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Cave of the Glowing Skulls, by Jason Anderson

by Jason Anderson

Honduras is a country that is mostly between things, and has been for a long time.  Tourists in Central America head to Guatemala to experience the beauty of the highlands and the indigenous people who wrap themselves in rainbow colors.  They'll head to the ruins of Tikal, and may venture a few miles over the border into Honduras to see the ruins of the great Copan, as far south as the Maya ranged.  They may also head to Costa Rica to see national parks, or if they're lefty do-gooders, to Nicaragua to build houses.  The Inca stayed well south of the border too, leaving most of Honduras unmarked by the major cultures of the ancient world just as it has remained as anonymous as Topeka for the modern.  It is this lack that has made archeological finds scarce and precious, finds like the one Dan made.

Dan seemed an unlikely Peace Corps volunteer at first glance.  Slouching, sweat beading up on a face that was pallid despite the tropical sunshine, he made a person want to offer him a glass of water.  Incongruously, he worked in Olancho, the wild west of Honduras.  It's known for hot tempers, drug lords and timber barons, none of which you want to mess with.  Volunteers in the area made a T-shirt to celebrate their own bravado: "Olancho, come if you want, leave if you can." 

My office worked in solar energy promotion, an interest of Dan's.  We'd occasionally get a call to see if we were planning to come out his way some time.  Over the phone his voice audibly drooped, weighted down by long pauses and sighs.

One day he called to say that he had discovered a cave full of bones and pottery on a walk with some local friends. The chamber is part of a wellknown cave system about an hour from the nearest town.  At the point where the main tunnel stops in a narrow cul-de-sac, everyone over the past 3000 years has turned back.  For some reason Dan and his friends brought a ladder and went up.  If you come out to do some installations, would you want to check it out? he asked.  It reeked of adventure.  Olancho was scheduled.

In the time between the phone call and our visit, word had gotten around about the find.  The flotilla of American archeologists resident in Honduras were keen to get a look.  A man whose business card read "filmmaker/adventurer" had promised to put it on the map. Local kids were quickest, though, and had found their way into the cave and removed some pots.  The Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History paid to have a guard placed at the mouth of the cave with strict orders not to let anyone in until they themselves got a chance to come out in the fall.

Cave of the Glowing SkullsOn a warm August night I attended a party at the house of an American agricultural advisor in Olancho.  The community of foreigners is a tight one, where one is likely to run into diplomats, gold miners, and missionaries brought together by gringo gravitation.  Turning away from a conversation criticizing Honduran farmers' spacing of corn crops, I came across a clot of American archeologists discussing a fable of Olancho's ancient glory days, the White City, now lost in the jungle. 

I'm going to see that new cave tomorrow, I mentioned, edging into the conversation.  An American with the Institute of Anthropology and History looked at me as though his beer suddenly tasted of castor oil.  You? There?  You can't go in there.  Oh, that's too bad, I said, drifting off to the kitchen.

By mid-morning the next day we'd spent an hour fourwheeling over the muddy path that links small corn fields and pastures carved from the everdiminishing forest.  We forged the last river crossing in our aging 4Runner and stopped next to a bend in the Rio Talgua, below a gaping hole in the rocky hillside. The anthropology institute's guard was a fellow from town who now found himself camped on a damp boulder in front of a cave 24 hours a day.  He chatted for a while, and was all too happy to let people in to look around while he went for a cerveza.

Spelunking may sound like something you do to clear your throat, but is instead the word for cave exploring, and generally involves a good deal of safety enhancing equipment.  Having acquired the Honduran approach to planning, we brought two battery-powered headlamps and a  hand-powered flashlight, some of the orange rope local cowboys use to tie down their saddles, and a confidence-deflating ladder cobbled together from what looked like broken saplings, acquired at the last minute on the way out of town.  Our first challenge was only a few feet into the opening-a deep rift in the floor where water rushed loudly but invisibly in the depths.  We wedged the ladder between a rock on our side and against a wall on the other and crossed, hoping it wouldn't just decide to slide off into the darkness.  The cave on the other side was a like a long hallway with occasional openings into slightly larger rooms.  The ankle-deep water was lucky, with a good rain it would be waist deep or more.  Bats careened deftly around our heads as I followed Dan down the main cavern, leaving the many turn-offs unexplored.

