The earliest known settlements in Pacific Nicaragua date to the Tempisque period, from 500 BCE until 300 CE. Following models from adjoining regions, such as Costa Rica, the earliest sedentary villages were probably located in regions with abundant natural resources, likely supplemented by garden horticulture. This period witnessed gradual development from small hamlets of a few houses through the rise of more complex communities. Complexity is measured by the size of the settlements, indicative of population and political organization.
Located on the outskirts of Managua, the La Arenera site was covered by a volcanic eruption that deposited over 2 m of coarse pumice on top of an extensive village. The heat burned the perishable structures and baked the earthen floors, upon which objects were preserved in their original locations. Investigations in 2000 mapped an extensive village, with multiple house floors and associated artifacts. Notably, artifacts included trade wares from El Salvador, including abundant obsidian and resist-painted potter.
A major cemetery from the Tempisque period was discovered during a housing development. Las Delicias is located near the shore of Lake Xolotlan (also known as Lake Managua). Initial excavations were conducted by Mi Museo in 2008, and an expanded project required additional salvage excavations in 2014. About 100 skeletons were recovered during the two field seasons, accompanied with a large number of grave offerings that included ceramic vessels, grinding stones, and ornamentation. The distribution of grave goods across the burial population indicates differential wealth, a characteristic of social complexity.
Discoveries from Las Delicias.
Another site in Managua is Los Martinez, also discovered during a rescue project for a housing development. The site is made up of at least eight low mounds arranged along paved avenues, with additional pathways at least 24 m in length that form the entrance and exit to a raised ceremonial precinct. Additionally, there was a residential structure that measured 18 m on a side with at least five internal subdivisions delimited by stone walls. Ceramic material recovered from the floors correspond to the Tempisque period.
A civic-ceremonial complex with at least 17 stone platforms with remains of buildings on top. Associated monumental statues served as posts to support the roofs of possible temples. The statuary represents males and females, either standing or seated on thrones. The buildings are organized in groups around plazas, with similar orientations to indicate a degree of site planning. The relative lack of artifacts implies that these structures did not have domestic functions, and therefore we infer that the site was used as a ceremonial space.
Investigations into the evolution of social complexity have been a central focus of archaeology since its inception. Nicaragua can contribute to these theoretical studies through the growth of villages with dense populations such as La Arenera, differential wealth such as in the Las Delicias cemetery, and in the organization of ceremonial space such as at Los Martinez and Sonzapote.