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Archeological Investigations in the Bay Islands, Spanish Honduras

Table of Contents Environmental History Explorations Roatan References

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?Las Islas de la Bahia? are a charming and comparatively little-known group of islands 10 to 40 miles of the northern coast of Spanish Honduras. Located on the Caribbean Sea, not far east of the entrance to the Gulf of Honduras, they are clearly visible from the mountainous mainland (see map, fig. 1). The group is made up of the three large islands, Utila (Utilla),1 Roatan (Roat?, Ruatan, Guayama), and Bonacca (Guanaja, Guanassa) , and the smaller islands, or island groups, Helena (Masa, Elena, Helen), Barburata (Borburata, Barbareta, Barbaretta), Morat (Goamoreto, Murat), and, closest to the mainland, the two Hog Islands (Cayos Cochinos). Roatan is the largest with a length of about 30 miles and a maximum width of 9 miles. Helena is really a small eastern extension of Roatan, being separated by a mangrove swamp and a narrow, in part artificial, channel. Bonacca is the second largest and is even more mountainous than Roatan. Utila is third in size and is low, swampy, and heavily forested. Barburata, Morat, and the Hog Islands are all small and rugged. With the exception of low-lying Utila, the islands, covered with dark green forest, rise majestically out of the blue tropical sea in a most alluring fashion.

The island chain is formed by the tops of a great submerged east-to-west mountain range, around which coral reefs have formed and rich soil has accumulated. Bonacca is the highest of the islands, a peak near the center reaching 1,200 feet. Roatan has a mountainous west-to-east backbone which reaches a height of 800 feet at the western end. Utila is the lowest of all, having only one hill 290 feet high at the eastern end. The formations are for the most part limestone, and the islands are surrounded by intricate coral reefs, some above the surface of the sea but most of them marked only by white lines of breaking surf. In the interior valleys a rich alluvial soil occurs, the product of decaying vegetation, and the hills are covered with red clay, which usually supports a dense vegetation.

1 I follow the orthography given in the 1925 edition of the U.S. Hydrographic office, ?Map of the Western Shore of the Caribbean?, except that the names Borburata and Murat are changed to Barburata and Morat to conform to local usage. The following brief ecological account is based on standard works on the region, the majority of which will be cited later, and on personal observation.

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FIG 1 - Map of the Bay Islands
FIG 1 - Map of the Bay Islands

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There are no rivers on any of the islands and only a few small streams, often terminating in the many mangrove swamps. Springs of cool water are rather numerous. Roatan is marked by a number of salt-water lagoons or drowned valleys, which form a system of interior waterways on the south side.

All the main harbors are on the protected southern shores away from the prevalent northeast trade winds. From west to east these consist of East Harbor on Utila; Coxen Hole, Dixon Cove, French Harbor, Oak Ridge, and Port Royal (formerly important, but practically deserted at present) on Roatan; and Bonacca Harbor within the reefs on the southwest tip of Bonaca Island. Only a few scattered families of Black Caribs live on the northern shore of Roatan, and on all the islands the population centers on the side toward the mainland. Access from the mainland is simple, and small native craft ply back and forth at all seasons. The period from November to February, however, is dangerous, owing to frequent ?northers?, which may do much damage. From the middle of June to the middle of August the islands are subject to squalls, and revolving storms or hurricanes occur occasionally at this time of year. However, the Islanders are a maritime people and are not often caught out under such circumstances.

