Spanish chroniclers of the XVI and XVII centuries recorded information about the native cultures of Pacific Nicaragua, including languages, customs, and religious beliefs. Most notable was the group known as the Nicarao who spoke a dialect of Nahuat, the language of the Aztecs of central Mexico. Many of the place names of modern Nicaragua, such as Ometepe Island (“two mountains”) still reflect the Nahua influences. According to these colonial sources, the Nahua Nicarao arrived about 1250 CE. Other accounts describe long-distance trading ventures from central Mexico all the way to Nicaragua. One likely trade good was chocolate: in addition to the tasty drink cacao beans were also used as money by the ancient Aztecs and Nicarao.
Chronicler Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdez recorded cultural characteristics of the Nicarao during the 1520s. The political system was multi-tiered, with the chief known as a teyte. Markets featured goods from across the region and included exotics from the Mesoamerican trade networks; women controlled the markets and local men were prohibited from entering. People lived in neighborhoods, from which they paid tribute and provided public services. The Nicarao were one component of a complex cultural mosaic that included other ethnic groups such as the Mangue, Subtiaba, and Chibcha, with whom the Nicarao both traded and raided.
Oviedo y Valdez also reported on religious practices. These were closely related to those of the Aztecs. The pantheon of gods and goddesses included many with Nahua names, for example Quiateot, the god of rain, and Hecat, the god of wind. The primordial couple were called Tamagastad and Cipattonal, names of priests who, according to Aztec histories, led their people out of the highlands at the end of the Toltec empire. The ceremonies also contain Mesoamerican traits such as human sacrifice, the voladores, and the ritual calendar.
Nicarao Nahuat Español/Ingles
Agat Acatl Caña/Reed
Ocelot Ocelotl Ocelote/Ocelot
Olin Ollin Movimiento/Motion
Tapecat Tecpatl Pedernal/Chert
Quiahuit Quiahuitl Lluvia/Rain
Sochit Xochitl Flor/Flower
Cipat Cipactli Lagarto/Alligator
Cali Calli Casa/House
Coat Coatl Serpiente/Snake
Examples of day names from the Nahua Nicarao calendar.
Mesoamerican ritual calendar
Fray Bobadilla collected information from Nicarao informants on the use of the 20-day ritual calendar, identical to that used by other cultural groups of Mesoamerica, such as the Aztecs, Mixtecs, and Maya. In this system each ‘month’ consisted of 20 named days. Thirteen of these months resulted in the 260 day ritual cycle, while eighteen 20-day months plus 5 additional days equaled the 365-day solar year. The five ‘special days were considered particularly significant for religious ceremonies of renewal. The use of the ritual calendar by the Nicarao of Pacific Nicaragua is suggestive of their participation in broader Mesoamerican cultural practices.
The great majority of information about this final Ometepe period is derived from historical sources: what is the archaeological evidence to support these data? Sadly, archaeological investigations have not as yet been successful in identifying late prehistoric sites, despite excavations at several locations that were supposedly occupied when the Spanish arrived. For example, Mi Museo excavated at the site of Santa Isabel near modern-day San Jorge, where supposedly the conquistador Gil Gonzalez Davila first encountered the native lord of the Nicarao known as Nicaragua. Despite four seasons of intensive investigations no late deposits were discovered, although the excavations did encounter rich deposits of earlier Sapoa period artifacts. The search for Ometepe period archaeological remains continues, and hopefully we will soon be able to provide new light on this important topic.
Pochteca merchant from Mexico travelling to the Nicaragua with pack of trade goods. Flyers. Ritual games of the Nicarao.