Specific Environmental Settings
This section describes in some detail the topographic configuration of the investigated valleys and vegas, focusing on the differential distribution among these units of resources presumed to be important to the indigenous inhabitants of the middle Rio Ulua drainage. The extent and distribution of arable land, availability of year-round water sources, the nature of raw materials useful in construction and craft activities, and favored access to communication channels linking the middle Ulua with other areas are summarized for each investigated vega and valley. Our goals here are to place the sites found during survey 5 in their physical settings and introduce environmental variables that may help account for intraregional spatial and temporal differences in demographic and settlement patterns.
Gualjoquito Vega (130-220m above sea level)
The Gualjoquito vega, named for the major prehistoric center which it supports, covers roughly 5.6km2 on both sides of the Rio Ulua in an area where the river forms a rough "S" shape. The Ulua runs southeast-northwest through this zone coursing west-to-east on both the northern and southern vega margins. This topographically complex area is bounded by steep escarpments of the Cerros Pena Blanca, Grande, and Tiligua on the east and the Lomas de Jicaro and Cerro Las Tunitas on the west. The Rio Ulua was cutting back its east bank during the 1983-1986 field seasons, depositing materials on the west shore. Consequently, floodplain formation was restricted to western portions of the vega where two to three low (2-7m high) terraces paralleling the river's course were recorded. Broad, shallow, linear depressions running roughly southeast-northwest are found throughout the floodplain, apparently representing relict Ulua channels. Floodplain sections are discontinuously distributed within the Gualjoquito vega. The largest floodplain segment lies in the southern portion of the vega below Sites 20-22 (covering approximately .3km2). This zone pinches out on the north near the Ulua/Quebrada Lempa junction and when it reappears 0.5km further north covers a much smaller area (ca. 0.1km2). Floodplain soils are a combination of silts and fine sands.
Rising anywhere from 3-5m above the floodplain on the west and 7-10m above the river on the east is the next major terrace formed by the Ulua (referred to here as the "low terrace"). The summit of this topographic unit is relatively flat, rising gradually away from the river, and is situated at 130-140m above sea level. Like the floodplain, the lower terrace is not distributed continuously over the Gualjoquito vega. West of the Ulua this unit disappears for 350m north of Site 20 and finally pinches out in the valley of the Quebrada Guijo on the north. An extension of Cerro Pena Blanca separates the northern and southern portions of the low terrace east of the river. Low terrace soils are fine-textured and deep (1m or more thick) with well-developed humus horizons roughly 0.1-0.3m thick.
A high terrace, falling between 145-220m above sea level, ascends 5-20m above the aforementioned unit both east and west of the Rio Ulua (the rise is higher and steeper on the east). Most of the level terrain within the vega is taken up by this topographic entity, covering approximately 3.1km2 on the east and 1km2 on the west. The high terrace is found primarily in the southwest and southeast portions of the vega, pinching out against the surrounding hills on the north. Land atop this unit ascends gradually from the river towards the bordering hills. High terrace soils on the west are fine-textured and appear to be quite deep. The same situation does not hold to the east. Here, excavations conducted at 12 sites forming a rough east-west transect across the center of the high terrace revealed a change from relatively deep (at least 0.75m thick) fine-textured soils near the Ulua to relatively thin (0.2-0.3m thick), stone-rich soil levels overlying possible colluvial deposits containing more rocks than earth near the base of the eastern hills. Extensive, shallow depressions on the eastern high terrace summit may act as "soil sinks" capturing earth and water run-off from adjacent, slightly elevated areas.
Colluvial fans were noted at several points extending from the adjacent hills onto lower and upper terraces. The best documented of these units issues 40m out from Cerro Grande onto the low terrace segment supporting the prehistoric site of Gualjoquito (Site 1). Soils on the fan contain dense concentrations of rocks and may not be as suitable for agriculture as other terrace portions.
The generally rugged and steep hillslopes delimiting the vega are broken in a few spots by narrow ledges of flat land. Soils on the hilly flanks are generally shallow and rock outcrops were frequently noted throughout this zone on both sides of the river. Shelves may support slightly deeper soils, catching some run-off from further upslope These ledges are at least not as prone to erosion as the steeper escarpments. Nevertheless, rock exposures were recorded on some shelves suggesting that soils in even these areas are relatively shallow (excavation of Site 148 in the western hills revealed soil depths of 0.12-0.4m overlying bedrock atop one ledge).
The above-mentioned river terrace system is dissected by both perennial and seasonal watercourses. Two major Ulua affluents, the Rios Hondo (with its tributary the Rio Piedras Amarillas) and Las Huertas, nearly converge within 350m south of Gualjoquito east of the river while the Quebrada Guijo is the only perennial stream west of the Ulua. The Quebrada Lempa, which cuts a deep, narrow, "V"-shaped valley across the approximate center of the western Gualjoquito vega, is the largest seasonal watercourse in this area. Numerous smaller quebradas issue from the western and eastern hills running variable distances either into the Ulua or one of its tributaries. All of these watercourses have steep gradients, covering relatively short distances from their mountain headwaters to the Ulua. Perhaps as a result of these factors, terrace formation bordering the tributaries is attenuated and found only along the larger streams (Rios Hondo, Las Huertas and Quebradas Guijo and Lempa), especially in their lower reaches near the Ulua. The Rio Las Huertas does have a continuous stretch of terrace rising 4-5m above the channel, extending as much as 200m from the river's southern bank and 1.1km east from its junction with the Ulua. The Las Huertas' north bank is marked by only a few discontinuous terraces separated by steep descents to the river. Excavations carried out on the Las Huertas southern terrace revealed soil depths of only 0.3-0.36m before dense concentrations of small, angular stones were encountered. The Quebrada Guijo supports a narrow floodplain extending back roughly 0.5km from its junction with the Ulua. Though no excavations were conducted here, observations made during survey suggest that soils of the Guijo floodplain are relatively coarse-textured with numerous rocks protruding onto the surface.
