Suzanne M. Baker is currently leading the Cueva La Conga Project, a rock art recording project in northern Nicaragua, begun in 2006.
Introduction to the Project
Cueva La Conga is the first limestone cave containing prehistoric paintings, modified speleothems, and artifacts recorded in Nicaragua. Its location in the east central part of the Department of Jinotega is also the farthest south of any such cave yet reported in the Mesoamerican periphery.
Ritual cave use among Pre-Columbian peoples of Mesoamerica is well documented archaeologically, especially for the Maya of the Yucatan Peninsula, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras, and for various other groups of Central Mexico and the Caribbean. Caves were sacred spaces, points of entry to the underworld, and often associated with human and agricultural fertility, and especially with rain. Caves were frightening places inhabited by supernatural beings. Ritual practitioners, sometimes called shamans, communicated and mediated with these beings in both public and private rituals. Unusual speleothems—modified and unmodified—were often venerated as idols. Even today contemporary Maya groups attach great significance to and sometimes worship in caves.
Nicaragua, in general, is archaeologically one of the least known countries in Central America. An intermediate region between Mesoamerican peoples to the north and Chibchan-speaking groups to the south, it absorbed influences from both directions, as well as direct migration from Mesoamerica into Pacific Nicaragua beginning by about 800 A.D. At the time of historic contact in the early 16th century, Nicaragua’s Pacific plain was the site of settled agriculturalists with some distinctly Mesoamerican traits who often lived in large villages or towns. At the same time, the vast Atlantic watershed was a region of rainforest and pine savannas inhabited by small groups of roving hunters and gatherers who practiced minor slash and burn agriculture. Most of the significant archaeological work previously conducted in Nicaragua has been on the Pacific Coast. The archaeology of northern Nicaragua, where Cueva La Conga is located, is virtually unknown. It is, therefore, unclear if the people of this area were influenced by the Maya or other groups and were part of a more general Mesoamerican tradition or whether they developed a localized indigenous culture and ritual. The paintings, carvings, and other archaeological information contained in Cueva La Conga will be of importance in illuminating the identity and ritual practices of the prehistoric people of the region.
This site is a horizontal limestone cave in an area of karst formation. It has two entrances. The north entrance is the larger and faces west. The south entrance is smaller and also faces west. The large entrance is approached by a footpath that climbs uphill on a steep slope. The cave is partially screened by large boulders and dense vegetation. It opens to a relatively large chamber, about 16m north-south and 16m east-west at its maximum size. This chamber is roughly bisected about half way across by a hanging wall that only partially touches the cave floor. The main chamber narrows to the south with the cave continuing in a narrow tunnel that runs generally south for about 14 meters, then turns west once again for about 4 meters to a second, smaller entrance. The south entrance measures roughly 3 meters wide.
The cave is moderately active with certain areas of active drip and formation building. The majority of the cave is, however, quite dry. The degree of drip may increase as the rainy season progresses. (The cave was recorded during the first week of the rainy season in June 2006.) Speleothem formations include dripstone (stalagmites, stalactite, and pillars), flowstone, small curtains, soda straws, and a number of eccentric shapes located on walls, ceilings, or floor of the cave. A number of broken speleothems were observed, most apparently broken long ago.
The cave contains 14 pictograph panels with ochre or charcoal motifs, as well as four modified natural formations, called speleothems. Pictographs are varied in style, with abstract images most common; circle and dot and sun-burst like motifs are prominent in the main chamber. A possible upside down bat in faded ochre, an upside down charcoal anthropomorphic figure, and a well-drawn “basket-weave” design were some of the other motifs noted. Six panels, found in the central chamber and, especially, in the passageway, contain either positive and or stenciled ochre hand prints.
Panels 1, 2, 3, and 4, as well as Speleothems 1, 2, 3, 4 are found on the walls of the main chamber and all receive some ambient light. Panel 1 and Speleothem 1—very near the left side of the entrance—have the most exposure to the elements, including more moisture, some of which may come from ceiling drip. This area also receives the most light and, consequently, Speleothem 1 is very strikingly covered in blue-green lichen. Speleothems 2, 3, and 4 are head-like formations on the walls on the main pictograph panels. These are slightly modified with paint.
A small, low chamber, about 1.5m x 1.5m in size, is found at the east end of the main chamber and behind a wall on which Panels 3 and 4 are found. It contains Speleothem 5, a small head-like image with pecked eyes and mouth. It is in a dark zone with no ambient light. At least two other unmodified speleothems may also have been associated with ritual use, either because of their close association with paintings or with ceramics.
Approximately two months before our recordation of the cave, during Holy Week in April 2006, the landowner reported that a group of young people from the nearby town of Waslala visited the cave without his permission. They were apparently responsible for graffiti found in the cave. Twenty occurrences of graffiti were noted, mostly light to heavy scratching. Two areas were drawn in blue marking pen. Most graffiti was found in the main chamber near the entrance. In general, the grafitti did not impact the paintings, but are unsightly.
Ms. Baker and Dr. Ruth Ann Armitage of Eastern Michigan University are pursuing funding for C14 and chemical residue testing on the Cueva La Conga paintings. Dr. Armitage is an expert on rock art dating. For the ochres, Dr. Armitage would be using a new method to first test for organic binders.
Since 1976, Ms. Baker (M.A., Anthropology/Archaeology) has been the principal partner and archaeologist for Archaeological/ Historical Consultants, a California cultural resources management firm that provides cultural resources services to civic, state, and federal agencies and to many environmental services companies and other private clients. During these 30 years, Ms. Baker has been the principal investigator, field supervisor, and project manager for numerous projects, including archaeological survey and excavation, report preparation, impact assessments, and monitoring.
Ms. Baker is also a co-founder and member of the Board of Directors of Culturelink, a California non-profit organization, founded in 1996. Culturelink is dedicated to linking volunteer archaeologists with archaeological projects that are in need of volunteer support, especially in Third World countries. Since 1995 she has been the director of the Ometepe Archaeological Survey and Rock Art Recording Project on Ometepe Island, Nicaragua, sponsored by Culturelink. She began the Cueva La Conga project in 2006. She is currently a candidate for an MSc in Rock Art Studies at the Rock Art Institute, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.
Ruth Ann Armitage
Dr. Armitage (Ph.D, Chemistry) is an Assistant Professor at Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti. In the past ten years, her principal research has involved developing and refining chemical and radiocarbon methods of dating rock paintings. Working under Dr. Marvin Rowe at Texas A&M University, her 1998 dissertation was on radiocarbon dating of charcoal-pigmented rock paintings. Since then, she has authored or co-authored numerous articles and papers in this developing and important field of rock art analysis. In 2002 she received an award for Research and Creative Activity from Eastern Michigan University for her rock art research on chemical binders in ancient rock art paintings.