El Gigante Rockshelter
Permanent Delegation of Honduras to UNESCO
Municipality of Marcala, Department of La Paz
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The El Gigante rockshelter is located on the southwestern part of Central Honduras over the Estanzuela River valley floor at a height of 1,300 MASL, allowing for a panoramic view of its surroundings. It is a completely enclosed site with a restricted entrance, given that the lower rim of the shelter is some 3-4 m. above the slope leading to it. Since the vault protects the shelter’s interior from rain and wind, the sediments inside have accumulated through thousands of years of use. This peculiar situation has preserved a long sequence of occupation in a very dry micro-environment where not only stone artifacts have been registered, but also remnants of woven fibres and leather. In fact, El Gigante has one of the largest collections of preserved basketry and textiles in Mesoamerica. The 10,300-year-old cordage is the oldest directly dated perishable artifact from Mesoamerica. Also human remains are present and a variety of bones from faunal species (dear, armadillo, rabbit, crabs), as well as plant remains (hog plums, avocado, soursop, and wild beans), and in the most recent phases, also cobs of early domesticated corn. The large assemblage of well-preserved corns, beans, and squash provide unique information on the timing and trajectory of plant domesticates in Central America, also of importance for Mesoamerica proper. The use of a wide range of semi-domesticated tree resources (ciruela, coyol palms, several sapote species, acorns among others) provide valuable insight into how humans managed their resource rich tree environment. Specially, the large sample of thousands of avocado rinds and pits provide an unparalleled view of this very important tree domesticate. The early settlement at El Gigante stretched from around 11000 years ago (calibrated C14 dates performed on botanical remains obtained from the shelter) in the Archaic period through the transition of extensive to intensive cultivation of corn between 5700 and 2000 years ago in the Formative period, when the original tropical forest receded in the nearby valleys as a direct result of massive burning during which the presence of Zea mays pollen intensified in the archaeological record. Populations therefore moved from the highlands to more favourable settings for grain agriculture in the valley floors, abandoning the predominantly pine-oak landscape. Although there are other rockshelters in Central Honduras, none of them have comparable deposits, because, unlike El Gigante, they are all exposed to the elements. In terms of size, none of the shelters compare to the magnitude of El Gigante, whose impressive chamber measures 42 m. wide, 17 m. deep, and 12 m. high. In contrast to the other much smaller shelters, the rock-art repertoire at El Gigante is practically reduced to a few negative paintings of hands. So far, there is no other rockshelter in Central America of the dimensions and setting of El Gigante.
Justification of Outstanding Universal Value
Although there are other locations in Central America whith evidence of the early settlement of the isthmus, no other location shows, as clearly as El Gigante, the dynamic character of hunter- gatherer societies, and their adaptive way of life in the Central American highlands, and in Mesoamerica broadly during in the early and middle Holocene. This tranforms this setting into an organically evolved landscape. Researchers have recognized that the field of hunter-gatherer studies is fundamentally an interdisciplinary endeavor, and the findings at El Gigante support the glottochronological estimates for the arrival of macrochibchan speakers in Central America, with Honduras being the point of dispersion. These language families are still spoken today from Honduras to Colombia. Over 10,000 carbonized and uncarbonized maize specimens (cobs, kernels, stalks, leaves) occur in the assemblage; the earliest maize in the sequence dates from 4,340 to 4,020 cal. BP in a botanical assemblage dominated by wild plant foods. Maize becomes the dominant feature of the plant assemblage from 2,350 and 1,820 cal. BP in association with beans and squash. Ancient DNA studies of maize as well as other domesticates such as avocado provide an important window into gene flow studies across the Americas throughout the Holocene. Analyses have established a clear link between El Gigante maize and modern and ancient maize from South America, which has prompted the novel hypothesis that indigenous farmers carried or dispersed maize northward through the Isthmus of Panama prior to ∼2,000 y ago. El Gigante is not only contributing to our understanding of the pattern of cyclical movements of hunter-gatherers, short and long-term migration, but also to better understanding the transition from foraging to farming. It is also helping to refine our knowledge concerning climate and environmental changes, and the hunter-gatherers’ cultural responses to them. The research on El Gigante continues and there is still much more to learn in terms of their relationship to other ancient populations, and their descendants.