Modern habitation on the Gualjoquito vega is largely restricted to four small towns: La Isla on the southwest margin of the western high terrace; Loma Larga straddling both banks of the Quebrada Guijo within the low foothills of the Lomas de Jicaro; and Gualjoquito and Santa Rosita overlooking the southeast high terrace from the escarpments of Cerro Pena Blanca. Most of the vega was hand-cultivated, using the dibble stick, in maize and beans during 1983-1986. West of the Ulua, land-use intensity declined with distance from the river; i.e., farming was concentrated on the floodplain and low terrace while the high terrace was devoted principally to animal pasture or covered in thorn scrub. Informants indicate that the principal restriction on crop growth west of the Ulua is rainfall and it may be that plants raised on lower elevations benefit from proximity to the water table and a reliable source of moisture. The east vega does not reflect such a clear gradient. High and low terraces south of and including the ancient center of Gualjoquito were planted continuously during 1983-1986 as were the bordering hills. The eastern low terrace north of Gualjoquito, however, was used as pasture throughout all four SBAP field seasons. This land-use choice has little to do with agricultural potential and seems to be the result of the owner's preference for cattle as a saleable commodity. Cultivation of vega flanks was more prevalent east than west of the Ulua, possibly a consequence of higher population densities in the former vega segment and the loss of prized lower terrace fields to animal pasture in this same area.
Informant assessments of local soil fertility conform to the general pattern outlined above. Residents specify, however, that the upper terrace, like the floodplain and lower terrace, can sustain two maize crops annually for numerous years without fallowing. The relatively shallow soils revealed in excavations atop the southeast high terrace do not seem congruent with the above remarks. Closer examination of the latter area, however, indicated that most cultivation in this zone centered on the aforementioned depressions where runoff from surrounding areas may have created greater soil depths and humidity than those found in more elevated terrace portions. The bottoms and lower flanks of the numerous, deep quebradas that traverse the southeastern high terrace were also intensively planted, possibly to take advantage of high moisture levels within these seasonal channels. Both depressions and quebrada channels appear to be especially productive agricultural zones capable of supporting the double-cropping reported for the southeast high terrace.
Dense overgrowth is restricted to roughly 1km2 on the high terrace west of the Rio Ulua and 0.25-0.5km2 in a similar topographic position east of the river.
Stones for construction could have been easily acquired from the Ulua and its principal tributaries (river-rounded cobbles) as well as from numerous outcrops dotting the bordering hills (angular stones). Exposures of andesite and vesicular basalt were recorded within the eastern and western escarpments. Andesite boulders were also commonly observed in the Ulua channel. Palms, cultivated for fiber currently employed in hat and basket production, were found growing over the far eastern and southwestern portions of the southeast high terrace. Residents of hamlets scattered throughout these areas specialized, on at least a part-time basis, in fashioning hats and baskets for sale. The Gualjoquito vega is also a point of convergence for numerous, potential communication channels. The Rio Ulua provides ready passage north and south to areas supporting prehistoric and early historic population concentrations, passes through the eastern hills connect the southeast high terrace with Lake Yojoa, while fissures cut by the Quebradas Lempa and Guijo still provide passage westward toward archaeologically unknown high valleys supporting such modern population centers as the municipal capital of San Jose de Colinas. A major Ulua tributary, the Rio Jicatuyo, issues into the western vega and carves out a pass that runs 37km westward toward the La Venta and Florida valleys and, ultimately, towards Copan. No other middle Ulua vega possesses such a diversity of extra-regional communication corridors.
The Gualjoquito vega supports the densest concentration of prehistoric and historic settlement identified anywhere in the study zone. Sites 1, 3-6, 8-28, 30-74, 98-128, and 148-153 are all found here (856 total constructions).
Inguaya Vega (140-220m above sea level)
The Inguaya vega is a zone of relatively level terrain covering roughly 5.4km2 separated from the Gualjoquito vega by the Rio Ulua and a westward extension of Cerro Grande. The Inguaya vega is delimited on the north by the east-west trending channel of the Ulua, on the east by the Montanas de Santa Barbara, and on the west by the hills of the Galeras range. The last escarpments separate the vega from the north-south course of the Rio Ulua. Land on the Inguaya vega rises from north to south beginning with a low floodplain zone (covering approximately 0.2km2) above which three terraces ascend in increments of 10-20m (the low, high eastern and high southern terraces). The lower of these units is broken in spots by a few diminutive eminences. The high eastern terrace, ca. 250m wide, borders the vega on the east while the high southern terrace delimits the vega on the this side and rises 10m and 20m above the high eastern and low terraces respectively. The southern high terrace gives way on the south to a precipitous ascent of 30-40m. Galeras, a modern population center, currently sprawls over most of the flat land surmounting this rise and the latter area was not investigated by the SBAP. Hillslopes bordering the vega are generally steep, their lower escarpments interrupted in a few places by narrow shelves of relatively flat terrain.
