A team led by archeologist 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 UC Berkeley. Discoveries by Brady and others are showing that "there is more out there [in Honduras] than anybody previously imagined."
"This is a part of Central America about which we know very little," said archeologist Paul Healey of Trent University in Canada. Brady's discoveries "are filling in some of the blanks in our knowledge about that particular part of the world." Among other things, artifacts from the caves show that trade throughout the region was occurring much earlier than previously believed, he added.
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 BC and lived there as late as AD 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.
"We must have walked past it dozens of times since 1994," Brady said. "The extremely small entrance was the factor that protected it from earlier discovery." Some members of the expedition, in fact, were too big to pass through the entrance and could view the cave only on videotape shot by skinnier crew members.
Unlike the bones in the first cave, which were still stacked in neat piles, those in the Cave of the Spiders had been disturbed in antiquity, indicating the presence of looters. Many of the bones were cemented to the floor of the cave by the accumulation of calcite, however, indicating that they had not been disturbed more recently.
Because the cave had been looted, the team recovered only a few shell beads and a fragment of a marble bowl.
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.
Excavations at the entrance of the cave by archeologist Ann Scott of Prewitt & Associates, an archeological consulting company, revealed ceramics that were used as late as AD 900. She also found a small burned corncob--unusual because previous radiocarbon studies had indicated that maize did not play a key role in the people's diet.
Scott also excavated large quantities of snail shells from nearby rivers. Such shells were frequently used as ritual offerings in Mayan caves, and their discovery suggests that the people who used the caves eventually shared religious rituals with their neighbors hundreds of miles to the west.