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River Tamers

Remains of Village Built Along Honduras' Rampaging Talgua Show Early Inhabitants' Ability to Conquer Inhospitable Nature

May 08, 1997|THOMAS H. MAUGH II | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The banks of the Talgua River were not a good place to build a village.

Powered by the intense rainfall of the Mosquitia jungle, the ferocious Honduran river periodically escapes its banks, scouring away the last traces of any dwellings that humans may have had the temerity to erect.

But recent discoveries suggest that ancient residents of the area had the will--as well as the resources and organizational ability--to fight back in a manner that archeologists had previously not thought possible in the rain forest.

The findings provide new insight into the genesis of civilizations throughout Central America, suggesting that societies can arise not only in fertile valleys and along inviting coasts, but even in areas historically thought inhospitable.

Apparently frustrated by the recurrent loss of their home, the rulers of Talgua Village mobilized a massive army sometime before AD 800. Their goal was to conquer not a neighboring community but the forces of nature itself.

Using the most primitive of tools and laboring for months, perhaps years, the army brought in tens of thousands of cubic yards of rocks and soil to raise Talgua Village as much as 10 feet above the level of the river, archeologists say.

Ultimately, they created a safe haven a mile long and as much as half a mile wide where they could live without fear of the river's rampages.

Their ability to mobilize people and resources for such a massive undertaking, said archeologist James E. Brady of George Washington University, is "the strongest evidence yet" that civilizations could arise and flourish in what scientists have previously considered the extremely inhospitable environment of the tropical lowland rain forest.

The discovery could have reverberations far beyond Honduras. Archeologists had believed that the sophisticated Olmec civilization of the forested Gulf Coast of Mexico could not have arisen there. Current theory is that it developed in the more hospitable highlands. The Olmecs must then have moved to the forests, the paradigm says, when they were forced out of the highlands by volcanic activity.

Brady's discoveries suggest that Olmec society could, in fact, have arisen on the coast.

"It now seems likely that the emergence of complex society was broad-based, occurring many times in many places rather than happening at one time and spreading outward," said University of Kansas archeologist John Hoopes.

It is "quite surprising" to find such massive undertakings in the rain forest, said archeologist Paul Healy of Trent University in Ontario, Canada, about the Talgua site. "If you've got that level of material being built up, it obviously does indicate probably a more complex level of social and political organization than we would normally have expected."

Hoopes cautioned that it is not certain that the site was, in fact, rain forest during the period in question. Nonetheless, he added, "My own feeling is that this is a wake-up call to tropical ecologists who pretend that humans did not exist in many of the environments that they study. . . . Any type of research, especially in this part of Central America, which implies the existence of large, dense populations is very significant."

Brady and his team have been exploring the Talgua site for three years. Although they have mapped and explored the foundations of the building remnants at Talgua Village, their primary focus has been on the spectacular nearby burial chambers, including the "Cave of the Glowing Skulls." Human skeletons placed in the caves, some as long ago as 1500 BC, have slowly become coated with calcite crystals that reflect light and make them shine like jewels. Their natural beauty has attracted wide attention.

Originally, the team thought that the burial chambers and the surface village were contemporaneous, but a close comparison of ceramic samples from the village and the cave by archeologist George Hasemann of the Instituto Hondureno Antropologia e Historia made clear that they were not. Radiocarbon studies of charcoal from the surface village dated it to AD 800 to 900, 2,300 years later than the earliest radiocarbon dates from the burial chambers, suggesting that remnants of an earlier settlement might lie below Talgua Village. In searching for traces of the earlier village, the team found evidence of the earth-moving project.

To find the remnants of earlier dwellings, geophysicist Donald Stierman of the University of Toledo and civil engineer Barbara Luke of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, used magnetometers and electrical resistivity--techniques widely employed in archeology to locate buried buildings--to look for areas of unusual composition or density.

What they found instead was that the ground beneath the village was different from the brick-red clay all around it. At first they thought the unusual soil had been deposited by flooding, but excavations by graduate student Christopher Begley of the University of Chicago convinced them otherwise.

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