The Inguaya vega is watered by a single perennial stream, the Quebrada Derrumbe, along with numerous seasonal watercourses which issue from the western and eastern hills to join the Ulua or Derrumbe. The Quebrada Derrumbe, with its headwaters in the Montanas de Santa Barbara on the southeast, describes a sinuous course through the zone, crossing the southern high terrace, low terrace, and floodplain.
A distinct sub-area within the vega consists of a narrow (ca. 300m across) valley cut by the Derrumbe along the northwest margin of the high southern terrace. The stream descends from the upper to lower terrace here and courses south to north between the steep escarpments of the Galeras range on the west and the precipitous ascent to the high southern terrace on the east. The pocket terminates on the north where the Derrumbe shifts course to the northeast and the land opens up to the relatively flat summit of the low terrace. This valley covers roughly 0.3km2 and contains a numerous prehistoric settlements (Sites 89-91, 94, 143-146; 77 constructions in all).
Farming intensity decreases with distance from the Rio Ulua. Most dibble-stick cultivation of maize and, in the far northwest portion of the low terrace, mechanized plowing for tobacco is concentrated on the floodplain and low terrace. Moving south, and in areas removed from the Quebrada Derrumbe, increasing amounts of land are devoted to cattle pasture. Just about all terrain not devoted to housing atop the high southern and eastern terraces is turned to this use. Land covered by dense thorn scrub is found in all areas but was most commonly observed on the nearby hillslopes (roughly 1km2 could not be examined on the vega terraces due to overgrowth). Occasional plots cleared for maize cultivation were evident even on these steep ascents. The above observations conform with the general soil fertility patterns described earlier. The high eastern and southern terraces, given their use as animal pasture in 1983-1986, may have fertility levels intermediate between hillslopes and lower-lying zones.
Outcrops of a wide variety of igneous stones, including andesite and vesicular basalt, were noted throughout the eastern and western mountains, while the Ulua and Derrumbe channels are ready sources of river-worn cobbles often used in construction. Chert deposits and limestone outcrops were also recorded among these slopes, especially in the Galeras range. The valley cut by the Rio Ulua provides passage to areas north and south of the vega while the Rio Jicatuyo, which joins the Ulua at the vega's northwest corner, is a potential communication corridor running westward.
Modern occupation on the Inguaya vega is largely restricted to two towns, Gualjoco on the southern high terrace and Hacienda Inguaya in the northwest corner of the low terrace. Ancient habitation in this zone is relatively sparse, only Sites 75-79, 80-85, 88-91, 94, 129, 142-146, and 167-168 were identified here (132 constructions overall).
Galeras Range (140-360m above sea level)
As part of our effort to understand the distribution of settlement between the Gualjoquito and Tencoa vegas, we investigated the western flanks of the Galeras range where they overlook the Rio Ulua. This reconnaissance was carried out in 1984 and extended from the far northern margin of the hills, near Hacienda Inguaya, south to the modern hamlet of El Remolino. South of this point the steepness of the terrain for 2km to the confluence of the Rios Cececapa and Ulua made further investigations difficult and the possibility of finding settlements unlikely.
The western slopes of the Galeras Range are characterized by rugged, steep descents, dropping roughly 220m within a horizontal distance of 900m east to west into the Ulua. These precipitous escarpments are broken in a few areas by narrow, discontinuous, generally north-south trending shelves of flat to gently rolling terrain. Such ledges are almost invariably cleared for maize farming using the dibble stick technique while the surrounding slopes are left covered with dense scrub growth. Dramatically inclined areas are largely devoid of soil cover while the scattered shelves appear to support cultivation on locally developed soils and/or the earth run-off they catch. We do not have production figures for these ledges. They are sufficiently attractive as farm plots, however, that most for which ownership could be established were worked by residents of the town of Santa Barbara, ca. 3.5km straight-line distance to the southeast from the southernmost part of the surveyed area. Travel by foot to these fields from Santa Barbara is fairly long and arduous, requiring crossing several ranges of hills. We surmise, therefore, that arable land on the western flanks of the Galeras range is sufficiently productive to make such an expenditure of energy worthwhile. It still seems likely, however, that hillslopes and ledges support one annual maize crop for 6-7 years prior to fallowing.
Floodplain formation is limited to a small zone, maximally 100m across east-west, situated on the north margin of the studied area at the Ulua/Rio Jicatuyo confluence. Small, discontinuous areas of floodplain were noted west of the Ulua between El Remolino and La Junta but not on the river's east bank. No clear terrace formations were recorded.
Rock outcrops, including limestone and igneous materials, such as basalt and andesite, frequently protrude from hill flanks and ledges. Cobbles and angular stones employed in ancient construction are easily obtained from the Rio Ulua and numerous outcrops throughout the Galeras ascents. Valleys cut by the Rios Ulua and Jicatuyo provide transportation routes to areas lying to the west, north, and south.
In addition to the Rio Ulua, the western Galeras range is watered by a series of seasonal streams which descend rapidly from their sources in the hills. One perennial watercourse, an unnamed stream which runs north-south through the northern part of the Galeras range, was identified during survey though it does not appear on maps of the region. This stream and the Ulua are the only perennial sources of water within the zone.
