Relationship with Mesoamerica

I have suggested that no intrusive population was responsible for the Mesoamerican elements seen in the archaeological record of eastern Honduras.  The models examined above were of limited utility, with the exception of Helms’ approach.  Her approach provides a point of departure for the discussion below.  In order to understand the relationship between Mesoamerica and eastern Honduras, I begin with a basic overview.  It is evident that the people of eastern Honduras were interacting with Mesoamerican cultures from the earliest periods about which we have information.  The degree to which a connection with Mesoamerica was manifested varied over time, but at all times a clear qualitative difference existed between the eastern Honduran populations and the Mesoamerican folk.  At some point near the end of Period IV-b or the beginning of Period V (roughly AD 250-650), complex societies developed in eastern Honduras, the population was drawn into increasingly nucleated settlements, and large-scale construction projects were undertaken for the first time.  This is taken as evidence that the power equilibrium had swung to one side, and an elite had emerged.  The individuals or groups who designed and organized these construction projects clearly emulated patterns present in the large societies to the north, the closest and possibly only exemplar available to them.

This interaction with Mesoamerica is most evident in elements of site planning.  Today, the most obtrusive features of archaeological sites in eastern Honduras are architectural. Foremost among the indicators of a connection with Mesoamerica are the ballcourts, whose shape, size, orientation, and placement within the site leave little doubt that they are ballcourts of the type found throughout Mesoamerica.  This is in contrast to other ballcourt styles, such as those from the Caribbean and from the southwest United States, which are substantially different from the Mesoamerican type and do not indicate the same sort of significant interaction with Mesoamerica suggested by the parallel mound type.  Additionally, other proxemic elements appear with the ballcourts, such as the formal plazas and plazuelas, which are architectonic templates common throughout Mesoamerica.

Since the sites are organized in such a Mesoamerican manner, it leaves the impression that some sort of radical ‘Mesoamericanization’ occurred, described by Stone (1972) as a ‘Mexican veneer.’  This continues a long-standing tendency of archaeologists to identify periods of strong ‘Mesoamericanization’ for the southeast Mesoamerican periphery (cf. Willey 1968).  In truth, we see an appearance of Mesoamerican traits in very specific venues, primarily in the realm of public architecture.  It may be useful to think of the ballcourts, the plazas, and the plazuelas as part of an architectural complex.  The task is understanding the ways in which the adoption of this architectural complex, which embodied an exotic symbolism, served the elite as a means to gain or maintain power.

In order to understand the utility of adopting this architectural complex, it is necessary to review some ideas about the ways in which elites acquire political power.  Mann (1986) identifies three primary sources of power utilized by chiefs:  economy, military, and ideology.  No real data on military matters exist for eastern Honduras, and given the small populations and low population density, I imagine this was less of a factor than the others, especially in the initial phases of the emergence of elites, before greater inequity developed.  Little evidence of the role of economic forces in the development of eastern Honduran polities is available, beyond the fact that there is no evidence of the influx of significant quantities of foreign commodities.  By contrast, the role of ideological power is suggested by the nature of the imported elements.  Why should it be that the most notable imported elements were symbols and templates?  Why were material markers of a relationship with the powerful polity to the west so few?  And above all, why were Mesoamerican elite symbolic complexes being used in a tradition that did not otherwise seem to incorporate these symbols?  Helms suggests that the acquisition of knowledge, especially esoteric knowledge, is important to the goals of an emerging elite, but how is acquired esoteric knowledge acted upon?  Why was this strategy adopted?  That is, why were the spatial templates and symbols used while the portable material markers, such as ceramics and obsidian so often traded around Mesoamerica, not?  While Helms (1979, 1988) provides an important start in demonstrating that “in traditional societies space and distance are not neutral concepts, but are accorded sociological, political, and especially ideological significance” (1988: 4), allowing for a significant, non-commodity based interaction, the particular ways in which this significance is turned into political power remain to be demonstrated.  Stating that geographical space is in some way equivalent to or associated with mythical space is one thing.  Explaining how and why foreign symbols were used successfully by elites in eastern Honduras is something else.

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