February 2, 1997 in Nation/World

Extinct Culture Uncovered Ancient Civilization Discovered In Huge Honduras Burial Caves

Los Angeles Times
 

The discovery of a network of hidden caves used for human burials has led to the identification of an extinct 3,000-year-old civilization in the small Central American country of Honduras.

A team led by archaeologist James E. Brady of George Washington University has found at least three burial caves in the region - one in 1992 and two this past summer - as well as an enormous underground gathering place that the team dubbed “the Superdome of caves” and another cave apparently used for religious rites.

The discoveries indicate the presence of a hitherto unrecognized jungle civilization that lived in the shadow of the Mayan and Olmec empires while maintaining its own culture and religion. The find suggests that civilizations were apparently arising independently in several locations rather than spreading outward from one core society.

“All of a sudden, we are showing that there was a tremendous early population in this area” at about the same time that the first major civilization of the New World was being established in Mexico, Brady said. “That was really unexpected.”

This is “really exciting work,” said archeologist Rosemary Joyce of University of California, Berkeley. Discoveries by Brady and others are showing that “there is more out there (in Honduras) than anybody previously imagined.”

One major unknown remains, however - the people themselves. To date, neither Brady nor anyone else has found any surface dwellings associated with this mysterious people, who settled in the region sometime before 1400 B.C. and lived there as late as A.D. 900.

Brady thinks the people probably lived in villages along the banks of the Rio Talgua and other rivers and that the abandoned sites have long since been buried by silt from the perennial floods in the region.

Many other questions also remain about the early society. “Obviously, the list of unknowns greatly outweighs the list of knowns, but it must be remembered that, 2-1/2 years ago, the very existence of this ancient civilization was completely unknown,” Brady said.

The key feature of many of the newly discovered caves is their relative inaccessibility. The entrance to the Cave of the Glowing Skulls, discovered and named by spelunkers in 1994, is a narrow opening 30 feet off the floor in the back chamber of another, two-mile deep cave.

It received its name because nature covered bones in the cave with a thin layer of calcium carbonate (calcite) crystals that reflected beams from the discoverers’ flashlights, giving the cave the appearance of a shrine.

The newly discovered Cave of the Spiders was found behind some bushes just a few hundred yards from the entrance to the first cave by Nelson Alvarado, a security guard hired to protect the site.

One of the most significant discoveries in the new cave was art on the walls. Immediately inside the entrance were three well-preserved paintings. Two portray large dramatic faces that do not look particularly human. The third is a ladder-shaped geometric design.

Surprised by this discovery, the team went back to a pitch dark area near the entrance of the Cave of the Glowing Skulls and found similar paintings there as well. The paintings appear to mark the boundaries of these sacred chambers, Brady said, and the images probably deal with themes of death and the afterlife. “These caves were clearly perceived as entrances to the underworld,” Healey added.

Radiocarbon dating showed that most of the bones were from 900 to 500 B.C., but one group of bones was dated to 1400 B.C., the earliest found in Honduras.

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