Criterion (iii): El Gigante’s exceptional conditions have preserved invaluable archaeological and environmental data that reflects a continuous sequence of occupation as a seasonal settlement and as a place of ritual for hunter-gatherer communities over a long and well documented timespan; from around 11000 years ago, in the Archaic period, through the transition of extensive to intensive cultivation of corn between 5700 and 2000 years ago in the Formative period, following the Mesoamerican chronologies. El Gigante also has one of the largest collections of preserved basketry and textiles--including the oldest directly dated perishable artifact—in Mesoamerica, which provides evidence of early social specialization and illustrates the development of ancient technologies in the region. Its unique archeological context, allows the exploration and understanding of plant domestication and agricultural processes in Mesoamerica. Recent research has established a link between El Gigante maize and modern and ancient maize from South America, leading to the remarkable opportunity to study the phylogeny of this important crop as well as the human migrations and/or exchanges that took place among different communities in the past.
Criterion (iv): With one of the largest assemblages of preserved wild plants, domesticated plants, and animal remains from the Holocene, El Gigante, enables the study of how humans used and modified the environment over more than 10,000 years. This large assemblage of well-preserved corns, beans, and squash provides unique information on the timing and trajectory of plant domesticates in Central America. The evidence of ancient use of a wide range of semi- domesticated tree resources provides valuable insights into how humans managed their resource rich tree environment. Ancient DNA studies of maize as well as other domesticates such as avocado provide an important window into gene flow studies across the Americas throughout the Holocene, demonstrating the great scientific value of El Gigante. Its exceptional archaeological record documents different episodes of subsistence strategies, and early food production, implemented by prehistoric communities in the region. It also might shed light into the understanding and modelled reconstructions of ancient landscapes.
Criterion (v): El Gigante is not only contributing to our understanding of the pattern of cyclical movements of hunter-gatherers, short and long-term migration, but also to better understanding the transition from foraging to farming. It is also helping to refine our knowledge concerning climate and environmental changes, and hunter-gatherers’ cultural responses. No other location shows, as clearly as El Gigante, the dynamic character of hunter-gatherer societies, and their adaptive way of life in the Central American highlands, and in Mesoamerica broadly, during the early and middle Holocene. The well dated early materials provide a detailed understanding of human adaptation and resource use of plant and animal resources during the transitional Paleoindian to Archaic time frame.
Statements of authenticity and/or integrity
El Gigante was properly registered by the IHAH in the mid-1980s, and the first tentative excavations took place in 1995. The excavations yielded a C14 date of more than 10000 years, prompting the need for an extended research program that began in 1997. The excavations in the chamber itself were complemented by a survey of the region. This resulted in the recording of a series of other caves and rock-shelters, some with relevant examples of rock art and evidence of human occupation. However, no other site contained evidence of long-term occupation, like El Gigante. Since the geology of the rock-shelter has remained stable since the beginning of the Holocene, there is no doubt that this site’s interior has remained closed to the elements through the course of time. The shelter maintained its use and function as a seasonal settlement, and as a place of human rituals including human burials, for hunter-gatherers over millennia, and has one of the largest assemblages of preserved wild plants, domesticated plants, and animal remains from the Holocene enabling investigators to study how humans used and modified the environment over more than 10,000 years. Furthermore, the organic and inorganic materials found correspond to the artefacts and resources belonging to the time spam beginning in the Archaic through the Formative periods. As for the immediate environmental context related to the site it maintains the character of a pine-oak forest enhanced by the natural beauty of a nearby cascade, the mainprovider of water for the shelter’s human occupants in ancient times. Research has been continuous during the last twenty years, and every step accomplished so far underpins the importance of El Gigante for the integral comprehension of the history of human occupation of Honduras and the Central American isthmus, and the long-range connections of these populations with those outside the region, including Mesoamerica and South America. The well dated early materials provide a detailed understanding of human adaptation and resource use of plant and animal resources during the transitional Paleoindian to Archaic time frame. All the information on El Gigante is dated precisely with one of the largest collections of high precision AMS radiocarbon dates (n=330).
