Oriental Outlook: Thanks to the Canal, Nicaraguan History Might Be Rewritten by Significant Discoveries
By: Shan Xu and Xu Ying
Nicaragua’s proposed $50-billion Interoceanic Canal Project has brought unexpected surprises to the isthmus: more than 15,000 pieces of archaeological artifacts collected during the field survey as part of the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) for the Canal Project, and were handed over to the Government of Nicaragua in February 2015; early this year, precious artifacts as a new type of jar for salt production which was first found in Central America during the pre-construction archaeological work of the Canal.
“All of this information and research results are completely new, and contribute to our understanding of the ancient cultures and economy of Nicaragua before the conquest,” Dr. Patrick Werner, the eminent Nicaraguan archaeologist and historian, told Oriental Outlook. The team led by Dr. Werner has discovered around 5,000 pieces of artifacts in Brito coastal area of western Nicaragua, including salt production tools, fragments of Luna Polychrome, which cannot be reproduced even today, and engraved Castillo.
In fact, all of the archaeologists and historians of Nicaragua as well as foreign scholars interested in Central American history are keeping a close watch on the 270km Canal Project. Following the completion of the ESIA, the pre-construction archaeological work for the Nicaragua Canal was officially launched at the end of 2015. The first archaeological site is in Brito, where the proposed West Port is located.
About five centuries ago, Mesoamerican civilization was completely destroyed by European settlers. For Dr. Patrick Werner, this mega project carried out by Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Company (HKND Group) “opened up a completely new area of study”. “Without the Canal, this history would remain unknown and this effort should be taken into consideration by everyone when talking about the value of the Canal,” he said.
Archaeological findings at the southern edge of the Maya civilization
Columbus arrived on the east coast of Nicaragua in 1502 during his last voyage of Discovery of America. 20 years later, Nicaragua was colonized by Spanish conquistadors. "Pre-Columbian era" refers to the history of the indigenous American cultures before the appearance of European influences.
Among the relics that have been handed over to Government of Nicaragua, more than 14,000 pieces date back to pre-Columbian era. Most of them are potsherds or obsidian artifacts etc., with the earliest dating back to 500 BC. For the entire America, this is a time of which more is unknown than is known.
It is understood that the three most important pre-Columbian civilizations of the Americas were the Aztecs from northwestern Mexico, the Mayas covering southeastern Mexico and Central America, and the Incas of South America.
It is widely believed that Honduras, bordered by Nicaragua to the south, marks the very southern edge of the Maya civilization.
“The religions of the ethnic groups in Nicaragua were polytheistic, sharing gods, religious icons and symbols with other northern Mesoamerican groups,” Dr. Patrick Werner indicated. The Nicaraguans did develop a complete and functioning society at the onset of the 16th century before the coming of the Spaniards.
Nicaragua was populated with about 700,000 indigenous people when they started the anti-colonial struggle against the Spanish conquistadors in 1522. The major ethnic group was the Chorotegas, who could understand the language of the people living in southern Mexico. Later on, it was not until 1930 that Nicaragua had recovered to 700,000 inhabitants.
The Spaniards wiped out the Maya civilization which was deemed to be devilish heretical. Thousands of Native Americans were killed in the holocaust. The entire history of Maya as well as Aztec and Inca only remained at the beginning of 16th century or the early decades before the arrival of the Spaniards. Some of the key questions about the ancient Mayan people become unsolved mysteries.
For instance, 9th century marks the key turning point in the development of the Maya civilization when awe-inspiring cities were abandoned as survivors retreated into the forest. Maya population and culture were decimated. However, no one knows the specific reasons that caused "Maya Collapse" as the Western settlers burned down nearly all written records of Maya civilization into ashes.
“Severe grave looting which destroys the sequence of the material laid down by a society, erases the data at a site and erases that data forever from being used to reconstruct elements of an ancient culture.” Dr. Patrick Werner believed, “if there is no written record, it is hard to reconstruct an ancient language or society. The only avenue available is to reconstruct, as minutely and exactly as possible, the material remains and to understand their relation between each other, and similarities to other material remains in other times and places.”
Sagrario Balladares Navarro, representative of local academics working on the Brito archaeological project of West Canal and professor of UNAN summarized, “Preliminary results of the study carried out in the area of Brito have revealed new data for archaeological interpretations at a national level. Based on the ceramic indicators, there is the perception that there has been continuous occupation in the South Pacific coast area of Nicaragua since 500 BC. Even more interesting is the possibility to learn the various social dynamics developed in the past to reconstruct the ancient history of Nicaragua.”
Salt Production Evidence Discovered in Nicaragua
According to the archaeological findings in Brito, the relationship between Nicaragua and Maya civilization might not be as remote as we once believed.
Among the artifacts collected, there is a type of pottery called Luna Polychrome, which was usually considered as a luxury item with its distinct cream white paint, beautiful abstract images and the presentation of the Monster God of the Earth.
“Luna Polychrome is interesting because of its somewhat unique design, which seems to have no antecedent stylistic development. It sort of appears out of nowhere. Most of the literature about Luna speaks of it being found commonly in funerary contexts.” explained Dr. Patrick Werner. However, no evidence suggests that the potsherds discovered in Brito were used in funerary contexts.
