ASESE, Granada – The excavation site has been re-filled with dirt, leaving few traces that anybody was ever digging for artifacts on the shores of LakeCocibolca.
But these weren’t looters covering their tracks, rather a team of international archaeologists trying to help Nicaragua dig into its past and preserve its history.
Led by Canadian archaeologist Geoffrey McCafferty, some 40 Canadians, Nicaraguans, Salvadorans and Costa Ricans spent six weeks digging for evidence of a supposed Mexican migration to the country around 1,000 years ago.
According to historical records, when the Spanish conquistadors arrived in what is today Nicaragua in A.D. 1500, they found an indigenous language similar to the Nahuatl language spoken in Mexico. Even today, some Nicaraguan villagers claim Mexican ancestry, McCafferty says.
But the university professor of archaeology wanted to discover artifact evidence of the alleged early contact.
Starting ten years ago, McCafferty and his wife, Sharisse, have been coming to Nicaragua during their school vacation months to lead digs in Rivas, Tipitapa and, more recently, on the lakeshorePeninsula of Asese, outside of Granada.
Having worked on projects in central Mexico for 25 years, McCafferty knows what to look for. But instead of finding definitive evidence of Mexican culture, McCafferty and his international team of archeologists discovered new, unanticipated artifacts at the Granada site leading to new theories about the intermixing of two civilizations that were previously thought to have never come in contact with one another.
Covering 130 hectares, the banana-tree shaded plot of land along the lakeshore revealed 75,000 pre-Hispanic objects – skeletal remains, stone tools, jewelry, ceramics and musical instruments – dating back more than 1,000 years, to historical periods known as the Bagaces occupation (A.D. 250 to 800) and the Sapoá occupation (A.D. 800 to 1350). The Mexicans are thought to have arrived in the latter period, although McCafferty is now skeptical of that theory.
The team’s findings, which ranged from A.D. 500 to 1200, did, however, offer new insight into the transition between the two earlier civilizations.
“For the first time ever we are able to evaluate to what extent there was culture change,” McCafferty said, noting “dramatic differences” in burial practices and other cultural indicators.
The preliminary findings also indicate a gradual transition between the cultures, rather than the more usual violent conquest of one by another. McCafferty says this suggests “inter-marriage and a process of cultural blending.”
Further study is needed in Canada to verify the theories.
Mrs. McCafferty says, “You can excavate all you want but unless you process it, it is no value to the country. The objective is to tell the Nicaraguans more about their country.”
Training Local Archaeologists
McCafferty has been training Nicaraguan and other Central American archaeologists for the past decade.
Oscar Pavon, the Nicaraguan co-director of the project, has worked with McCafferty since 2003. He credits the Canadian with teaching him field methods that compliment the theory he learned in university.
The Canadian-funded dig project is one of few opportunities for archaeologists like Pavon to learn more about their ancestors.
“In Nicaragua, there’s almost no budget for archaeology investigations,” Pavon said.
In addition to teaching dig techniques and building international relations, McCafferty says a large part of their work is meant to curb the country’s problem of looting and artifacts trafficking.
Their hope, Mrs. McCafferty says, is for Nicaraguans to “appreciate their own history and not sell it,” and “for foreigners to stop buying it.”
Maria Lily Calero, an archaeologist working for Cultural Heritage, an agency of the Nicaraguan Institute of Culture, says “There has been almost a total destruction of our cultural heritage.”
At the international contraband level, Calero says, artifacts trafficking ranks third behind trafficking in drugs and weapons. In Nicaragua, Cultural Heritage has tracked 3,678 antique objects that were trafficked between 1999 and 2005. Of theses, 855 or 23 percent were recovered, while 299 items were seized abroad.
She explained that the looters are usually poor people, or landowners who discover objects on their property and sell them to collectors, sometimes smuggling them over the border in the process.
Calero says the destruction of an indigenous cemetery site at Mombacho Volcano provided a “wake-up call” to Nicaraguan authorities, who are now collaborating with archaeologists to crack down on smuggling.
“This year we have had a good record, working together with the police and customs,” Calero says, noting that more than 500 artifacts have been recovered.
McCafferty, too, has provided assistance. For two days earlier this month, the Canadian helped authorities shift through a shipment of seized antiquities at the Costa Rican border. He also received a site visit from the National Police, who want to better understand how areas like this can be protected from looters.
The Mexican Controversy
Not all Nicaraguans are happy with McCafferty’s work.
At a presentation of his findings last week at the NationalPalace in Managua, Nicaraguan archaeologists in the audience challenged McCafferty on his skepticism of the alleged Mexican colonization period.
“It is a radical departure of what the traditional cultural history is, and so people are uncomfortable with that,” McCafferty told The Nica Times afterwards.
But after a decade of digging in Nicaragua’s soil, McCafferty said there’s no conclusive evidence to support the theory of early contact with Mexican civilizations.
Studies Continue in Canada
With the groundwork accomplished, and the team disbursed, the Canadian archeologist team flew home with thousands of documents of data and maps to be studied further in Calgary. Until their return next summer, their artifact discoveries will remain packed into labeled, plastic containers on the racks of Mi Museo, in Granada.
McCafferty, did, however take some artifacts home with him – several stone tools and carbon samples, which the government gave him permission to borrow.
“[It] looks really dull but it’s one of the most exciting things we have,” Mrs. McCafferty says of the carbon samples, which look like burnt wood.
Through laboratory testing in Canada, the decayed carbon stored within the century-old pieces can pinpoint the exact dates of the Bagaces and Sapoá period, and help solve another mystery from history, she said.