Honduran Archaeology as History

Period I (to 8000 BC)

The earliest period when traces of human activity are known from Central America, comparable to the Palaeoindian in North America. Only the site of Cueva del Gigante has yielded dates from this period.

Period II (8000-4000 BC)

This period, covering what in Mesoamerica would be the early and middle Archaic, is when the Cueva del Gigante shows plant remains that include squashes and beans.

Period III (4000-1000 BC)

The period equivalent to the late Archaic and most of the Early Formative in Mesoamerica, this is when pollen cores from the Copan Valley and Lake Yojoa suggest changes in landscape that may be related to cultivation of maize. At Copan, Los Naranjos, and Puerto Escondido, the earliest remains of villages known in Honduras have been documented.

Early Period IV (1000-300 BC)

Corresponding to the end of the Early Formative, the Middle Formative, and the beginning of the Late Formative in Mexico, this is the period when villages are found across Honduras. The Playa de los Muertos style of figurines is created in the lower Ulua valley. Caves are used as burial shrines in the Copan Valley, Cuyamel Valley, and in Olancho. In the early part of this period, Copan, Los Naranjos, Puerto Escondido and Yarumela are connected to Olmec sites in the Gulf Coast of Mexico. At Los Naranjos and Yarumela, the residents built high (20 m tall), broad (100 m. long) earthen platforms, the earliest monumental architecture in Honduras.

Late Period IV (300 BC- AD 500)

Equivalent to the Maya Late Preclassic and Early Classic, in western Honduras and into El Salvador this is when specific techniques of resist painting orange slipped vessels are adopted, a style called Usulutan resist, executed by local potters following the same fashions. Many sites from this time period are buried under later sites. In a few places, like Rio Pelo, there were preserved earthen platforms built during this period, shorter than those of the preceding period. Late in this period, the Classic Maya site of Copan begins to develop its distinctive style of public architecture and monuments.

Period V (AD 500-1000)

Corresponding to the Maya Middle Classic, Late Classic, and Terminal Classic, this is the period when many sites across Honduras are most archaeologically visible because the majority of houses were built on raised stone platforms. Ballcourts are found in sites from Copan on the western frontier of Honduras, to sites in the Mosquitia far to the east. The inhabitants of these towns and villages made and used in everyday life a variety of painted polychrome pots, including Chamelecon Polychrome, Ulua Polychrome, Sulaco Polychrome, Cancique Polychrome, and more. In the lower Ulua Valley, the famous Ulua Marble Vases were produced from local marble sources, transported to Uaxactun in the north and Costa Rica in the south. In Salitron Viejo in the Sulaco Valley, a local production of jade objects took place, and these also were traded into Yucatan and down to Costa Rica. This is when Copan’s ruling family reached its height of power. In each area where extensive settlement pattern studies have taken place, one site seems to be larger and tries to exercise more power in the last part of this period: La Sierra in the Naco Valley; Cerro Palenque in the lower Ulua Valley; Tenampua in the Comayagua Valley; and Salitron Viejo in the Sulaco Valley.

Period VI (AD 1000-1550)

The least well understood period in terms of archaeology, this corresponds to the Postclassic period of the Maya area. At the beginning of this period, many existing sites decline in size or are abandoned. Newly establishes sites can be harder to identify: they may have houses built directly on ground surface (which can be buried quickly by the rivers of Honduras’ tropical valleys).  In eastern Honduras, this is the period when new incised kinds of pottery, the Cocal style, was made across a wide area. Sites dating to this period are easily identified based on this new pottery. But in western Honduras, people stopped using polychrome painted pottery for everyday meals, so that the two new polychrome styles of this period– Las Vegas Polychrome and Bay Islands Polychrome– are rare finds, usually in tombs or caches. Since the unslipped and red-slipped everyday pottery looks a lot like red-slipped and unslipped pots used in earlier periods, the dating of sites without polychrome pottery may be unclear. In come cases, though, new technology– especially copper metal working– and imported ceramics (Tohil Plumbate, from the Mexico-Guatemala border)– let scholars identify sites from this period. Towards the end of the fourteenth century, new painted pottery, red on white slipped or red and black on white slipped, is found in a few sites that were still occupied when the first Spanish adventurers arrived in Honduras. Spanish colonial control begins to be exerted in the 1520s, and by the 1550s has changed conditions across much of the country.