After 45 minutes we reached a point at which the tunnel became thinner and stopped.  There we set up our ladder and climbed up above to a ledge.  We lay the ladder down across a gap to another ledge, traversing past walls of slick white rock that looked oozed, like melted marble.  Here was the last solitary graffiti, a testament to a couple who found a most out of the way spot for their public affirmation of love (unaware that above them was a find that would have gotten their names in the New York Times, something they apparently wouldn't have wanted anyway).  We raised the cobbled ladder, tied it with the orange saddle rope to a couple of nearby stalactites to keep it upright and carefully climbed to the highest ledge beneath the domed rock ceiling, repeating promises of renewed church attendance if the whole contraption stayed together.

Cave of the Glowing SkullsIt did, and there before us was a cave glittering in our lamplight.  A layer of crystalline residue covered the floor, a gift of the Rio Talgua.  The river floods severely several times a century, filling the caves with mineral-laden water, then receding.  The deposits stay and crystallize into hard bright-white layers of mineral snowflakes. Taking our shoes off to avoid damage, we ventured in and found that upon closer examination the crystal also covered piles of bones in natural pits along the walls. 

That these remains survived the centuries was in turn a gift of the crystals, a hard layer protecting the sites from rot and ruin. Dan had seen this room before, but suspected there was more through an opening at the back.  Squeezing through the hole we entered an even larger cave filled with burial pits.  Some contained small heaps of bone crushed by time into fragments, but others were intact, neatly stacked tibias, femurs, skulls all visible beneath the crusty layer of rock glowing in the light of our lamps.  The cave walls were a wonder of nature's architecture-flying buttresses of rock alternating with outcroppings of tiny nascent stalactites, like nipples perked up in the cold cave air.  Climbing up to another ledge I banged my knee so hard I saw glittering stars that were not unlike the actual ceiling above me, but that hurt a lot more to get to look at.   Here was the last room of sites, ending in a black void at the far wall.  We were eager to see more, but a pebble pitched into the blackness sailed noiselessly on. Our cowboy rope and sapling ladder would take us no farther.

Avid spelunkers may spend days or even weeks underground finding connections between vast underground cave systems.  It can be treacherous, claustrophobia-inducing, exhausting.  Archeologists may spend a lifetime carefully removing layers of dirt with a paintbrush on a site that their dissertation advisor's predecessor found.  After a couple of  hours in the Talgua caves, our eyes among the first in 3000 years to rest on the remains of the original Olancheros, we felt transformed, and lucky.

And transfixed.  Our headlamps dimmed to a dull glow long before we were ready to leave, and we had to illuminate the trip back over ledges and crevasses taking turns pumping Dan's hand-powered lamp.  Outside the cave, covered in grime, we scrambled down the hill to the clear, fast-running Rio Talgua and jumped in, enjoying the cool water and the bright sunshine.

Since then the experts have arrived (with their shoes off?).  They have explored and removed and theorized and science and humanity are much better off.  Dan stayed on in the country after Peace Corps, opened a juice bar for eco-tourists, and helped with the exploration of the caves and the discovery of nearby ancient village sites.  I saw a picture of him the other day in a newspaper, his face beaming at the camera from the bottom of an excavation, confident, tan.


Jason Anderson has degrees in anthropology and environmental science and policy. He worked for several years in the field of renewable energy and is currently developing a career in documentary filmmaking that builds on his background in environmental and social issues—his recent documentary on solar energy can be viewed online at www.princeton.edu/duke. Mr. Anderson is currently an Energy Specialist with the Climate Action Network-Europe in Brussels, Belgium.
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