Archaeology of the Zapatera Archipelago, Nicaragua

Latest update October 26, 2018 Started on October 26, 2018
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Zapatera is an archipelago situated within Lake Cocibolca, the largest lake in Central America (and the only freshwater lake in the world with sharks!). Although documentation of its pre-Hispanic history dates back to 1851, very little scientific archaeology or environmental work has taken place. This project will perform the first systematic survey of the archipelago, including an underwater component to assess submerged archaeological sites. Zapatera is uniquely situated to provide a perspective on how past people used the lake for transportation and subsistence and how multiple communities sustainably managed lake resources.

October 26, 2018
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Expedition Background

This archaeological research project investigates the exploitation and management of a communal resource by multiple communities with different lifeways connected through waterway transport. By taking a historical ecology approach, it explores the effects of microecosystems on the intentional maintenance of diverse social practices to consider how these practices contributed to or detracted from the long-term sustainability of Lake Cocibolca. While this project incorporates data from previously conducted survey and excavation on the eastern and western sides of this lake, the fieldwork component investigates a unique element of the ecosystem: the Zapatera Archipelago that occupies the lake itself. Zapatera is 1 kilometer from the western shore of the lake; yet, its material culture resembles that of the opposite shore. This raises questions about possible asymmetric control and access to the lake by people on either shore. Was management of the lake and access to fauna contested? Were settlements on the islands situated to facilitate fishing, control transport, or prevent encroachment from neighboring mainland groups?


Nicaragua is the least studied country in Central America archaeologically. Research, to date, has focused on ceramic typologies and associated models of unidirectional diffusion. This project takes an environmental archaeology approach, shifting the frame of study away from Nicaragua as a Mesoamerican periphery to investigate the tangible, enduring fixture of Lake Cocibolca and its surrounding communities. It situates human-environment relationships, as enacted through practices, within their historical ecological contexts and assesses the ramifications of these relationships for inter-community interaction and management of shared lake resources.

Although documentation of Zapatera’s pre-Hispanic history dates back to 1851, early accounts address monumental statuary and mound architecture from only two sites. Systematic excavation has been limited to short campaigns at one site on the main island and two test pits on the small Isla El Muerto. Survey has been opportunistic rather than systematic, limited to discontinuous patches of the main island. No data have been collected concerning human-environment interactions within the archipelago or relationships between island human activity and trans-lake social networks. Lake cores evidence environmental changes related to agricultural practice, but such practices have yet to be situated in data from settlements. This project will document the distribution of human activity across the Zapatera archipelago to elucidate relationships between human activity and environmental history. It addresses the following research questions: 1) How do synchronic and diachronic variations in environmental exploitation practices relate to microecosystemic distinctions and/or paleoenvironmental shifts? 2) How do these practices evidence landscape management strategies that facilitated resilient human-environment relationships, particularly in a volcanically dynamic area?

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