Oldest evidence yet of village life in central Honduras found by UC Berkeley and Cornell archaeology team

by Gretchen Kell

New Orleans, La. -- A University of California at Berkeley anthropologist announced today (April 13) the discovery of not only the oldest evidence to date of village life in central Honduras, but of pottery there unexpectedly in the style of the ancient Olmec civilization in Mexico.

"We have found the first evidence of Early Formative Period people in the heartland of Honduras, and those people are in contact, unexpectedly, with the Olmec civilization," said Rosemary Joyce, UC Berkeley professor of anthropology and director of the campus's Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology.

She presented news of the joint UC Berkeley/Cornell University finds at the 61st annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology.

The finds at Puerto Escondido, the excavation site, reveal a new society taking shape between about 1200 and 900 B.C. across an area stretching from Mexico to Honduras. For the first time, people widely separated by geography -- particularly a new, elite class -- were forming long-distance contacts, sharing luxury goods and religious ideas and customs.

"The Olmec lived on the distant Gulf Coast of Mexico, not in Honduras," said Joyce. "We believe the early Hondurans must have acquired this well-known Olmec pottery -- or the skills to make it -- through long-distance trips."

Specifically, the Honduran finds include rubble from a burned house and pottery that dates from 1150 to 950 B.C. Joyce said she believes that, beneath the dwelling, there still may be evidence of an even older house and human remains.

"This is the first clear Early Formative site documented for the main part of Honduras," said Joyce, "so we will be the first to assign dates to the finds. Similar material has previously only been known from the extreme western part of the country, as an extension of well-known developments of Guatemala.

"The new finds unexpectedly indicate that areas of Honduras farther east also were involved in dramatic early steps toward new forms of society."

Previous digs in Honduras have yielded artifacts from its Middle Formative Period -- 900 to 400 B.C. The pottery unearthed in 1995, found in fill inside the house, was buried just beneath the Middle Formative layer.

Nestled in an 800-square-mile area of Honduras' north coast, Puerto Escondido was jointly excavated by field schools from UC Berkeley and Cornell. The site is in the tropical Ulua River Valley, in the suburbs of San Pedro Sula, where new neighborhoods are under construction.

From 200 A.D. to 1000 A.D. the valley was a fertile agricultural zone that supported a large and wealthy population of farmers. Small villages of extended family households of dozens of people were scattered throughout the landscape.

The area was well-known in the 16th century for its high quality crops of cacao, the plant used to make chocolate. Joyce said the beans -- used to make drinks for rulers and ceremonies -- were coveted by the Olmec.

Today, the valley is a combination of about 500 registered archaeological sites and new residential neighborhoods.

A developer's bulldozer mistakenly had taken the top layer of soil off of a portion of the Puerto Escondido site -- a series of at least four large, low, earthen mounds -- by the time the 16 students, seven assistants and two professors arrived last June. Yet, despite the assault on the land, the bulldozer had exposed the oldest Honduran artifacts to date.

"It turns out the workers did us a favor," said Joyce.

What was revealed were the remains of a farm house that typically would have been inhabited by a multigenerational family of six to 10 people. The houses in this area were made of mud walls supported by a framework of wooden posts. The dwelling had been burned.

Joyce said she believed the house was burned deliberately, an ancient custom performed at the end of the household cycle.

"The house was more than a box to this civilization," she said. "It was a socially significant thing, a symbol of a group's reality. New houses were sanctified by the burying of vessels in pits beneath the floor. At some point -- perhaps when the head of the family died -- the house had to die, too."

Well-preserved pottery shards were found in the rubble that filled the foundation of the burned dwelling. Decorated pieces and a ceramic pendant in the shape of a clam shell were lying directly on the ancient ground.

Joyce, an expert in archaeological ceramics from Central America, said the team of archaeologists "didn't expect the pottery to resemble that of the Olmec civilization."

Olmec pottery, with its black and reddish-brown designs, was made using a resist technique. As the clay pots were drying and before they were fired, symbols were carved into them. Then, a dark, clay-based slip was applied to certain areas of the pots. After the pots were fired, a red pigment made from iron ore was rubbed onto the surfaces not blackened by the slip.

The pottery found at Puerto Escondido was decorated with Olmec-related symbols, some of them religious, that closely relate to sites on the Pacific Coast of Guatemala and Mexico. Still, Joyce believes the pottery was locally made, not imported.

"But the designs, techniques and vessel forms are so precise," she said, "that they reflect very direct knowledge of Olmec-style pottery, especially that from the Pacific Coast of Chiapas, Mexico, where it is called Cherla- and Cuadros-phase pottery and has been well-dated to 1150 to 950 B.C."

Joyce said other theories about the pottery are that traders or missionaries brought it to Puerto Escondido, or that Hondurans traded for pottery in the Olmec style.

"Local leaders wanting to raise their local status would have traveled toward centers of civilization such as the Olmec civilization to get items like this or knowledge of how to make them," said Joyce.

She said that cacao beans are "the big candidate for trade. Chocolate beans were not only used as currency, but chocolate drink was limited to the upper class and for special ceremonies."

The pottery found by the UC Berkeley/Cornell team will undergo neutron activation analysis to see whether the clay it was made from is local. Residues from grinding stones and pottery vessels also will be examined for evidence of chocolate.

Joyce said the ceramic clam-shell pendant found at the site is particularly significant because it was a personal ornament worn by elites "to mark their social distinction from others who had not formed long-distance ties with people in distance places."

The dig was part of a project, sponsored by the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History, which Joyce has co-directed since 1992 with John Henderson, an anthropology professor at Cornell. Both anthropologists have been excavating in the river valley since 1979.

The Lower Ulua River Valley Archaeological Project seeks to rescue data from sites threatened by development and to investigate the rural agricultural households in the valley's flood plains.

This was the first year that UC Berkeley and Cornell have worked there together. The field schools also investigated another site, Mantecales, and exposed a series of deposits representing the remains of ritual burning of incense in large pottery vessels during the Late Classic period.

In former seasons, project participants explored a site called Campo Pineda, discovering a ball court and evidence of specialized pottery production. In 1994, at Puerto Escondido, they investigated a series of sweat baths dating from the Early Classic period, 250 to 600 A.D.

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