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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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

The Pech and Archaeology in the Mosquitia

Every few years, a new group of explorers ‘discover’ a fabulous archaeological site in the Honduran rain forest. It is lauded in the press as a huge discovery, perhaps the mythical lost city in the Honduran rain forest, maybe even a lost civilization.

The problem is that it isn’t a lost civilization, or even a mythical lost city. I know, because I’ve been studying that area for years. Other archaeologists worked there before me. People live nearby and travel through there all the time.

So there is always a lot of hype and sensationalism, and most scholars are disgusted. They write letters complaining about it all.  The original team looks silly, like children playing out a movie fantasy. The scholars who complained look humorless, and maybe jealous that they didn’t get to play jungle explorer. And if that’s all it was, it wouldn’t matter much, perhaps. Nobody else would care.

But this kind of careless sensationalism has real consequences. The language used evokes a time where foreign explorers emphasized their superiority at the expense of local knowledge. The hype overshadows real science, and we know that this kind of lost city/treasure hunting mentality puts archaeological resources at risk.

While these things are important, there is a much more human and immediate cost, borne primarily by the most marginalized, least powerful folks in the region: indigenous people like the Pech who are descendants of those who built these sites.

I know this is not a ‘lost civilization’ because I am an archaeologist, and I’ve worked in this ‘unknown’ area for almost 25 years. I lived and worked with the Pech almost exclusively, because I thought it was the right thing to do, and because they know the region better than anyone. They have at least a thousand years of history there.

For the Pech, the past is absolutely essential to their future. Their history is not merely an interesting pastime; it creates and supports the present. They are curious about the archaeology. I’ve talked to impromptu community meetings, looked at artifacts they collected, and listened to their interpretations. I saw them make modern pottery look like the ancient pieces we find at archaeological sites, in a deliberate attempt to connect the past and the present.

I lived with the Pech at various times over the last two decades. We lived in small villages with no electricity or water. We spent all day, every day, together. We sat and talked every night. We played cards. We took trips through the forest for two or three weeks at a time, mapping archaeological sites along the way. All told, the Pech and I documented around 150 archaeological sites.

The Pech already knew where every large site was located. Every single one. They knew where fruit trees grew, or where the good fishing holes were. They could find the little trails that I could hardly see. Sometimes we followed an old trail by looking for grown over machete cuts on branches. They knew the forest like I know my hometown.

The Pech lived in these now remote places as recently as 150 years ago, and they return to hunt and fish, or to harvest sweetgum. They’ve lost traditional lands to encroaching farmers and cattle ranchers. They’ve been moved around, and now live mainly on the edge of the rain forest, in a handful of communities.

I owe a great debt to the Pech. They carried me through the forest. Not literally, except maybe once, but in some way on every trip. They did everything better than I could. It was humbling. Most of the time, I felt like a child. In fact, one of the greatest compliments I ever received was when I overheard my Pech friend assuring somebody else that I could, after many months, finally keep up. If that was ever true, it was only for a moment, but he said it, and he meant it.

The Pech taught me to live in the forest, to build fires in the rain, to find food in the forest, to fish there, to make rafts and shelters. They kept me going when it was all too much to handle. They were gentle and kind, making flimsy excuses to take breaks when they thought I needed one, to avoid embarrassing me. They looked me in the eye and told me to suck it up and keep it together when we had to walk all night to get out of a bad situation.

They showed me archaeological sites. They showed me features such as which hillsides had been reshaped by people, because they could tell and I couldn’t. They explained what they thought it meant. They critiqued my interpretations.

The Pech did all this while facing serious threats to their continued existence. They fought to keep what traditional land they still had, and to keep their language alive. They buried people killed by outsiders who wanted to bully them off their land. I hated those funerals, where those animated faces I knew were rigid. I hated seeing that. Sometimes I didn’t go.

So, what is the harm in this hype and sensationalism? What difference does it make if, in their ignorance, these ‘explorers’ proclaim that they discovered something nobody has seen in 600 years?  What is the cost of these newcomers, with no real experience in this forest, claiming, disingenuously, to have discovered a ‘lost civilization?’ Why am I moved to spend a few hours writing something like this?

I write this because these claims, hype and sensationalism invade one of the few remaining spaces in which the Pech, and folks like them, are powerful. These claims strip the Pech of their own history, and deny them the respect they deserve and the acknowledgement for their contribution to our understanding of the past. These sensational narratives, powerful because they are made by powerful people, further marginalize and disenfranchise people. In ignorance and bravado, these discoverers make it hard to hear a crucial voice from some real experts.

revised March 21

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.