Sites 130-133, 136-141, and 147 were found here, containing a total of 66 constructions.
Reyes Vega (115-150m above sea level)
The Reyes Vega, named for its reported owner in 1986, is located north of, and across the Rio Ulua from, the Gualjoquito vega and is delimited on the south, east, and north by the sinuous course of that river. To the west, steep escarpments of Cerro del Calvario, a high eminence within the Cerro Las Tunitas system, border the settlement zone. Covering roughly 0.6km2, the Reyes Vega consists of an east-west trending high terrace with steep descents of 15-20m on the north, east, and south to a lower Ulua terrace. The latter unit is narrow and discontinuous on the north (100m or less across) widening somewhat in the other directions (ca. 200m across). The drop from the flat lower terrace summit to the river is generally a steep, direct 10-15m. In the far eastern and southwestern corners of the zone, small segments of Ulua floodplain are preserved intermediate between the lower terrace and river levels. The upper terrace summit slopes up gradually from east to west towards the Cerro del Calvario and from south to north. The latter incline is most noticeable near the hills. The gradual east-west ascent is broken approximately 250m west of the eastern upper terrace margin by a low (1-2m high), natural step-up. Subsequent to this ascent the gradual rise of the land to the west continues as before. No perennial streams water this zone though sizable seasonal channels run north and south into the Ulua from the upper terrace.
As has been noted in other portions of the research zone, intensity of agricultural production is correlated with distance from the Ulua. When visited in 1986, the lower terrace was largely devoted to dibble stick cultivation of maize. Sugarcane was also grown in limited portions of this low-lying zone. The upper terrace summit, on the other hand, was almost exclusively used for animal pasture, local farmers indicating that this area was largely unsuitable for farming. Hillslopes were also not intensively cultivated. Small floodplain segments found in the area were overgrown with low thorn scrub in 1986 and were not exploited agriculturally nor for animal forage. Informant reports and field observations suggest that upper terrace soils are intermediate in fertility between lower terrace and floodplain tracts and escarpments. Building stones are easily obtainable from the Rio Ulua (cobbles) and western hills (angular stones from numerous exposures here). The large quantities of vesicular basalt and andesite recorded in the Crescent vega to the north are not, however, replicated on the Reyes vega. The valley cut by the Ulua would have provided a communication corridor linking occupants of the Reyes vega with people living to the north and south in antiquity. No other routes leading out of the zone were noted.
All portions of the Reyes vega were surveyed, none being so densely overgrown as to preclude investigation.
The only modern settlement in the zone is a single dwelling in the northeast corner of the vega reached via a dirt path which cuts through the center of the upper terrace and links up with the trail to the Crescent vega.
A total of 11 sites containing 62 constructions were recorded during the complete foot survey of the Reyes vega (Sites 162-166, 164-179). In general, settlements are located on the upper terrace summit or low eminences extending out from it above the lower Ulua terrace. None were found in the latter area nor on the floodplain.
Gualala Vega (120-150m above seal level)
The Gualala vega (containing Sites 205, 206, 347; 30 constructions overall) covers roughly 1km2 on the east bank of the Rio Ulua and is bounded on all sides save the east by the sinuous course of that river. The eastern flank is delimited by steep escarpments of Cerro Tiligua. Much of this zone consists of a high terrace of the Rio Ulua while a lower river terrace curves around following the watercourse on the north, west, and south. Small, discontinuous segments of floodplain are found on the western and southern vega margins. In addition to the Rio Ulua, the Quebrada Tiligua provides a perennial source of water to the zone. The latter watercourse issues from the eastern slopes and cuts across the southeastern corner of the vega before entering the Ulua. Several seasonal watercourses were also noted in the area especially in its northern reaches. The Gualala vega is separated from the Encanto and Gualjoquito vegas by the precipitous ascents of Cerro Tiligua which run down on the north and south directly to the Ulua.
Much of the zone, especially the upper terrace, is currently taken up by the modern town of Gualala, a settlement continuously occupied since at least the Late Postclassic era. Those areas not covered by modern construction are used primarily for animal pasture and maize cultivation. Soil fertility on the Gualala vega conforms to general middle Ulua patterns described above though the productivity of the upper terrace remains in doubt.
Construction stones are easily acquired from nearby river channels (cobbles) and hillside outcrops (angular rocks). No raw materials suitable for indigenous crafts (e.g., vesicular basalt and andesite) were noted on the vega. Survey efforts in the Gualala area were of limited duration and we may well have missed relevant outcrops in the course of our investigations. The Ulua valley provides passage north and south within and to areas outside central Santa Barbara. No other routes were noted issuing onto the vega.
Dense overgrowth did not present a problem for survey on the Gualala vega.
