Petroglyph Types found on Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

Article by Suzanne Baker

For six field seasons since 1995 my colleagues and I have been conducting an intensive archaeological survey on Ometepe Island. With the assistance of numerous volunteers in the last three years, we have to date recorded 73 sites and over 1400 boulders with petroglyphs (almost 1700 petroglyph panels). Although we are still in the data entry and initial analysis stage of our work, I welcome the opportunity to provide an introduction to a little known but exciting and unique area of rock art in Latin America. Indeed, I think Nicaragua may come to be recognized as one of the great rock art areas of the world with Ometepe Island as perhaps the center of that tradition.

Nicaragua in general is one of the least known areas archaeologically in Central America. While there has been a great deal of work done in Costa Rica to the south and El Salvador and Honduras to the north, relatively few systematic archaeological studies have been conducted in Nicaragua. As an intermediate area between Mesoamerica and South America, its pre-Columbian cultures seem to have exhibited interesting independent development as well as influences from and to both the north and south.

Lake Nicaragua or Cocibolca is one of the largest fresh water lakes in Latin America. Naturally its shores and islands were a focus of much prehistoric as well as historic settlement. Isla Ometepe is the largest island in the lake. It has been known since the 19th century to be relatively rich in pre-Columbian sites, artifacts, and a monumental sculptural tradition and to contain numerous petroglyphs, but prior to our work there had never been a systematic site inventory, much less systematic petroglyph recording on the island. We know from excavations conducted by J.F. Bransford in the early 1880s and by Wolfgang Haberland, a German archaeologist, in the late 1960s that there has probably been settlement on the island since at least 800 B.C. and perhaps as early as 2000 B.C. There appears to have been various incursions by different groups over the millennia. Which group or groups were responsible for making the petroglyphs is presently unknown. Ometepe has generally been included within the Greater Nicoya Archaeological Subarea as proposed by Norweb (1964) and more specifically within the northern sector, as defined by Lange (1984; 1992), which is restricted to Pacific Nicaragua.

ometepe island
Ometepe Island is very beautiful, as you can see in the picture to the right, taken at dusk. It is approximately 31 kilometers long and about five to ten kilometers wide. It is almost hourglass in shape, formed of two volcanoes, with a narrow isthmus between the two. The northwest half of the island contains Volcan Concepción (once called Ometepec), a beautiful symmetrical cone-shaped volcano, which is still active. That side of the island is currently the most populated and has been the focus of virtually all of the past archaeological work, although it apparently contains few petroglyphs since its eruptions have been primarily ash flows.

The southeast half of the island is dominated by Volcan Madera, a truncated cone, which is apparently older than Concepción. You can see it in the picture to the right. It has a volcanic crater lake and its slopes are covered with rainforest, which shelter a diverse floral and faunal life, including howler and blackface monkeys, gorgeous birds, and innumerable butterflies. Because of its importance ecologically and archaeologically, most of the Madera side of the island has been designated a natural reserve.

Madera was an explosive volcano, which resulted in deposition of numerous basalt boulders on its slopes. Consequently Madera is the main location for petroglyphs on the island and has been the focus of our survey. We are concentrating in an area approximately 5 kilometers by 3 kilometers in size on the north central to northeast slopes of Madera. ometepe island map The survey has covered areas from the lake to an elevation of about 340 meters in elevation—above this area, the slopes of the volcano are very steep and filled with rainforest vegetation, and are logistically and physically difficult and sometimes impossible to survey in any kind of systematic way. Petroglyphs have been found in the deep forest on steep slopes and it is quite possible that they may occur at high elevations. Local guides have told us, however, that they have never found petroglyphs around the mouth of the crater lake at the top of the volcano.

Petroglyphs occur in a variety of circumstances:

1) In settlement sites with mounds and/or ceramic concentrations. One important site contains about 35 platform mounds, many artifacts, and sculptural fragments, as well as 95 petroglyphs.
2) Sites with boulder clusters which appear devoted solely to petroglyphs.
3) Fields with dispersed boulder petroglyphs usually running along ridges following basalt flows. Site boundaries are sometimes difficult to draw because of the dispersed nature of the petroglyphs.
4) Isolated petroglyphs.

chalked petroglyph ometepeWhile many fields have been cleared for cultivation, in others there is heavy vegetation and vegetation patterns change from year to year. It is clear that in these circumstances we may be missing some petroglyph boulders, but we do feel we have found the majority of petroglyph concentrations in the areas we have surveyed.

