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.

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

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.