Pre-Maya Society

Pre-Maya Society Unearthed

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 mounds, he called in Spanish and Nicaraguan archaeologists 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 archaeologist 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 archaeological terra incognita. The more glamorous civilizations of Mexico and northern Mesoamerica -- the Aztecs, the Maya, the inhabitants of Teotihuacan -- have totally 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 thought, Gassiot said. Experts hope that study of the site -- and particularly its violent demise around A.D. 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.

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

Archaeologist John 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.

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 -- the 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.

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.

The city itself was abandoned between A.D. 400 and 440, according to radiocarbon dating. The top archaeological layer in both the city and the villages is composed of ashes and carbon, indicating that the structures were burned.

"We think the end of the city was violent, but we don't know who might have done it," Gassiot said.

"One possibility is some internal political conflict," he said. "The second is a contact with some foreign people who came into the region."

August 9, 2003

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Th. H. Maugh II,
Los Angeles Times

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