Petroglyphs are almost always pecked, although there are a number with deep, smooth edged grooves which may have been manufactured with both pecking and abrasion. Petroglyph grooves are often amazingly large, with grooves 2cm deep not uncommon. Very many, however, are highly eroded and difficult to photograph and draw. Almost never do we find superimposition.

Tourism to Ometepe has greatly increased in the last few years and we are beginning to see chalking, some by children and some by guides. More common are petroglyphs which have been scratched with machetes of local campesinos. The greatest impact by far to the rock art is agricultural field burning, which is causing extensive exfoliation and cracking.

fire damaged petroglyph

I can only begin to show some of the wide variety of petroglyph types and motifs found. It is a bit premature to attempt assigning stylistic nomenclature, but there are some recognizable broad categories emerging:

1) Abstract Curvilinear
abstract curvilinear petroglyph

The most ubiquitous variety of petroglyphs are abstract curvilinear designs. They range from very simple to very complex. They are often hard to describe because of their complexity. A pervasive major subcategory of the abstract curvilinear type is composed of complex meandering curvilinear designs, sometimes open and sometimes closed . Very frequently they include loops and may incorporate spirals, circles, and sometimes cupules. Others appear highly organized and are quite beautiful . These few slides do not do justice to either the number or complexity of these designs.

Ometepe has been called the ‘island of circles and spirals” (Matillo Villa 1973) and with reason, for within the abstract curvilinear type probably the single most common motif is the spiral, found in virtually all sites. These range from simple single spirals to multiple spirals . Concentric circles are also common and may represent a variation on the spiral. grid designs petroglyph

2) Abstract Rectilinear

Abstract rectilinear figures occur, but in very small proportion to other types of figures. In general they seem to be a variation on some of the Abstract Curvilinear category—a few rectilinear spirals , concentric rectangles. There are a few grid-like designs . Rarely, however, are there abstract rectilinear designs of the complexity of Abstract Curvilinears.

3) Anthropomorphic

Anthropomorphic figures are another relatively common category, occurring often in some sites and not at all in others. Simple heads or faces occur in considerable numbers, often represented simply by a simple circle with three dots for eyes and mouth .

anthropomorphic stick figureThere are stick figures, as well as anthropomorphs with fully outlined bodies There are stick figures, as well as anthropomorphs with fully outlined bodies There are stick figures, as well as anthropomorphs with fully outlined bodies . Generally there is little sexual differentiation, although genitalia are occasionally represented. A copulating couple is unique . Only occasionally is body adornment found, usually what appears to be a headdress.

In addition to the often rather simple anthropomorphic designs shown in the previous slides, there are a number of quite extraordinary figures which are almost sculptural— integrating the three dimensional aspect of the rock and sometimes carved in relief. This naturalistic human head is extraordinary. Another, called the bruja or witch , has carving on all three sides, including hair-like carving on the back which incorporates skulls. Then there is this almost frightening foetus-like figure . [These three-dimensional figures may or may not be intermediate to the monumental sculptural tradition on the island, which is an entire topic of its own.]

ometepe petroglyph

2) Zoomorphic Figures

zoomorphic petroglyphZoomorphic figures are found relatively infrequently, but do occur in both representational and more stylized forms. Of the representational forms the monkey is the most common , but whether this relates to the fact that even today there are large numbers on the island or to some other deeper iconographic relationship is unknown. Several show markings in the stomach Feet, hands, and face are often realistically rendered.

Quadrupeds are infrequent, but tend to be found in complex panels. A figure with spots is quite distinctive and is quite likely represents a deer, a small spotted variety of which is found on the island .

Lizard-like or crocodilian figures occasionally occur. Some are simple figures which could be either lizard or crocodile, but the crocodile is depicted in one of the more elaborate and beautiful panels found . Today caiman or small crocodiles can still be found in the low swampy area of the island. There are also snake-like figures and it is also quite possible that some of the curvilinear designs may represent stylized snakes. Other reptiles, such as turtles , and amphibians like frogs or toads are infrequent. Birds are rare.