Crescent Vega (120-140m above sea level)
The Crescent vega, covering roughly 0.17km2, lies west and across the Rio Ulua from the Gualala vega and ca. 750m northwest of the Reyes vega. This is the most narrowly circumscribed vega studied by the SBAP, being delimited on the east by a precipitous 15-20m descent to the Ulua and on all other sides by the high, steep escarpments of Cerro Las Tunitas. The Ulua is currently cutting into its western bank here with the result that there is no floodplain on this side of the river. Rather, the ascent to the narrow, undulating summit of the high terrace is direct and dramatic. The only exception to this pattern is in the far northern portion of the vega where a very limited terrace segment, roughly 50m east-west by 150m north-south, located ca. 8m above river level (measured at the end of the 1986 dry season) intervenes between the Ulua and the high, western terrace. The summit of the high terrace is no more than 100-150m wide. The Cerro Las Tunitas foothills present a landscape of steep inclines broken in only a few areas by small ledges of level to more gently sloping terrain. The amount of flat land within the Crescent vega is further reduced by six deep seasonal channels which cut across it running west to east to the Rio Ulua. No perennial streams, outside of the Ulua, were recorded in this zone. The Crescent vega would not, therefore, appear to be a hospitable area for farming and current land practices confirm this supposition. By far the vast majority of this zone was devoted to animal pasture in 1986 with only the far northern, low terrace and a very restricted portion of the southernmost tip of the high terrace devoted to maize cultivation. We could not locate informants capable of confirming our suppositions concerning local soil fertility. Nevertheless, the frequent stone exposures noted on the high terrace summit as well as throughout the bordering hills, though not on the lower terrace, further imply that soils in this zone are generally shallow and rocky.
Though apparently poor in agricultural potential the Crescent vega is rich in other resources. Cobbles and angular rocks used in prehistoric and early historic construction in the area are easily acquired from close-by watercourses and hillside outcrops respectively. Exposures of vesicular basalt and andesite abound throughout the western slopes and on the upper terrace summit. Large andesite boulders are also deposited against the western Ulua bank, yet another, easily accessible source of this important raw material. While andesite and basalt outcrop throughout the middle Ulua drainage, their distribution is not uniform and we have rarely found such a plentiful supply of these materials as we observed on the Crescent vega. Easy access to such resources may, therefore, have served to attract settlement to this, from an agricultural viewpoint, marginal locale.
Trails linking Loma Larga and the Reyes vega to the south with the Chinquia vega on the north pass along the eastern margin of the upper terrace while a similarly informal route leads westward into the cerros to the modern towns of San Miguel Lajas and San Jose de Colinas, ca. 2.5km and 6km distant across rugged terrain, respectively. The latter settlement is the municipal center responsible for administering the western vegas from the town of La Isla north. The valley of the Rio Ulua would have provided a communication route linking the Crescent vega with other portions of central Santa Barbara and Southeast Mesoamerica to the north and south in antiquity.
The only modern occupation in the area consists of a single house and animal corral situated near the center of the vega against the western foothills.
Twenty-seven constructions were identified in seven sites on the Cresecent vega (Sites 155-161). Most of these settlements are found atop the upper terrace though two (Sites 159 and 161) are situated in the Cerro Las Tunitas foothills.
Dense vegetation did not pose an obstacle to survey on the Crescent vega.
The Chinquia vega, contains 6 sites (Sites 169-173, 351; 50 extant constructions) and covers approximately 1.5km2 west of the Rio Ulua. The vega lies north and across this river from the Gualala vega. Defined on the north, east, and south by the Ulua's meandering course, the western limits of this relatively flat zone are the steep ascents of Cerro de Chinquia, part of the Cerro Las Tunitas system. Like the Reyes vega ca. 1.2km to the south, the bulk of the Chinquia vega is made up of the relatively level summit of a high terrace rising 20-25m above the Rio Ulua. On the east and south the drop from this terrace to the river is direct and steep. Only on the north is there an intermediary level, a floodplain segment ca. 10m below the summit of the upper terrace and 15m above the Ulua. At least one relict Ulua channel, running roughly east-west at the base of the upper terrace, was found cut into the soft, sandy floodplain soils.
The upper terrace summit descends very gradually to the south and east towards the Ulua, rising in equally small increments towards the northern margin overlooking the floodplain. The land ascends more markedly on the west near the junction with the dramatic escarpments of the Cerro de Chinquia foothills. Within the latter zone the only habitable, level terrain is found on small ledges set amidst steep slopes.
Unlike the other western vegas, there are very few seasonal watercourses which cut the surface of either upper terrace or flood zone. In fact, thorough ground survey of this area in 1985 and 1986 located only one quebrada, that issuing from the western hills at the vega's far northern tip. This channel enters the Ulua after only a short run. The sole perennial water source is the Ulua itself.
During 1985 and 1986 most of the floodplain and upper terrace were planted in maize as were segments of the western rocky hillslopes. Bananas were cultivated over a few small tracts on the upper terrace in 1986 and a large artificial pond was dug in the north portion of that topographic unit for commercial fish raising. The floodplain and upper terrace soils seemed deep, certainly there were no rock exposures protruding onto their surfaces. Informant reports indicated that both floodplain and high terrace could support two maize crops per year. In addition to good agricultural land natural exposures of vesicular basalt are frequently found in the western hills. Andesite, commonly recorded on the Crescent vega immediately to the south, was not observed on the Chinquia vega. Stones used in prehistoric construction, including cobbles and angular rocks, are easily obtained from the Rio Ulua and exposures on the western slopes.
A trail leaves the upper terrace heading west into the hills to the town of San Miguel Lajas (2.75km) and, ultimately, to the municipal center of San Jose de Colinas (6.4km). The valley cut by the Ulua would have connected Chinquia vega residents with people living north and south of the vega in antiquity.
