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Television Review

Discovering 'Cave of the Hidden Skulls'

September 25, 2000|THOMAS H. MAUGH II | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the explorers' flashlights first struck the skulls, they glittered like jewels in the darkness. When the lights were extinguished, the skulls glowed in the dark for nearly a minute before fading away. Their discovery in 1994, deep in a cave in the Mosquitia jungle of Honduras, led the site to be named the Cave of the Glowing Skulls and provided the first evidence of a previously unknown Central American civilization.

Three expeditions to the banks of the Rio Talgua have found other caves where the mysterious people, now known as the Talgua, buried their dead. Explorers also found at least one village where the Talgua settled sometime before 1400 BC and persisted as late as AD 900.

The team that found the sites, fortunately, carried video cameras with them and the record of the journey will be on view tonight at 9 on the Discovery Channel in a documentary called, not surprisingly, "The Cave of the Glowing Skulls."

Viewers will follow archeologist James E. Brady of George Washington University as he plunges deep into the cave systems--sometimes getting stuck in narrow passages--looking for the hidden burials. And they will be there when he stumbles into caverns filled with hundreds of human bones.

The Talgua settled into the Honduran jungle about the same time that the Olmec were establishing an empire in Mexico. Confounding the preconceived notions of archeologists, they thrived without eating corn, the most important foodstuff throughout Central America. Instead, they apparently based their diet on yams and other vegetables. And somehow they managed to grow three to five inches taller than their neighbors.

*

Marble bowls and other artifacts from the caves show that the Talgua, again to the surprise of researchers, maintained a vigorous trade with other groups in the region. Cave art suggests that the Talgua had developed a rich social and cultural life and that the region was not simply a backwater for the more powerful Olmec and Mayan empires.

Aside from the caves, the Talgua left little to remember them by. Their communities were apparently all built along the banks of the river and, once they were abandoned, were buried in silt by the frequent floods in the region.

But over time, water dripping into the burial caves coated the bones with a fine layer of calcite, which reflects light much like diamonds. In effect, Mother Nature provided a guidepost for the rediscovery of a lost civilization.

* "The Cave of the Glowing Skulls" can be seen tonight at 9 on Discovery. The network has rated it TV-G (suitable for all ages).

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