The Grand Nicaraguan Canal

The dream of crossing Nicaragua has existed since the sixteenth century when Spanish explorers speculated over the possibility. Since then numerous schemes have been promoted along with occasional false starts. During the California Gold Rush Nicaragua was a favorite transit route for hopeful miners crossing from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and then sailing north to the gold fields. Speculation ran high at the end of the 19th century before the canal project was ultimately awarded to Panama. In 2014 Nicaragua partnered with China to begin construction of the Grand Trans-Oceanic Canal, which will become one of the largest construction projects in world history. The archaeological effort will correspondingly be a major undertaking.

19th century transit route

The Nicaraguan passage has long been considered one of the best and most economical means to traverse the western hemisphere. In the mid-nineteenth century it was hotly contested by American interests, such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, who established a transportation empire that included travel up the San Juan River to steamships across Lake Cocibolca (or Nicaragua), and finally across the Isthmus of Rivas to San Juan del Sur. This conflict resulted in the William Walker uprising, during which American interests clashed. During the Gold Rush of 1849 nearly 1 million foreigners crossed Nicaragua.

 

Transit Route for the miners of 1849, with steamships on the lake. 

Archaeological survey

In 2014, environmental impact assessments began in advance of the proposed canal, and in relation an archaeological survey was conducted by the British company ERM. Several teams of archaeologists walked over segments of the proposed canal route, recording over 200 sites and collecting 15,000 artifacts. Based on the fact that the survey covered less than 1% of the route, and did not cover related impact zones such as proposed airports, estimates are that over 25,000 sites will be affected. In late 2015 a small scale project was conducted on the Pacific coast to begin the task of recovering some information from the Brito site. 

The arrival of Gil Gonzalez in Nicaragua. 

Mi Museo in San Jorge

The site maps produced by the ERM survey indicated a large site along the shore of Lake Cocibolca, just south of modern San Jorge in a community now known as Nahualapa (literally ‘place of the Nahua’). This corresponds to the general location of the Nahua Nicarao town where the Spanish conquistador Gil Gonzalez first met the native ruler known as Nicaragua. Preliminary investigations have recovered diagnostic Luna Polychrome ceramics from the site, confirming that it was occupied during the Ometepe period (1250-1525 CE). Archaeologists from Mi Museo in collaboration with the University of Calgary have begun an intensive excavation to explore this site of potential importance to Nicaraguan patrimony.