Modern habitation on the vega was restricted to a single house in the far southern portion of the zone and a few scattered temporary shelters on the northern margin in 1986. Sometime between 1986 and 1988 a housing development, or colonia, was erected in the southeastern corner of the upper terrace. We were unable to assess the effects of this construction on ancient settlements recorded here during survey. It seems likely that at least one of these loci, Site 172, was destroyed by modern building efforts.
No areas on the Chinquia vega were so densely overgrown as to frustrate survey efforts.
El Encanto Vega
The El Encanto vega contains two sites (Sites 180 and 348; 42 constructions overall) and encompasses roughly .5km2 on the east bank of the Rio Ulua. Bordered on the east by the escarpments of the Montanas de Santa Barbara, the western limit is defined by the Ulua. This small zone of relatively level terrain is separated on the north and south from the neighboring Zapote and Gualala vegas by extensions of the eastern cerros which here run directly to the river. The vega itself is divided into three topographic zones. The majority of the land is taken up by a high Ulua terrace, maximally 350m wide east-west and with a summit which slopes up gradually from west to east towards the bordering steep slopes. A descent of 3-5m on the west leads to a lower river terrace roughly 125m wide at its broadest point. This unit, in turn, is succeeded on the west by a low floodplain zone 8-10m below the summit of the preceding terrace. This last, low-lying segment is no more than 100m wide and sits approximately 5m above the level of the Ulua at the beginning of the rainy season (measured in June, 1986). All of these landforms pinch out between the river and mountains on the north and south. The lower terrace and floodplain are found primarily in the central portion of the vega where the Ulua is currently cutting back against its west bank.
The Rio Ulua is the only perennial source of water within the zone. Several seasonal tributaries of that watercourse issue from the eastern sierra and cut across the terraces. None of these channels carry water for more than a limited portion of the rainy season.
The vast majority of the Encanto vega was devoted to the commercial cultivation of junco palm in 1983-1986, the leaves of which are employed in the commercial production of bags and hats. Small segments of the zone were used as animal pasture. As a result of these activities we could not directly determine the fertility of local soils for traditional agriculture. Presumably, the general soil fertility patterns outlined earlier pertain here as well. Certainly, no rock exposures or other evidence of shallow soils were noted within the vega and the intensity with which junco is raised here suggests that this is a particularly fertile area.
Construction stones are easily accessible in nearby river channels (cobbles) and rock exposures in the bordering hills (angular stones). Exposures of materials suitable for indigenous crafts (e.g., vesicular basalt and andesite) were not identified in or near the El Encanto vega. Survey of this zone was limited, however, and relevant outcrops may have been missed during our cursory investigations. The only communication route linking El Encanto with other portions of central Santa Barbara and Southeast Mesoamerica is the valley cut by the Rio Ulua itself.
Modern disturbance to the zone has been considerable. While residence is limited to several small houses on the eastern vega margin, the San Pedro Sula-Santa Barbara road runs north-south across the area's eastern edge. Intensive cultivation of junco throughout the vega has resulted in the destruction or disturbance of many structures so that all that remains is a subset of prehistoric settlement. Roughly 0.25km2 of the El Encanto vega could not be surveyed because of the extensive destruction wrought by mechanized plowing for palm cultivation.
El Zapote Vega (110-140m above sea level)
The El Zapote vega, covering approximately .5km2 on the east bank of the Rio Ulua ca. 300m south of the modern town of Ilama, contains three sites with six extant structures overall (Sites 202-204). The vega supporting Ilama pinches out immediately north of Zapote and the two landforms are separated by the channel of a deep, seasonal affluent of the Rio Ulua. Both vegas are, therefore, part of the same topographic unit. The portion surrounding Ilama was not investigated because it is now almost completely covered by the modern town. What we were able to examine, therefore, was only a portion of the entire Ilama/Zapote vega system.
The Zapote vega contains two topographic units. The uppermost is an extensive, flat terrace of the Rio Ulua bounded on the east and south by steep escarpments of the Montanas de Santa Barbara and on the west by precipitous descents of 15-20m to the Rio Ulua. The area thus delimited forms a rough triangular shape with its west and north sides defined by the course of the Ulua and its baseline by the southeastern slopes. On the northern terrace margin the drop to the Ulua is direct with no other topographic units intervening between terrace summit and river level. Along the western flank a floodplain segment was located approximately 10m below the upper terrace and roughly 5m above river level at the beginning of the 1986 rainy season (June). The floodplain expands rapidly, north to south, achieving a width of roughly 150-200m east-west by the southern margin of the vega, before pinching out against the eastern hills along with the high terrace. The surfaces of both units are relatively level, the upper terrace summit sloping up very gradually from west to east. Several broad, shallow depressions dot the upper terrace surface, their origins unclear.
The closest perennial watercourse is the Rio Ulua. Several deep but seasonal channels dissect the Zapote vega, running generally southeast-northwest to join the major river.
The Zapote vega was largely used for two economic purposes in 1986. The northern half of the upper terrace served as animal pasture and was covered in low, dense grass. The remainder of the high terrace was dominated by closely-spaced junco palms cultivated for their leaves which are used in the production of straw products, especially bags and hats. The latter vegetation not only made survey difficult through obscuring ground surface but activities related to tree cultivation, especially digging irrigation ditches, almost certainly resulted in site destruction (see Site 204). The floodplain was largely covered with scrub growth in 1986 though even here portions were cleared for palms. As a result of such modern activities it is difficult to determine how productive this zone might have been for prehistoric agriculture. While no excavations were conducted here, rock exposures were noted in the northern portion of the upper terrace suggesting that soil depths on this unit were not uniformly deep. We would surmise that the Ulua floodplain here, as elsewhere in the middle Ulua drainage, was susceptible to multiple cropping each year while productivity of the upper terrace was lower and variable depending on local soil depths. The Zapote vega, therefore, did contain arable land, though fertility levels may have been uneven throughout the zone.
