico el Cajón (IHAH)

George Hasemann, Gloria Lara, Kenneth Hirth, Julie Benyo, Lewis Messenger, Nedenia Kennedy, Rus Sheptak


1979-1992       Proyecto Arqueológico Sula (IHAH)

John Henderson, Kevin Pope, Eugenia Robinson, Rosemary Joyce, Rus Sheptak


1985                 Investigaciones en el río Platano: Annie Robinson


1983-1985       Proyecto Arqueológico Santa Barbara

Patricia Urban, Edward Schortman, Wendy Ashmore, Julie Benyo, John Weeks, Nancy Black


1988-1990        Arqueología del río Guampu y río Verde: George Hasemann


1980s-1990s     Proyectos en el valle de Naco: Patricia Urban, Edward Schortman


1983-1997          Proyecto La Entrada: Misión Japones a Honduras, Seiichi Nakamura


1981-1998        Valle de Comayagua, Yarumela: Boyd Dixon, Leroy Joesink-Mandeville


1988-1993       Proyecto Arqueológico Cataguana y Oloman, Yoro:

Rosemary Joyce, Julia Hendon, Christopher Fung, John G. Fox, Laura O’Rourke


1980s-2000s     Proyectos en Copán:

William Fash, Rene Viel, Ricardo Agurcia, Robert Sharer, Will Andrews, Wendy Ashmore, Marcello Canuto, Ellen Bell, Alan Maca


1993-1995           Proyecto de Arte Rupestre de Honduras:

George Hasemann, Alison McKittrick, Boyd Dixon, Pastor Gómez, Anne Jung


1990s                  Proyecto en Dulce Nombre de Culmí: Christopher Begley


1990-1996, 2001  Proyecto Cueva del Gigante: George Hasemann, Timothy Scheffler


1990s-2000s   Proyectos en el Departamento de Santa Barbara:

Patricia Urban, Edward Schortman, Christian Wells, Karla Davis Salazar


1992-2008     Proyecto Valle Inferior del Río Ulúa:

Rosemary Joyce, John Henderson, Christina Luke, Jeanne Lopiparo, Kira Blaisdell-Sloan, Chris Fung, John Fox, Julia Hendon, Rus Sheptak


1994-1996    Proyecto Arqueológico de Talgua, Catacamas, Olancho:

James Brady, George Hasemann, Christopher Begley, Boyd Dixon


1996              Proyecto Arqueológico Cuenca del Lago de Yojoa: George Hasemann, Boyd Dixon


1998-2005   Proyecto Arqueológico Cerro Palenque: Julia Hendon


1999             Proyecto La Union, Carleen Sanchez


1999            Proyecto de Plan Grande, Islas de la Bahía: Christopher Begley, Oscar Neil Cruz


2001-2002  Proyectos arqueológicos en río Cangrejal, Laguna de Caratasca, Rus Rus: Gloria Lara Pinto


2003-2007  PACP: Proyecto Arqueológico Comunidad Palmarejo

E. Christian Wells, Karla L. Davis-Salazar, José E. Moreno Cortés, Zaida Darley


2003-2007  Proyecto Arqueológico Los Naranjos:

Rosemary Joyce, John Henderson, Kira Blaisdell-Sloan, Esteban Gomez, Doris Maldonado, Rus Sheptak, Tiffany Tchakirides


2004-2006   Valle de Jamastran: Eva Martinez


2004-2008     PARUP: Proyecto de Arte Rupestre

Alejandro J. Figueroa, Francisco Rodríguez Mota, Roberto Ramírez, Ranferi Juárez Silva


2007               PAGE: proyecto arqueológico en Olancho: Virginia Ochoa Winemiller, Terry Winemiller


2007-2008    Proyecto Arqueológico Curruste: Jeanne Lopiparo, Doris Maldonado, Shanti Morell-Hart


2007-2008     Proyecto Arqueológico Yarumela: Laura O’Rourke


2008-2009      Proyecto Arqueológico Colonial de la Costa Norte:

Kira Blaisdell-Sloan, Esteban Gomez, Rosemary Joyce, Rus Sheptak


2008-2012       Proyecto Roatán: E. Christian Wells, Lorena D. Mihok, Whitney A. Goodwin, and Alejandro J. Figueroa


late 2000s        Proyecto Jesus de Otoro: Bill McFarlane, Miranda Suri


2000-2010      PAREP: El Paraiso Valley: Ellen Bell, Marcello Canuto


2010s               Rio Amarillo: Cameron McNeil, Edy Barrios


2011-                PARCS: Sensenti and Cucuyagua valleys: Erlend Johnson, Pastor Gomez Zúñiga


2013-               PROPALEOH: Proyecto Paleoindio de Honduras: Alejandro J. Figueroa


2013-               PARIB: Proyecto Arqueológico Regional Islas de la Bahía: Whitney A. Goodwin