Were there Nahua-speakers in eastern Honduras?

Ethnohistoric sources indicate that this area was not politically unified at the time of contact, but was an area with numerous ethnic groups organized into various political units.  Lara Pinto (1991) suggests that Aguan, Agalta, and Olancho Valleys were populated by Nahua populations at the time of contact, with the modern eastern Honduran indigenous groups such as the Pech located east of Aguan River, possibly with a boundary near the Rio Sico.  The evidence for a significant Nahua influence in parts of eastern Honduras at the time of contact is somewhat compelling (Ibid.).  This evidence is not easily dismissed as the result of the transmission of Nahua culture and language through trade connections.  In previous work, I suggested that the Nahua toponyms and other features could have resulted from the adoption of Nahua as a lingua franca for trade (Begley 1992), but I am no longer certain that is a convincing argument.  Lara Pinto (1991; Lara Pinto and Hasemann 1988) argues that many of the polities with which the early Spanish colonists dealt where largely Nahua-influenced, if not actual Nahua colonies.  These groups were reported to speak a Nahua language much like that of the Valley of Mexico.  Nahua titles were in use for important statuses in the society.  For instance, religious leaders in the contact period societies near Trujillo were called papas, which Lara Pinto suggests is derived from the Nahua papuauque, and participated in activities similar to Mesoamerican papuauque such as bloodletting with stingray spines and Ceiba tree thorns.  Toponyms in the Olancho Valley such as Hueitapalan, Huictlalo, and Huilancho, from which Olancho may have been derived, are also cited as evidence of Nahua-speakers.  Additionally, conquistadors usually learned Nahuatl for use in the Agalta Valley in the latter half of the sixteenth century (Lara Pinto 1991: 236-237).

Other boundaries were reported in eastern Honduras.  A division of the region into two distinct parts at the time of contact is often mentioned, beginning with Columbus’ reports from his fourth voyage in 1502 (Cohen 1969; Lara Pinto and Hasemann 1988; Lara Pinto 1991). Columbus reports that an interpreter from the Bay Islands could communicate with the eastern Honduran mainland groups to a point east of Trujillo, probably the Rio Sico/Negro, where cultural affiliation changed and communication became difficult.  The area of eastern Honduras east of the Rio Sico/Negro was called Taguzgalpa, and was the area populated by ‘savages.’  This corresponds with the start of the wide coastal plain of the Mosquitia.  The early colonial reports of this division describe a marked and significant boundary.  The groups on either side are described as fundamentally different from each other, with distinct languages and customs.  Lara Pinto suggests that eastern Honduran groups, particularly the Pech, may have co-existed with Nahua populations in the Aguan, Agalta, and Olancho Valleys, but were largely subjugated.  She argues that change in material culture noted in the Olancho Valley prehistorically between western-looking sites like Chichicaste and more eastern-looking sites like Talgua Village may represent the presence of different groups in the valley, possibly suggesting significant time-depth for the presence of foreigners.  The Pech and presumably other groups, such as the Tawakha, may have inhabited the Taguzgalpa region.

Lara Pinto suggests that the populations of the Nahua areas, the Aguan, Agalta, and Olancho Valleys, were essentially decimated by the arrival of the Spanish.  These valleys were almost completely depopulated by 1540, due to open warfare between the Spanish and indigenous groups after 1526, and by a measles epidemic between 1530 and 1533 (Lara Pinto 1991: 234-235).  Groups from the eastern province of Taguzgalpa moved in from the east, ultimately resulting in a distribution of Taguzgalpan groups like the Pech not reflective of the earlier situation.