The climate is similar to that of the adjacent mainland of Honduras but is said to be cooler, owing to the surrounding water. The temperature is lowest during the rainy season from September to February, which is a period of heavy showers rather than steady rain. It is not oppressive during the dry season and the nights are usually pleasantly cool. Along the shores the cool sea breeze is pleasant, but the densely forested interior valleys are often stifling. The islands are said to be more healthful than the mainland and have not been subjected to cholera or other epidemics that have ravaged that region. The British colony on the Mosquito Coast prior to 1778 sent malaria patients to Bonacca, where they recovered rapidly.2 However, malaria does occur to some extent, and there are numerous mosquitoes, sand flies, and bottle flies on the islands, though in April and May they were not nearly as bad as on the mainland. To escape the mosquitoes, and for the sake of coolness, the town of Bonacca has been built on low cays out in the harbor. Rheumatism is reported as having been very prevalent3 and apparently is still rather widespread. Beyond these superficial observations I dare not go.

2Young, 1842. Rose, 1904, chap 12, describes a smallpox epidemic on Utila in 1891.
3 Mitchell, 1850. Quoted at some length by Squier, 1858 pp. 116-121. This account gives a rather detailed picture of Bay Island conditions in the middle of the nineteenth century.

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The island flora is abundant, and, as would be expected, is very similar to that of the mainland.4 Large numbers of pines grow on some of the higher ridges, especially on Bonacca, which led Columbus to call it the ?Isle of Pines?. Other portions exhibit complete rain forest characteristics, with tall hardwood tress, lianas, epiphytic plants, and a dense lower layer of small palms and shrubs. Many of the higher slopes are covered with cohune or corozo palms, some of the lower lands and sand spits support large groves of coconut palms, and gloomy mangrove swamps fringe considerable portions of the shore line. Savannas are rare, but small open areas occur, especially on Bonacca and Utila. The fauna of the islands is also basically that of the mainland minus practically all of the larger mammalian and many of the larger avian species. In regard to flora and fauna it would be of great interest to know what relation the Bay Islands bear to the Antilles, which, though almost 400 miles distant, probably have exerted some influence, since both wind and ocean currents bear from that direction. There are no large mammals in the Bay Island except the manatee; jaguar, ocelot, tapir, deer, peccary, and monkeys do not occur. The agouti or ?watusa?, a rodent the size of a large hare, is the main island game animal. The raccoon is probably also present on the islands. The domestic hog was introduced into the Bay Islands by Cortez in 1525 or 1526 and spread rapidly in a wild state. (Conzemius 1928, p. 62) The avifauna of the islands appears to be somewhat limited, especially as regards land birds. The curassow, guans, and macaws are absent. There are two species of parrots, which are still very numerous. Of these, the yellow-headed species (Chrysotis auripalliata) has long been highly regarded as a pet on account of the facility with which it learns to talk, and its export from the islands began at a very early date. (Conzemius, 1928, p. 63.) Black vultures, blue pigeons, small woodpeckers, grackles, large brown cuckoos, flycatchers, warblers, and vireos were observed on all the islands. Water birds are numerous; herons, egrets, ibis, pelicans, and frigate birds were particularly noted.

Among the lower orders, snakes are not particularly abundant, and we saw none during our visit. The deadly fer-de-lance and the rattlesnake are said not to occur. The ?tomagoff? (sp. ?), a smaller form said to be related to the fer-de-lance, does occur, but strange to say is not thought to be dangerous. Other snake species are undoubtedly present, and many iguanas and other smaller lizards abound, especially in the coconut groves.

Of larger reptiles, both the crocodile and the caiman occur, but we saw neither. Fish, as would be expected, are a very abundant source of food; a large number of species occur. Sharks of various species are numerous, but do not seem to be as much feared by the natives as are the many barracuda. Mollusca abound, the various whelk and conch species being an important item of island diet, as are large crayfish. The teeming insect life is probably similar to that of the mainland; the troublesome mosquitoes, sand flies, and bottle flies of the coast have already been mentioned, and horseflies are annoying in the bush. Wherever domestic stock is abundant, the small red ticks or ?garrapatas? are a great source of annoyance to man. So much for the natural setting; the colorful history of the Bay Islands will now be briefly sketched in.

4 For a brief summary of the ecology of the Mosquito Coast, see Conzemius 1932, pp. 1-8.

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