3000-Year-Old Dwelling Site Yields Pottery Style of Distant Mexican
by Gretchen Kell
A Berkeley anthropologist has announced 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, professor of anthropology and director of the Hearst Museum of Anthropology.
She presented news of the joint Berkeley/Cornell University finds April 13 at a meeting of the Society for American Archaeology.
The finds at Puerto Escondido reveal a new society taking shape between about 1200 and 900 B.C. across an area 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."
The Honduran finds include rubble from a burned house and pottery that dates from 1150 to 950 B.C. Beneath the dwelling may be evidence of an older house.
"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.
"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 beneath the Middle Formative layer.
The site, on Honduras' north coast, is in the tropical Ulua River Valley.
From 200 A.D. to 1000 A.D. the valley was an agricultural zone that supported wealthy farmers. Villages of extended family households were scattered about.
The area was well-known in the 16th century for its cacao, the plant used to make chocolate. 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 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.
Houses were made of mud walls supported by a framework of wooden posts.
The dwelling had been burned, deliberately, Joyce believes, in 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. New houses were sanctified by burying vessels in pits beneath the floor. At some point--perhaps when the head of the family died--the house had to die, too."
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."
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.
The pottery will be analyzed to see whether the clay it was made from is local.
The dig was sponsored by the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History, which Joyce has co-directed since 1992 with Cornell anthropology professor John Henderson.