While I am not necessarily challenging the contention that Nahua-influenced groups may have been present in the Agalta, Aguan, and Olancho Valleys at the beginning of the sixteenth century, I do not see any evidence to hypothesize widespread Nahua presence or influence in earlier times.  I do not see evidence for the idea that large sites in eastern Honduras, such as Las Crucitas, were built by Nahua populations.  There are several points of fact that argue against Lara Pinto’s suggestion.  First, there is a similarity of material culture during Period V and Period VI that extends from the modern city of La Ceiba south to the Patuca River, including parts of eastern Honduras far from the Olancho, Aguan, and Agalta Valleys.  Secondly, at least some of these large sites are dated before AD 800, the earliest proposed date for the Nahua migrations from central Mexico (Fowler 1989a, 1989b).  Lara Pinto (1991: 238) suggests that the changes noted by Healy (1984a, 1992) at the beginning of Period VI may correspond with the arrival of the Nahua populations.  She cites changes that include the construction of larger, more densely populated sites, some of which look ‘Mexican’ in form, a change in subsistence practices from a dependency on shellfish and game in earlier periods to maize by Period VI, and the introduction of the elaborate metates in the region.  Her suggestion that these changes represent the in-migration of Nahua-speakers does not necessarily follow from the data.  The present project revealed that large, Mesoamerican-looking sites existed in the region by AD 600, possibly as early as AD 250.  There is no evidence of a game/shellfish dependency changing to maize agriculture in inland eastern Honduras.  The dependency on game and shellfish noted by Healy (1983, 1984a) for coastal Period V sites are probably not representative of the subsistence strategies of populations in inland valleys.  Populations at large inland sites such as Suyapita (PRP-11) and Marañones (PRP-4) could not have depended on marine shellfish for obvious reasons.  Excavations revealed no ecofacts related to the use of shellfish, and it is hard to imagine that such sites, located on extensive floodplains, were not dependent on fairly intensive agriculture.  Even if the appearance of the tradition of elaborate metate sculpture is taken to signal an increased dependence on maize agriculture, a connection which seems to me weak and without support, it is not clear that this was introduced at the beginning of Period VI.  Similar traditions existed in Nicaragua and Costa Rica during Period V, and may have existed in eastern Honduras before AD 1000 as well.  The site of Limoncito, for instance, contains numerous large metates, but extensive surface collections revealed no diagnostic Period VI ceramics, while ceramics dated to Period V were recovered.  None of this suggests a significant shifts corresponding to the proposed times for Nahua migrations.

Furthermore, a great degree of continuity exists between Period V and VI, and the shifts that occur, such as an increase in incised and modeled ceramics, seem to indicate a increased participation in a southern interaction sphere rather than more intense northern connections.  If the large, Mesoamerican-looking sites were related to a Nahua presence, that presence would have to have extended throughout large areas of eastern Honduras by about AD 600, from the Rio Sico/Negro watershed to areas as far south as the confluence of the Wampú and the Patuca Rivers.  Other ‘Mexican’ features, such as probable feathered-serpent motifs, guilloche designs, and the ‘nudo del diablo,’ or interlaced cross found throughout most of eastern Honduras, also appear in Costa Rica and Nicaragua during the Period V/VI transition, around AD 1000, and are probably related to the Pipil/Nicarao migrations, reflecting an increase in Mesoamerican influence throughout Lower Central America (Fowler 1989a, 1989b).

The hypothesis of Nahua-speakers in eastern Honduras, even at the time of contact, is the subject of contention.  Some of the areas described by Lara Pinto as Nahua are considered Pech by other researchers.  Davidson (1991) suggests that the two distinct groups which existed in eastern Honduras at the time of contact may in fact correspond to the modern Tawahka and Pech, who have traditionally occupied different parts of the Mosquitia, rather than reflecting a boundary between Nahua-speakers and ‘indigenous’ eastern Honduran groups.  He posits that the Tawahka inhabited the river systems of eastern Honduras from the ‘canoe line’ downstream, referring to the point on the river where it becomes sufficiently large and deep to make canoe travel possible most of the year.  Above this line, rapids make canoes less feasible, and rafts are more likely to be used.  Historically, the Pech have lived principally above the canoe line. In order to fit the observed situation, however, the Pech would have populated areas below the canoe line of rivers east of the Rio Sico, such as the Aguan, but only the headwaters of rivers to the south such as the Paulaya, Plátano, and Patuca.  This approximates the historic and present situations, in which the Pech occupy primarily the headwaters of the Paulaya, Plátano, and Sico, while the Tawakha are limited to areas downstream, primarily along the Patuca River and areas to the south.  The influx of the Miskitos during the historic period probably pushed both the Tawakha and the Pech to the west.  The modest amount of data currently available tends to support a division in eastern Honduras roughly paralleling the western edge of the wide Mosquitia coastal plain from the Rio Sico south, although few data exist for the coastal areas south of that point.  Locals report few or no large archaeological sites in the lower reaches of the Plátano or Patuca Rivers, in contrast to the lower Paulaya and the headwaters of the Plátano.  Based on information presently at hand, large archaeological sites occur along the western edge of the Mosquitia floodplain and in the mountainous headwaters of the Plátano and Patuca Rivers.  This parallels the boundary described by the early chroniclers, with the large sites occurring in the areas west of the area referred to as Taguzgalpa, a toponym which may correspond to the coastal plain.

Although there is some evidence for a division within eastern Honduras, the western part of eastern Honduras (as defined by the presence of large sites with public architecture) does not seem to correspond to the Nahua-controlled areas defined by Lara Pinto, but rather is much more extensive.  Davidson’s correlation of this division with a frontier between groups ancestral to the Pech and Tawahka fits better, although the perils of associating archaeological sites with modern groups in areas where no strong continuity has been established are such that it might be prudent to reserve ethnic correlations for the future.

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