The Naco Valley in Honduras was the focus of research by Professors Urban and Schortman before moving to the lower Cacaulapa Valley.
"I was at Naco... and it was thickly peopled and at peace [and the people were living] in their houses with their children..." - Bernal Diaz, quoted in a. Wonderley's, "Late Postclassic Excavations at Naco Honduras," 1981, p.22, Ithaca: Cornell University.
This tranquil scene, recounted by the chronicler of Hernan Cortes's conquest of New Spain, was soon destroyed by the diseases and social disruptions that ravaged all of Central America following the Spanish intrusion. But what were Bernal Diaz and Hernan Cortes doing in Naco in the early 16th century? They were here to settle a dispute among Cortes's lieutenants over control of the valley and its surroundings. But why Naco? Because the valley was renowned for two features that inevitably attracted the conquistadores : a large population of potential laborers (Naco and its environs held an estimated 10,000 inhabitants at the Conquest) and wealth (Naco, the large valley center at this time, was a well-known entrepot drawing merchants from diverse portions of Central America). Both soon evaporated, however; the people carried off by disease and enslavement, trade declining with the eradication of free indigenous societies throughout the isthmus. Spanish interest vanished just as rapidly and the area was largely expunged from the consciousness of outsiders for 450 years. What was left behind was a rich, unexplored prehistory that underlay what Bernal Diaz and Hernan Cortes so briefly glimpsed and an enduring population who succeeded that fateful encounter. Neither attracted systematic anthropological attention until the last 23 years.
The Naco valley, like other portions of southeastern Mesoamerica (i.e., western Honduras, eastern Guatemala, and El Salvador), has been successfully ignored by ethnographers and archaeologists whose imaginations have long been fired by the prehistory, history, and modern lives of neighboring Maya peoples. Aside from the two prehistoric lowland Maya centers included within southeastern Mesoamerica, Copan and Quirigua, cultures indigenous to this area were commonly thought of as pale reflections of their Maya contemporaries. Even Copan and Quirigua were viewed as creations of immigrant Maya notables who commanded local labor in the construction of many imposing monuments built to foreign specifications (both centers underwent florescences from the 5th through 9th centuries AD). Similarly, massive population losses suffered by southeastern Mesoamerican cultures during the 16th century Spanish conquest were thought to have destroyed all but a few vestiges of indigenous beliefs and practices, making the area uninteresting to an anthropology bent on studying the "primitive." Our profound ignorance of southeast Mesoamerican cultures, past and present, is only now being confronted. The Naco and Lower Cacaulapa Valley Project is part of the ongoing effort to enhance understanding of local cultural patterns, developments, and their relation to events occurring in distant realms.
Dr. John Henderson of Cornell University initiated systematic archaeological research in Naco during the 1975 field season. Dr. Henderson came to Naco because he was intrigued by earlier finds made in the area, especially during the cursory survey and excavation program undertaken by the Harvard-Smithsonian expedition in 1936, and reports of Naco's late prehistoric commercial prominence. Drs. Patricia Urban and Edward Schortman took up the project in 1978, returning for seven subsequent field seasons to date (1979, 1988, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1995, and 1996). The picture of local cultural development that continues to emerge from these investigations, much if it conducted by student-colleagues on the Kenyon-Honduras program, is complex. Our collaborative investigations into Naco prehistory yielded a surprising picture of cultural developments that continues to challenge some of our most pervasive assumptions of what life was like in ancient southeastern Mesoamerica.
Permanent settlement in Naco stretches back to at least 1000BC by which time residences of settled agriculturalists were scattered across some of the most fertile valley soils. Though most of these sites are small hamlets lacking any visible buildings, three stand out for their possession of massive earthen mounds some of which have diameters of 50m and rise 3m above the valley floor. Excavations indicate that these conical constructions are the remnants of extensive earthen platforms that elevated the domiciles of a favored few above the surrounding terrain and their contemporaries. Striking architectural distinctions such as these imply that the earliest known Naco societies were divided into those who controlled the labor of others and those who were not so privileged. The interval stretching from 400BC-AD600 was marked by cycling between periods when the valley was fragmented into several small political units (400BC-AD1, AD200-600) and that span (AD1-200) when power was concentrated in the hands of a single ruling group.
