The Macro-Chibchan language family is spread from Honduras all the way to northwestern South America. In Nicaragua, it is still the dominant indigenous language family of the Caribbean coastal region, for cultural groups such as the Rama and Sumo, though relatively few native speakers still exist. A Chibchan dialect was spoken in the Chontal region of central Nicaragua into the 19th century, and was probably spoken along the Pacific coast at the time of the Spanish conquest. Prior to the arrival of Mesoamerican groups ca. 800 CE, the Chibchan culture was probably dominant in the region.
The Bagaces period
Between 300 and 800 CE, population in Pacific Nicaragua grew several times in magnitude. Nucleated villages developed at the top of multi-level settlement hierarchies, implying increased levels of political complexity with small chiefdoms distributed across the countryside. General similarities in material culture, however, indicate cultural continuity from earlier times. Trade wares including ceramics and obsidian indicate participation in a macro-regional exchange network that included Honduras, El Salvador, and Costa Rica.
The Ayala site
The Ayala site is the largest of the Bagaces period in the Granada region. By the end of the period, it was a nucleated village with numerous mounds featuring domestic compounds on top. Ayala was excavated by Silvia Salgado in the 1990s, with a detailed analysis of architectural remains and the material culture. Of interest is the introduction of foreign polychrome ceramics and a local imitation known as Momta Polychrome.
The inhabitants of Ayala were principally agriculturalists. There is also some evidence for specialized production, such as a workshop of bone artifacts (punches and ornamentation), and possible decorated grinding stones. Analysis of Bagaces period ceramics, by Carrie Dennett, also suggests the production of vessels with a polished red surface, such as Tola Trichrome, Chavez White on Red, and Leon Punctate.
El Rayo was a second tier community in the Ayala chiefdom that was located at the tip of the Asese peninsula in Lake Cocibolca. Rich Bagaces period deposits are covered by subsequent Sapoa period layers, thereby providing a unique opportunity to contrast the two time periods to interpret cultural changes over time. In addition to domestic debris filled with ceramics, lithics, faunal remains, and related artifacts, a Bagaces period cemetery had primary interments with exotic grave goods.
Excavation at El Rayo with a Bagaces deposit beneath a layer from the Sapoa period.