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Ancient Civilization Found in Nicaragua

The complex society existed before the Maya to the north. Its location in a tropical forest is surprising, experts say.

June 01, 2003|Thomas H. Maugh II | Times Staff Writer

Nicolas Jarquin was cutting trees in preparation for constructing a warehouse on the property of a Nicaraguan agricultural company when he noticed several large mounds exposed by the activity, some with building foundations on their surface.

Before disturbing the site, he called in Spanish and Nicaraguan archeologists working at the nearby prehistoric village of Karoline to have a look.

What they found surprised everyone involved: evidence of a poorly known, complex civilization that existed in the tropical forest just before the Maya began to dominate regions to the north.

The location of the settlement, which the scientists have named El Cascal de Flor de Pino, was particularly surprising because most cultures in the region developed in the flatlands and valleys, said archeologist Ermengol Gassiot of the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

"Usually, scientists say that the conditions in tropical forests are not suitable for the development of social and political complexity," he said. "But here we have a tropical forest [society] with great social complexity, and well before the Maya."

Perhaps even more important, the discovery sheds new light on a region that has been an archeological terra incognita. The more glamorous civilizations of Mexico and northern Mesoamerica -- the Aztecs, the Maya, the inhabitants of Teotihuacan -- have overshadowed the cultures in the southern part of the region. It is only within the last decade or so that researchers have made a serious attempt to learn more about these mysterious peoples.

The discovery, near the modern hamlet of Kukra Hill on the Caribbean coast about 200 miles east of Managua, suggests that complex societies were developing in Mesoamerica earlier than researchers had believed, Gassiot said. Experts hope that study of the site -- and particularly its violent demise around AD 400 -- will yield new insights into the evolution of the better-known kingdoms to the north of the area, including the Maya, and the more democratic societies to the south.

The discovery may also help explain why the later Classic Maya civilization rarely used gold, even though it was widely available farther south.

Gassiot does not know who built the city or what eventually became of its inhabitants. The first signs of habitation in the area date to about 1500 BC, and it appears that major construction began about 750 BC.

Archeologist John W. Hoopes of the University of Kansas speculates that Cascal's inhabitants were probably ancestors of the Rama Indians, who still live in the area. They probably spoke a language called Chibchan, which was then common throughout the region and is still spoken by a few individuals today.

Living along the coast, the people may well have been both fishermen and traders, taking part in the then-newly developed shipping of gold from Panama and Peru to northern Mesoamerica and of jade from Costa Rica to the south. They also traded pottery and perhaps even large stone artifacts.

Hoopes speculates that the settlement's disappearance may have resulted from incursions by the powerful residents of Teotihuacan or perhaps even from raids by pirates -- early precursors of the pirates of the Caribbean who flourished along the Mosquito Coast in the 17th and 18th centuries. Its destruction -- as well as that of other settlements -- may well have broken the coastal trade routes linking north and south, blocking the exchange of gold and jade.

But reaching such conclusions will require much more research at the site, which has so far undergone only very preliminary trenching to reveal the general outlines of the settlement.

What Gassiot and his colleagues from Barcelona and the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua found at Kukra Hill were three large pyramid-like platforms, each about 20 to 25 feet high, surrounding a large central plaza -- an arrangement that is characteristic of cities throughout the region. Unlike the stone pyramids that were built by the Maya, however, the mounds were largely piles of earth, stone and rubble.

Surrounding the plaza, the team has so far discovered the remains of 22 other large buildings, but their survey has been limited by the dense vegetation. "That is not all of the buildings," Gassiot said. "We think it was much bigger."

They have also identified several small settlements surrounding the area that were probably dependent on the city.

A large circular formation, about 1,000 yards in diameter, may be a burial site, but the team has not yet had time to study it.

Near the plaza is what appears to be a storage area for basalt columns, each about nine feet long, that were made or found elsewhere and brought to Cascal for storage.

"The columns resemble those found at Mexican sites, where they had ritual uses," Gassiot said. Similar columns occur naturally at La Venta near Veracruz Mexico, where they are produced by natural volcanic activity. They were used at La Venta to mark burial sites.

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