The main natural causes of the degradation of rock-shelters are long term geomorphologic processes associated with the context in which these shelters were formed, including erosion, and spalling of the roof and walls. These processes are not active at El Gigante since the site has shown stability in historical times, and archaeological excavations corroborates this fact for the span of human occupation. One important issue is that the vault protects the entire interior from rain and wind. Therefore, El Gigante is the only site in Central America with an extensive record of archaeological charcoal which permits the examination of whether some modern plant communities were stable over long periods of time or were the byproduct of recent slash-and- burn agriculture. There are also anthropogenic causes of degradation that have been registered in other rock-shelters in the region with engravings and paintings. However, El Gigante has been amply spared of this form of vandalism, specifically graffiti, scratching with sharp metal instruments, colouring of the walls with chalk and spray paint, modern etchings of names, and symbols. One of the reasons is the difficult access which requires a ladder to reach the entrance, which is 3-4 meter above the forest floor. Notwithstanding the challenging access to the chamber, local guides find ways to make the climbing possible for the more daring visitors, and from time to time, hunters will spend the night there as a look-out. For that reason, the municipality, following the advice of IHAH, has built a very rudimentary overlook platform –that fulfils the purpose of protection-- some meters away from the shelter opening that permits a full view of the chamber. The superficial levels of the chamber are disturbed, but the earliest stratigraphic levels have been protected by archaeologists after their interventions. A point of concern might be the maintenance of the natural context surrounding the El Gigante rock-shelter, given that the waterfall in the vicinity has promoted the construction of facilities for picnics and bathing excursions to the riverside. All of this is still in need of proper planning with local communities and professional consulting. The El Gigante rock-shelter is located on municipal property and is mainly safeguarded by the Law for the Protection of National Cultural Heritage (Decree 220-97), furthermore is protected under the Environmental Law (Decree 104-93), as well as the Municipalities Law (Decree 130-90). The IHAH is also promoting its constitutional declaration as a National Monument with the support by ICOMOS Honduras.
Comparison with other similar properties
There are two World Heritage sites that can be, to some extent, subjects of comparison with El Gigante Rockshelter: the Prehistoric Caves of Yagul and Mitla in the Central Valley of Oaxaca; and the Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Valley: Originary Habitat of Mesoamérica (Puebla). These are focal points for the domestication of the fundamental Mesoamerican crops, from the emergence of incipient farmers all the way through the installment of complex water management systems.
Although they are both in the highlands at 1,500-1600 and 1,200 MASL, respectively, the landscapes are very different. The first is dominated by massive cliffs and understory vegetation, while the second is located in dense forest of columnar cacti. El Gigante is not competing with these cultural or environmental settings, rather is enhancing the knowledge of the hunter-gatherer way of life for the region.
The Monte Verde Archaeological Site, located in the sub-Antarctic and evergreen softwood forests, in the low mountains of the South of Chile, has C14 calibrated dates of 14800 years. Due to the constraints of the landscape, Monte Verde was an open site and its occupants had to procure other means of shelter. The wooden structures discovered, 3-4 meters on each side, likely held leather walls resembling a kind of tent. Also found were animal bones, including mastodons. The evidence suggests the recollection of plants was equally or more important. In addition to wild potatoes, botanical remains include edible seeds, fruits, nuts, berries, mushrooms, algae, vegetables, tubers, and rhizomes. The flora was collected in the surrounding marshes, forests and in the Pacific shore, thus, allowing a diet enriched with iodine and salt. With an exploitation from dispersed ecological zones with different growth regimes, the inhabitants of Monte Verde obtained edible plants year-round, enabling a permanent occupation. Although the inhabitants of El Gigante were also hunter-gatherers, the occupation of the rockshelter was seasonal, suggesting greater mobility and different strategies of food procuring.
However, as important as these sites are for the integral comprehension of the initialsettlement of Central and South America, the El Gigante Rockshelter maintains its uniqueness in terms of the different adaptations of highly mobile groups of ancient hunter-gatherers to a mountainous landscape in the Central American isthmus. Analysis of maize remains confirm El Gigante’s occupants profited from innovations in food procurement and production, obtained through direct and indirect exchange with peoples from South America. Certainly, much more will be revealed about these long-term and far-reaching interactions as research in El Gigante continues.
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