Some motifs are highly stylized and may represent animals. One seems to have a snake or crocodilian figure and a possible bird head (at the bottom) , another is likely a snake or bird head .

3) Mask-like Forms

This is a general category for a number of head-like motifs which can not readily be called anthropomorphic or zoomorphic .

mask like form

4) Miscellaneous motifs.

Aside from the above general categories there are some distinctive and repetitive motifs, some of which seem to be associated with particular sites and are not found widely. Among some of the most unusual are these flower or butterfly-like designs . Sun-like symbols occasionally occur , as do cruciform figures .

cruciform petroglyph

Sites with petroglyphs also contain pecked mortars and cupules, sometimes separate and sometimes incorporated into the petroglyph boulder. They undoubtedly have different functions in different sites. There are also examples of square-cut or circular bowl-like depressions which appear different than mortars and may in fact have been receptacles, perhaps for offerings. . Several are very intricately carved and appear altar-like.


Finally, in addition to petroglyphs, we are also finding some extremely interesting rock features which we are hard-pressed to call petroglyphs . Several years ago we began finding features with parallel ridges and grooves. In 1998 we recorded one site in which there were a number of rocks covered with this pattern. . We had no idea what their purpose was, but these had the appearance of something functional. In 1999 we recorded another, very similar site which contained numerous boulders with one or more of these parallel ridges and grooves, as well as cut niches. One quite large rock retained a well-cut rectangular bar-like feature. In my opinion, these features resulted from quarrying these bar-like objects, which were cut and shaped prior to removal. Once removed, they left the characteristic ridge and groove pattern. We have been unable to find reference to such features in the literature and would appreciate knowing whether they have been found in other areas of Central or South America.

unusual petroglyph

This has been primarily an overview. We are only now beginning to attempt analysis and classification. Dating will be difficult. There is little if any ethnographic information relative to rock art in Nicaragua. Nicaragua¹s indigenous population suffered a catastrophic decline within 50 years of the Spanish conquest. It has been estimated that almost 90% of the population either died from disease or was removed by the slave trade (Newson 1978:1978). It is likely that petroglyph manufacturing halted not long after Spanish conquest, and there seems to be no one alive who remembers its iconographic or religious associations. References to what is known about religion at contact and comparisons with Mesoamerican and South American iconography may prove to have some referential utility. The neuropsychiatric model obviously may have some utility. Future excavations may eventually provide some help, but as always the coincidence of rock art with surrounding archaeological deposits is usually open to dispute. Developing techniques, such as C14-dating, may one day provide some hope, but possibilities for any C14 dating seem problematic, especially in view of the fact that field burning is having the greatest contemporary impacts on petroglyphs.

In addition to the diachronic problems, we are also handicapped by a current lack of comparative material from neighboring areas. There have been few systematic surveys and few published works pertaining to rock art in Central America. It is unknown at this time point in time whether the rock art designs and motifs found on Ometepe, especially the abstract curvilinear category, prove to be relatively unique to Nicaragua or are found throughout Central American.

At the very least, however, we hope that the large body of data being produced from our Ometepe work will provide an important starting point for the analysis and comparison of future rock art research in Nicaragua and neighboring areas of Central America.

I would like to thank my colleagues Michael Smith, James Martin, Jerry Doty, and the many other volunteers who have devoted their time and worked so hard to make the Ometepe Archaeological Project a success.

References Cited:

Bransford, J.F.
1881 Archaeological Researches in Nicaragua. Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge No. 25. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Haberland, Wolfgang
1992 Culture History of Ometepe Island. In The Archaeology of Pacific Nicaragua. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Lange, Frederick
1984 The Greater Nicoya Archaeological Subarea. In The Archaeology of Lower Central America, edited by F. Lange and D. Stone. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Lange, Frederick, Payson D. Sheets, Anibal Martinez, Suzanne
1992 The Archaeology of Pacific Nicaragua. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Matillo Villa, Joaquin
1973 Ometepe, Isla de Círculos y de Espirales. Estas Piedras
Hablan. Vol. III. Managua: Centro de Investigaciones Rupestres.

Newson, Linda
1978 Indian Survival in Colonial Nicaragua. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Norweb, Albert H.
1964 Ceramic Stratigraphy in Southwestern Nicaragua. In Actas, 35th International Congress of Américanistas 1:551-61.

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