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Submitted by admin on Thu, 01/24/2008 - 2:10pm

Project SIN represents the most extensive archaeological project in the history of Nicaragua.  It has also included numerous specialized studies, including chronological refinement, lithic analysis, mortuary analysis, ceramics analysis and compositional characterization, and faunal analysis.

As a result of this research, we now have a basic understanding of the domestic practices of the Santa Isabel community.  The absolute chronology for the site suggests occupation about 900 CE, and abandonment about 1250 CE.  This places Santa Isabel within the Sapoa period and negates the possibility that it was Quauhcapolca, capital of the Nicarao when conquistador Gil Gonzalez first encountered chief Nicaragua.  This time period is most compatible with historically-based interpretations that these were ethnic Chorotega.  However, fundamental Mesoamerican traits are missing from the material culture, including evidence of maize, dogs, or comales, incense burners.  This implies the possibility that Santa Isabel may have been an indigenous community, possibly of Chibchan derivation, albeit with some ideological borrowings from Mesoamerica (seen in the polychrome iconography) that become stronger with time.

The point at Majagual bay

The point, at Majagual Bay 

Questions of ethnic affiliation aside, we can characterize the lifeways of ancient Santa Isabel.  Families lived in perishable houses lacking stone or adobe brick masonry, but using wattle-and-daub walls over a packed earth floor on low mounds made up like 'tells' of accrued occupational debris.  Mound 3 houses featured greater investment in stucco-like floor surfaces, perhaps as an indication of greater wealth.

People subsisted off of the rich local environment, with a diet made up almost entirely of wild plants and animals.  Fish were a prominent part of the diet, and were probably collected by net-fishing as well as using fish hooks.  Deer were the dominant class of mammals consumed, but armadillo, rabbit, and javelina were also among the many minor species consumed.  Reptiles (especially turtle) and birds also went into the stew pots.  The exceptional preservation conditions permitted the recovery of many carbonized seeds.  To date, maize has not been recovered, so was probably not a prominent component of the diet.  Seeds of jocote, a sour fruit eaten raw or fermented into wine, made up about 75% of the paleobotanical assemblage.  Other seeds included beans, cacao, and paraiso. Although no organic evidence has been identified, the many 'raspadita' blades suggest the possibility that manioc may have been a significant dietary staple.  Grinding stones were not abundant, and may have been multi-functional for preparing a variety of plant species, including manioc.

Whereas the foodways suggest that the residents of Santa Isabel could be termed 'complex hunters and gatherers', the level of craft specialization was relatively high.  Beautiful polychrome pottery was relatively abundant, and was common in all residential mounds sampled.  Greenstone, shell, and bone were also crafted into jewelry, possibly for regional exchange.  A large number of spindle whorls, as well as bone weaving and embroidery tools, indicate that textile production was an important industry, probably including the manufacture of fishing nets and hammocks.  On the other hand, relatively little obsidian was found, as the only evidence of long-distance exchange with Mesoamerica.

Two forms of burial were found: urn burial of infants, and primary burial of an adult and two children.  The  'womb'-like burial urns were the most abundant, and based on comments from the local residents are fairly common throughout the site.  These 'shoe-pot' burial urns are found in other parts of Pacific Nicaragua, and have also been reported in other parts of the Greater Chibchan culture area as far south as Colombia.  Adult and child graves were relatively rare, perhaps because these deceased individuals were more typically buried in formal cemeteries away from the site centers. 

In conclusion, Project SIN has produced an extensive assemblage of materal culture useful for characterizing a relatively brief moment in Nicaraguan prehistory.  Some traits, such as the Mixteca-Puebla related iconography on the polychrome pottery, supports the traditional interpretation of Mexican migrants during the Postclassic period.  We believe, however, that the negative evidence far outweighs the stylistic argument, and that the inhabitants of Santa Isabel were more likely an indigenous population, albeit with developing trade contacts with the north.  This interpretation obviously needs to be rigorously tested with new data, and the upcoming Tepetate Archaeological Project is designed to collect suitable information from the site of Tepetate, near modern Granada, beginning in the summer of 2008.

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