Who were the Nicarao?

By Geoffrey McCafferty (University of Calgary, Canada)

Nicaragua lost a prominent intellectual in December with the sudden passing of Patrick Werner. Dr. Werner was an expert in numerous fields – history, botany, and geology, among others. And he was a marvelous story-teller who lectured extensively as well as published his research.

As a fellow scholar I had numerous encounters with Pat, and as is typical in academia we often came to different conclusions. One topic on which we had numerous discussions was the Contact period, when Europeans first encountered the native populations of Pacific Nicaragua. Werner’s expertise in the historical documents conflicted with my own archaeological perspective – not at all an uncommon situation. Following a rich ethnohistorical record, much was chronicled by 16th century Spaniards, especially Fernandez de Oviedo y Vasquez. Lengthy accounts described the religion, political system, and cultural practices of the Nicarao, the Nahuat-speaking inhabitants of towns between the Bay of Fonseca and Rivas. According to their own history, the Nicarao migrated out of central Mexico prior to European contact and established powerful political units, interspersed among other indigenous communities inhabited by the Oto-Manguean-speaking Chorotega (as well as Chibchan-speaking groups). This has fascinated historians as well as linguists because both Nahuat and Oto-Manguean are languages based in central and southern Mexico, so presumably other aspects of Mesoamerican culture should also be accessible through archaeological investigation.

I began my archaeological research in Nicaragua in 2000, precisely to search for evidence of Mesoamerican cultures along the shore of Lake Cocibolca. Previously my investigations had focused on Puebla and Oaxaca (Mexico), some of the points of origin for the Nahuat and Oto-Manguean migrations. Armed with well-developed hypotheses about what Mexican migrants should look like archaeologically, my teams from the University of Calgary (Canada) as well as Nicaraguan, Costa Rican, Salvadoran, and Mexican colleagues have conducted intensive and extensive excavations at several sites. And although we have specifically targeted sites that were supposedly occupied at the moment of European contact, in fact we have consistently struck out. The sites of Santa Isabel, Tepetate, El Rayo, and Sonzapote have produced remarkable finds, to be sure, but the Nicarao remain elusive.

Archaeologists usually rely on decorated ceramics as a temporal markers, based on previously established sequences calibrated using Carbon-14 dates. Following this logic, diagnostic polychrome types have traditionally been linked to the Late Postclassic/Ometepe period, dating between 1300-1525 AD. And based on this connection, numerous sites have been identified and therefore believed to have been occupied by the Nicarao. However, after over 20 years of excavation at these major sites, all seem to have been abandoned precisely when, supposedly, the Nicarao arrived. We have discovered no sites with Carbon-14 dates from the final period before the arrival of the Spanish.

To be sure, the archaeology of Nicaragua is still in early stages and there is much to be learned. Vast regions that have never been sampled, and some time periods remain unknown. But based on ethnohistorical sources Rivas and Granada were centers of indigenous culture when the Europeans arrived, and these regions have been the subject to large-scale archaeological surveys. Consequently, the native centers have been identified, and these were the subject of our intensive excavations. Hundreds of thousands of artifacts were recovered to go along with dozens of radiocarbon dates – but no evidence of the Late Postclassic/Ometepe period Nicaraos.

So what gives?

At present we have only a glimmer of archaeological insight into the elusive Nicarao. Numerous questions remain. Did the Nicarao differ culturally from the Chorotega, as is suggested in the historical accounts. Did they have their own communities? Did their Nahua religion differ from the Oto-Manguean Chorotega? Did they develop other distinctive ceramic styles.

The obvious solution is to continue researching in hopes of encountering Late Postclassic/ Ometepe period sites occupied by the Nicarao. This past November and December the University of Calgary funded a team of experienced Nicaraguan archaeologists to sample six sites on Ometepe Island in hopes of encountering the elusive Nicarao. Analysis is now being done on the ceramics, lithics, and faunal remans, and if successful a more extensive excavation can be proposed.

To answer the questions posed in the title, ethnohistorians such as Pat Werner have provided detailed interpretations about who the Nicarao were at the moment of European contact. But despite our best efforts, archaeologists have not identified their communities, nor the material manifestations of their lifeways. Colonial period history and linguistics remain the best evidence for the Nicarao, and archaeology has failed to contribute to the discussion.