In fact, there are 800 pieces of Luna potsherds discovered in the Pacific coastal area during this excavation, representing the largest quantity of Luna Polychrome found in a controlled dig in Nicaragua. “It is the first systematic and the largest excavation that has been ever done in the Pacific of Nicaragua. It helps to understand the relationship between people, ocean and lake,” said Edgar Espinoza Perez, an acknowledged Nicaraguan archaeologist specializing in potsherd study.
So far, we still don't know how Luna Polychrome was produced and are not able to duplicate it. Similar to most Mayan cultural relics, the implication of images on the pottery remains unknown.
Thanks to the resources provided by HKND, such as equipment and logistics supply, Dr. Patrick Werner’s team have dug 77 exploratory pits in one month, from which the most important findings are 14 fire pits appeared to be at use at the same time. Also, it is the first time that Luna Polychrome was found in salt production context, which is absolutely helpful in understanding ancient Mayan history.
Salt trading is one of the major reasons that contribute to the rise of Maya civilization. For centuries before Christ, trading networks built by Mayan merchants extended to Andean region in South America. Nicaragua served as a bridgehead in this trading route featured by deals of salt, cotton, cocoa and obsidian.
Just like many other ancient civilizations, salt used to be a symbol of power, wealth and civilization. The most well-known remains of Maya civilization are located in proximity to large-scale salt production sites.
This jar for salt production was produced using coiling techniques by wrapping wet clay strands, or ropes in circles to form the vessel. It was used for cooking salt in fire pits by evaporating sea water. According to Nicaraguan archaeologists, it is noticeable that the inner side of the jar was smoothed so as to prevent the salt grains from going through the pottery walls while the porous outside facilitated sea water filtration.
This is also the first intact jar for salt production discovered throughout Central America. Salt producers often destroyed the vessels to avoid replication.
“Before the site at Brito was found, there was exactly no known site, no known pottery, and no known analysis of salt production in Nicaragua. Neither is there any discussion in the literature about early salt production.” concluded Dr. Patrick Werner, who’s amazed by the salt production evidence found in up to 14 sites.
Grand Canal Project Opens up New Opportunity for Archaeological Study
Located at the fringe of Maya civilization, Nicaragua’s history and archaeology received little attention in the past. Large-scale archaeological excavations being carried out in the area of Lake Nicaragua were only triggered by temples protruding from the ground. In fact, it has been difficult for local government and archaeologists to raise funds to reconstruct its ancient history.
The ESIA for Nicaragua Canal Project is probably the most strenuous and complicated one in the world so far. The proposed interoceanic canal, which is 276 km long, 230 to 520 meters wide and 30 meters deep, is the world’s largest civil engineering project with a potential excavation volume of up to 5 billion cubic meters.
In November 2015, the Government of Nicaragua announced its approval of the ESIA for Canal Project，which was described by Pang Kwok Wai, Executive Vice President of HKND Group, as “the granting of the final permit” for the Project.
In accordance with international practice and Nicaraguan laws, archaeological work must be conducted before construction of any major engineering projects break ground.
One of the important elements in ESIA is the extensive preliminary survey on the cultural heritage along the Canal route, through which sites of archeological value were identified and evaluated. The team, formed by 29 archaeologists, also identified a number of sites that need further exploration and in-depth excavation as stated in the assessment report. Such information has already been widely reported by various media including Associated Press.
Like Dr. Patrick Werner, archaeologists and historians are excited about opportunities of archaeological dig brought by the Canal Project.
“It is a very interesting site. On the surface, absolutely nothing can be observed. The successful excavation is not just by sheer luck,” said Edgar Espinoza Perez.
Telemaco Talavera, President of National Council of Universities, which worked as partner with the team on the pre-construction archaeological work, believed that such unprecedented work will “generate relevant resources for our country".
However, the Nicaragua Grand Canal Project was met with skepticism; some media even alleged the Project encountered “construction delays” since the waterway excavation has not yet kicked off.
Referring to the archaeological work in Brito, Pang Kwok Wai indicated that the Project is proceeding as scheduled, and is currently undergoing further optimization of the Canal design. For example, the company is improving the design of the temporary West Port, which will double its capacity but also increase investment.
“Every team that works for the Canal Project is putting in extra hours,” he said. Recently, BMT was appointed to develop the canal and ports operation plans. This British firm has been actively involved in various canal expansion projects, including that of the Suez Canal.
The months-long fieldwork of aerial survey will be completed by the end of February 2016, and the following analysis of data and images collected therefrom will definitely provide more information for Canal design optimization.
According to Pang Kwok Wai, it’s difficult for the outside world to understand the efforts required for a mega project like this. At present, the biggest challenge is to build up a logistics network that can ensure logistics supply for tens of thousands of workers in bulk excavation phase. “Actually, civil construction has already started; we have built access roads and are preparing to lay the pipelines. Without such necessary elements ready, we would never jump to waterway excavation.”