Throughout these many centuries, population apparently increased, culminating in a local prehistoric maximum during AD600-1000. This span coincided with the creation of the largest, most powerful political unit ever known in Naco. This entity was focused on the massive center of La Sierra situated near the valley center. La Sierra, with 468 structures packed within 0.7km2, is ten times the size of its next largest Naco contemporary. Further, about one-third of all known structures dating to this period in the Naco valley are concentrated at La Sierra and with a 1km radius of the site. Such nucleation helped rulers supervise and control their subordinates, but it would have been at least inconvenient to those who moved away from their fields and former homes. What was the lure used to attract and hold so many people close to the center? The answer seems to lie in the ability of valley rulers to monopolize the fashioning of items that all population members wanted and needed. Especially important in this strategy were tools made from imported obsidian (a black, volcanic glass highly prized for the sharp edges of implements made from it) and ceramic containers used to cook and serve food as well as for storage. La Sierra's leaders also controlled the importation of elaborately painted pottery vessels that they then distributed to all valley denizens. Subordinates, therefore, surrendered their labor, surpluses, and loyalty in "exchange" for access to these goods. People might have even moved closer to the capital to enhance their chances of acquiring stone tools, locally made pottery, and imported vessels. At the same time, just about all Naco inhabitants took advantage of raw materials available near their residences to produce items for their own use and exchange within the valley. In this way, some measure of independence from La Sierras' workshops was preserved and the common people retained the ability to amass some wealth by exchanging their own manufactures. This linkage between economics and politics yielded a society divided by occupation, power, and wealth. Such a complex structure is totally out of keeping with expectations of a small society living on the edges of the Maya world.
By the 10th century AD the society described above was undergoing transformations leading to the disintegration of the realm ruled from La Sierra. Divided among three political units from AD1100-1300, the valley was largely isolated from significant external contacts. This situation was in the process of changing during the last precolumbian centuries (AD1300-1500) as the site of Naco became an important center for exchanges reaching south into Central America and northward into what is now Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. Investigations undertaken by project staff and students in 1988 and 1990 revealed an unknown, and completely unexpected, large site contemporary with Naco and situated immediately northeast of the valley. Residents of this center apparently also enjoyed contact with distant realms and may have been competitors for regional preeminence with Naco.
Ethnographic work in Naco is of much more recent vintage, starting as an extension of the archaeological project in 1991 and continuing throughout the 1995 and 1996 field seasons. Anthropology is traditionally linked to the study of "native" cultures, coherent groups of people whose shared languages and customs distinguish them from other members of the nation-state in which they reside. Though some contemporary Naco residents today are probably descendants of those people encountered by Cortes and Diaz, they acknowledge no such connection. Today's occupants of the Naco and lower Cacaulapa valleys are participants in a localized version of Honduran culture, partaking to varying degrees in the national political and economic system and speaking Spanish. These are just the sorts of folks who anthropologists used to assiduously ignore because they had lost their "nativeness." That shortsightedness is currently changing as we come to realize that all citizens have their stories to tell about life within a nation. Student projects conducted as part on the Kenyon-Honduras program are the first systematic ethnographic studies pursued in Naco and are contributing significantly to expanding our understanding of late 20th century Honduran life.
The following is a sample of materials you can consult to learn more about the Naco investigations and archaeological research in southeastern Mesoamerica generally. Please contact the Anthropology department if you want additional suggestions for further readings.
Boone, E. and G. Willey (eds.) 1988 The Southeast Classic Maya Zone. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks.
Fash, W. 1991 Scribes, Warriors, and Kings: The City of Copan and the Ancient Maya. London: Thames and Hudson.
Robinson, E. (ed.) 1987 Interaction on the Southeast Mesoamerican Frontier. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports Series.
Sharer, R. 1990 Quirigua: a Classic Maya Center and its Sculpture. Durham: Carolina Academic Press.
Urban, P. and E. Schortman (eds.) 1986 The Southeast Maya Periphery. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Henderson, J., I. Wallace, a. Wonderley, and P. Urban. 1977 Archaeological Investigations in the Valle de Naco, Northwestern Honduras: a Preliminary Report. Journal of Field Archaeology 6:169-192.
Schortman, E. and P. Urban. 1994 Living on the Edge: Core/Periphery Relations in Ancient Southeastern Mesoamerica. Current Anthropology35: 401-430.
Schortman, E. and P. Urban. 1996 Actions at a Distance, Impacts at Home: Prestige-Good Theory and a Pre-Columbian Polity in Southeastern Mesoamerica. In, Precolumbian World Systems. P. Peregrine and G. Feinman eds, pp. 97-114. Madison: Prehistory Press.
Urban, P. 1986 Precolumbian Settlement in the Naco Valley, Northwestern Honduras. In, The Southeast Maya Periphery. P. Urban and E. Schortman eds., pp. 275-295. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Urban, P. and E. Schortman. 1988 The Southeastern Zone Viewed from the East: Lower Motagua-Chamelecon. In, The Southeast Classic Maya Zone. E. Boone and G. Willey eds., pp. 223-267. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks.
Unpublished reports on the Naco investigations up through 1992 are also available from Pat Urban and Ed Schortman on request.