In the sweltering 40 degree heat under the Nicaraguan sun, surrounded by banana plantations, an international team of scientists, led by University of Calgary archaeologist Dr. Geoff McCafferty, made a startling find that is likely to change the history books.
Dr. McCafferty and his team of excavators from Mexico, Nicaragua, Columbia, Canada, and the United States were digging at Santa Isabel to confirm the written history that the Nicarao culture migrated to the area from central Mexico and shared ties with other Nahua tribes like the Aztecs. The project began in 2000, and will continue through until next summer. Rather than the expected ties with other Nahua tribes, however, the team found the tribe was likely indigenous to the area when they were supposedly migrating there in the 1300s.
"Nicaragua is a very un- known country archeologically," Dr. McCafferty explained of why this was never found before. "This is the first large scale excavation of this area in Nicaragua. It has until recently been considered a dangerous place to work."
The most compelling evidence the team found indicating the culture was indigenous was the lack of comal, the cooking instruments that are used to make tortillas, a classic Nahua dish. Another hint was the way bodies near the site were buried. While the Nahua culture tends to bury their dead in a fetal position, the Nicarao tended to bury their dead in urns or lying on their sides facing the west.
"If the Nahua people had moved from central Mexico, and into the central city [excavation], then they had to have stopped using tortillas, which would be tremendous," Dr. McCafferty said.
"They would also had to have changed their religious practices.One of the key ideas about ethnicity is religious beliefs. Incense burners are a very common item from central Mexico. We have found no incense burners yet."
The study is expected to be controversial, because all of the literature about the Nicarao people suggests they shared many ties with the Nahua. The lack of ties to northern culture means the culture was either completely different than other cultures in the area, or shared ties with the Chibchan in the south.
"We've presented these ideas in Nicaragua already, and we've encountered resistance from historians, museum directors and other archaeologists, because they are the ones who know the conventional history the best," reflected Dr. McCafferty on the controversy that has already been created by his preliminary findings.
Despite a widespread hesitation to accept the idea, Dr. McCafferty is confident his findings are right and is already thinking about the next step in proving them.
"I'm very confident about what we have at the moment," he explained. "We are going to be excavating a very large area next summer, about four square kilometres. We are going to be testing to see if there is any difference between those areas and the elite area [that we excavated this summer.] One of the next research steps would be to excavate an earlier time, before the supposed migration of the Nahua people, to see the differences in culture."
Dr. McCafferty is optimistic about the prestige that his findings will bring to the university, and looks forward to returning to the site next season with his team, which includes his son Dylan, and his wife Sharisse, seven U of C graduate students, and six undergraduate students, whose presence on the team won them acclaim in Maclean's magazine.
"We went down there a few years ago and that was really crappy," said Dylan of his experiences in Nicaragua. "There were mosquitoes the size of your head. It was better this year, though. It was great getting to know people in the community."