Stones suitable for construction are available in nearby river channels (rounded cobbles) and outcrops within the neighboring hills (angular rocks). No exposures of materials potentially useful in indigenous crafts (e.g., vesicular basalt and andesite) were identified on the vega. Relatively little time was spent surveying the Zapote vega, however, and such outcrops may have been missed in our examination. The only communication route linking the Zapote vega with other areas within and beyond central Santa Barbara is the Rio Ulua itself.
Modern habitation on the vega is limited to a few scattered residences while the newly constructed (1983-1986) San Pedro Sula-Santa Barbara road runs along the zone's eastern margin. Approximately 0.25km2 of the El Zapote vega was so densely planted in palms that it could not be surveyed.
Cececapa Vega (100-140m above sea level)
The complex topography of the Cececapa vega covers approximately .5km2 on the east bank of the Rio Ulua and contains 15 sites with 83 total extant constructions (Sites 187-201). The zone contains one of the few perennial Rio Ulua tributaries, the Rio Cececapa, found north of Gualjoquito. The latter stream cuts a narrow, steep-sided gorge through the eastern Cerro Las Lomitas (south of the stream) and Cerro del Parajito (north of it) before entering the Ulua. The Cececapa roughly bisects the vega north-south. In the far southern segment of the zone the Quebrada Honda is a sizeable, albeit seasonal, watercourse which carves a narrow valley between Cerro Las Lomitas and Cerro Malin on the north and south, respectively. Besides these two large channels the area is cut by numerous short, deep quebradas which originate in the eastern foothills and run westward to join the Rio Ulua.
The Cececapa vega is a narrow (ca. 100-250m wide) southwest-northeast trending area of relatively level terrain bordered on the northwest by steep descents to the Rio Ulua and on the southeast by equally precipitous foothills of the Cerros del Pajarito, Las Lomitas, and Malin from north to south. North of the Rio Cececapa the land is characterized by a high terrace descending, at first, gradually from east to west towards the Ulua and then more rapidly as the river is approached. Ultimately, this unit ends in a ca. 20m, steep, direct descent to the Ulua. The only exception to this pattern is the section overlooking the junction of the Rios Cececapa and Ulua. Here the terrace drops to a limited lower terrace segment which, in turn, descends another ca. 5m to a floodplain standing roughly 3m above the Ulua at the beginning of the 1986 rainy season (June). The last topographic unit is characterized by sandy soil and contains broad, shallow, linear depressions which apparently mark relict river channels. Both the upper and lower terrace surfaces pinch out against the Rio Cececapa on the south while the floodplain and low terrace do not extend more than 200m to the northeast. South of the Cececapa, a ca. 55m wide ledge appears within the lower, precipitous slopes of Cerro Las Lomitas, following the curves of those hills to the southwest. Below this shelf a terrace and floodplain overlook the junction of the Rios Ulua and Cececapa. The descent from ledge to terrace summit is 5-7m while a comparable vertical distance separates the terrace and floodplain. River level is roughly 4m below the floodplain's summit (measured at the start of the rainy season in June, 1986). Terrace and floodplain are widest in the immediate environs of the Cececapa/Ulua junction (ca. 100m across northwest-southeast) rapidly pinching out against the shelf approximately 200m south of the Rio Cececapa. These low-lying units reappear approximately 600m southeast of Rio Cececapa/Ulua junction though here the upper member is only 55-75m wide, defined on the southeast by steep ascents to the narrow bluff summit and on the northwest by a 3-5m descent to the floodplain. The latter is just about as narrow (60-100m wide) and drops 10-12m on the northwest to the Ulua. After running for ca. 525m northeast-southwest, terrace and floodplain once more disappear to be replaced by steeply sloping terrain. Small floodplain and terrace segments reappear approximately 450m to the southwest on the north bank of the Rio Honda where it joins the Ulua. The upper ledge also disappears into the valley of the Honda to reemerge immediately south of that quebrada where it persists as a restricted shelf, no more than 75m wide, of flat land clinging to the lower slopes of Cerro Malin. This topographic feature continues south almost to the Ilama vega. Descent from ledge to river is steep and direct hereafter (a drop of roughly 35m) while the shelf is bordered on the southeast by high, dramatic ascents. In general, therefore, most of the Cececapa vega consists of a high northwestern extension of the eastern cerros below which are found only limited terrace and floodplain segments. The latter are largely, though not exclusively, restricted to areas where a major Ulua affluent joins that river.
