Inside The 'Cave of the Glowing Skulls'

Archeologists aren't known as spelunkers, but after the spectacular cave finds of the last few months they'd be wise to get fitted for headlamps. Amateurs discovered the stunning painted cave in southern France last December (Newsweek, Jan. 30), and last spring two Peace Corps volunteers in Honduras, exploring a well-known cave near the Mosquitia rain forest (map), stumbled on a cathedral-like inner chamber. On the ledges and floor lay dozens of ceramic vessels and marble bowls. But what astonished the explorers were neatly stacked bones and skulls from some 200 bodies -- sparkling, with calcium crystals, in the beams of flashlights. Archeologist James E. Brady of George Washington University led the first scientific exploration of the "Cave of the Glowing Skulls" in September. Now, lab analyses show that the skulls aren't just pretty faces: they date to3,000 years ago, Brady announced last week. Whoever was burying their dead this way constituted one of the first complex, ritualistic, hierarchical societies in Mesoamerica.

There's a good reason scholars never knew about the people who disarticulated their dead, dyed the bones and arranged them in precise formations. These people of the cave lived in the shadow of the Mayan civilization, which invented a calendar, practiced astronomy, built cities such as Tikal and thrived from 300 to 900. Scholars never got around to exploring cultures in the shadows. Now it looks as if they had overlooked a settlement that was not only the largest in Honduras at the time, but one that predates the great Mayan cities. According to radiocarbon analysis, bits of charcoal found among the bones date to about 1000 B.C., making the remains twice as old as Brady estimated last fall. The people of the cave -- who apparently lived in a just-discovered village with 16-foot-high pyramids -- had an organized society about a century before the Mayan city of Copan was founded. "The arrangement of their dwellings, their formal architecture, the likelihood that [their society was] hierarchical and well organized -- all this makes me believe they were every bit as sophisticated as what the Maya were doing at the time," says Brady.

So who were they? An analysis of the protein in bones from the cave shows the people did not eat corn,the staple of most Mesoamerican diets. (The Hondurans seem to have preferred manioc.) That evidence supports the long-held hunch that the ancient Hondurans represent a distinct culture -- they weren't just Mayan suburbanites. Red ocher used as ritualistic paint on some bones in the cave suggests the Mayans' hallmark polychrome painting. Says anthropologist John Hoopes of the University of Kansas, "There's a very good possibility that this unknown society had an influence on the Maya," whose origins are lost in the fog of prehistory. All of which is making archeologists wonder how many other ancient societies remain, undiscovered, in the shadows.