The Spanish chronicler Juan de Torquemada recorded a migration out of Mexico by two different ethnic groups, the Chorotega and the Nicarao. According to legend, they fled the tyranny of the Olmeca-Xicallanca of Cholula and migrated first into the Soconosco region of Chiapas (Mexico), then to El Salvador where they settled as the Pipil culture, and finally to Pacific Nicaragua and northwestern Costa Rica. Torquemada is vague about when this occurred, simply saying that it was “7 or 8 lifetimes of an old man” before his time (c. 1600 CE). If an ‘old man’ lived for two 52-year calendar rounds as is generally assumed, then the migration might have begun between about 750 to 850 CE. If, on the other hand, a more reasonable age of one calendar round is assumed, then the migrations would have begun between 1200 to 1250 CE. These interpretations highlight the problems with mythstorical reconstructions, and call for archaeological research for corroboration.
Culture change with archaeology
Recognizing culture change with archaeology involves the use of artifacts as material culture, essentially ideas and practices ‘fossilized’ in the archaeological record. Innovations in manufacturing technologies, for example, demonstrate change; stylistic changes demonstrate change; and different food ways demonstrate change. All of these are accessible to scientific archaeology.
Located on the shore of Lake Cocibolca (also known as Lake Nicaragua), Santa Isabel is the best known site for understanding the material culture of the Chorotega. It covers about 300 ha, with at least 40 residential mounds. Excavations between 2000 and 2005 tested five of these mounds, and recovered about 250,000 artifacts of daily life, including pottery, lithics, animal bones, and carbonized seeds. These data provide an unprecedented window on past lifeways of the ancient Chorotega culture. We now know that they enjoyed a varied diet of wild plants and animals, with little evidence of cultivated crops. They lived in simple houses of wattle and daub construction on low mounds. However, the residents of Santa Isabel were also engaged in the production of exotic goods made from greenstone, shell, and bone, probably for trade. There is also strong evidence for textile production, for clothing, but also probably for hammocks and fishing nets.
Currently, El Rayo, is the most important site for understanding the cultural transition relating to the arrival of Mexican migrants. With an occupation spanning 500 to 1250 CE, El Rayo includes both an autochthonous settlement and later elements of new innovations. It was a small fishing village at the extreme tip of the Asese peninsula, south of Granada. There were also various mortuary locales and unique ceremonial structures unknown in other parts of Nicaragua. Among the mortuary remains were examples of exotic material culture, such as an ocarina in the form of a bird, chert bifacial knives, and human skulls as offerings corresponding to the Sapoá period of the new inhabitants.
Remains of a ceremonial building and exotic objects from cementeries.