Informants note that floodplain and terrace soils are fertile while those of the hillslopes have relatively low productive potential. The productivity of the ledge summit is unknown though the frequency with which rocks outcrop onto this surface suggests that soils here are relatively shallow. Excavations indicate, however, that soil depth is variable atop the ledge. On some of the higher, more exposed portions, rock-filled earth strata, as little as 0.3-0.6m thick, overlie bedrock. In the lower-lying segments probes 0.7m deep encountered only fine-textured earth with no included stones. This implies that agricultural potential varies significantly across the shelf. While some portions of terraces, floodplain, and hillslopes were under maize cultivation in 1986, the vast majority of all land was devoted to animal pasture or obscured by thorn scrub (all portions of the Cececapa vega were surveyed, however). A very limited stand of sugar cane was recorded immediately south of the Rio Cececapa in a low-lying portion of the ledge zone. Mezcal, an agave-like plant currently grown for its fibrous leaves used in the manufacture of rope, was cultivated on the hillslopes overlooking the vega. This is the only portion of central Santa Barbara where this plant was seen growing. The town of Ilama, 1.5km to the south, as of 1986 supported a number of small-scale twine producers using the products of this cultigen.
Outcrops of limestone are plentiful throughout the vega, being found on the ledge surface and, more commonly, within the eastern hills. Exposures of vesicular basalt and andesite were identified south of the Rio Cececapa within the eastern ascents as well as on the shelf summit.
The Rio Ulua valley would have connected Cececapa vega residents with areas to the north and south within central Santa Barbara and Southeastern Mesoamerica generally. The fissures in which the Rio Cececapa and Quebrada Honda run provide passage to archaeologically unexplored upland valleys to the east. Modern trails follow these routes while a precursor of the current San Pedro Sula-Santa Barbara road was built atop the aforementioned ledge against the eastern hills of the Cececapa vega.
Modern occupation on the vega is restricted to a few scattered houses invariably situated on the upper shelf south of the Rio Cececapa. Most occupants of the area live further back into the mountains away from the vega itself, a pattern repeated throughout central Santa Barbara. While recent activities have led to the destruction of prehistoric sites in this area such disruptions have not been extensive.
Like most of the middle Ulua vegas, therefore, the Cececapa zone provides limited expanses of arable land augmented by potentially useful exposures of economically significant raw materials.
San Rafael Vega (100-140m above sea level)
The San Rafael vega, east of the Rio Ulua, covers approximately .5km2 and contains six sites with a total of 16 extant constructions (Sites 181-186). Watered by a perennial tributary of the Rio Ulua, the Quebrada San Andres, this area contains four distinct topographic zones none of which is very extensive. Running roughly 0.7km north of the San Andres is the relatively flat summit of an Ulua terrace standing ca. 20m above the present river. The descent from terrace to river is direct and steep. No floodplain was evident here though ca. 800m south of the San Andres there is a narrow terrace which rises approximately 5-10m above the Ulua (measured at the beginning of the rainy season in June, 1986). This heavily overgrown eminence slopes down markedly from east to west towards the river and its proximity to water level suggests that it is periodically flooded during the rainy season. The upper terrace summit north of the San Andres slopes up very gradually from west to east giving way after 100-150m to the steep ascents of Cerro Piedra Grande which defines the vega on the east and north. Within the Cerro Piedra Grande foothills several isolated, narrow shelves of flat land are set amidst otherwise steeply sloping terrain. Cerro Piedra Grande escarpments descend directly to the floodplain south of the Quebrada San Andres, there being no upper terrace in this area. The remaining topographic zone consists of the restricted valley cut by the Quebrada San Andres in its east to west course across the vega to join the Ulua. The land rises on both sides directly from the cleft created by the watercourse. Though the lower slopes of this valley are gradual they are soon succeeded by far more dramatic ascents. This river supports no terraces. The San Rafael vega, in short, provides only restricted areas of flat land suitable for year-round human habitation.
While portions of the upper terrace and hillslopes were being cultivated in maize, watermelon, and tomatoes in 1986 much of the area was covered in either thorn scrub or low grass for animal pasture. The upper terrace summit and hillside ledges, as well as all slopes, were covered with rock exposures, suggesting that soil depths here are not considerable. Presumably, the agricultural productivity of San Rafael terrace and escarpments are equivalent to thin hillslope soils. Only the small floodplain segment might have sustained intensive planting. A shallow limestone deposit was being mined on the vega in 1986. While capable of supporting some agriculture, therefore, the San Rafael vega offers little that would encourage settlement on its rocky soils. The Chinda vega, immediately west and across the Rio Ulua from San Rafael, is blessed with a much larger floodplain and more extensive terrace areas than its eastern counterpart. It seems likely that Chinda, rather than San Rafael, was the focus of ancient settlement just as it has been a center of population since at least the Spanish Conquest. Unfortunately, this persistence of occupation has destroyed most traces of prehistoric loci and the Chinda vega was not examined in 1983-1986.
The Quebrada San Andres has carved out a valley along which communication might have been maintained between San Rafael residents and the occupants of archaeologically unexplored highland zones to the east. Footpaths currently following the Quebrada San Andres link the vega with small settlements in this direction. The Rio Ulua runs north-south along the west flank of the San Rafael vega, turning to course southeast-northwest immediately north of that zone. Communication along the river could have tied San Rafael's inhabitants with occupants of other areas to the south and northeast.
The only modern settlement in the area is the town of San Rafael built into the hills on the north side of the Quebrada San Andres within steeply sloping terrain.
The floodplain was so densely overgrown that it could not be surveyed. Given our experience with comparable topographic units in other portions of the middle Ulua drainage, it is unlikely that any sites would have been preserved in this low-lying area. Otherwise, the San Rafael vega was sufficiently clear of dense vegetation to permit survey in all portions of it.