Managua (Nicaragua):Bodies in Urns Among Artifacts Found in 1,000-Year Old Cemetery

Sarah Gibbens

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NicaraguaDuring the construction of what was intended to be a new baseball stadium in the capital city of Nicaragua, construction workers didn't expect the debris and earth they cleared to have the thousand-year-old remains of a society untouched by Spanish conquistadors.

A massive cemetery containing human bones and large funerary urns was found in western Managua by Nicaragua's National Electric Transmission Company, which had been digging a ditch for a substation intended to support the new stadium.

More than 30 pre-Columbian urns containing human remains have been found so far. Funeral and animal faces adorn many of the urns.

The archaeology department at the Nicaraguan Institute of Culture told local press that the finds date from 800 to 1350 CE during the time of Nicaragua's Sapoá period.

By studying how Nicaragua's indigenous people buried their dead, archaeologists can piece together what life was like in cultures predating European colonization.

Chris Fisher, a National Geographic explorer who has led expeditions in neighboring Honduras commented that, "this discovery highlights the amazing cultural diversity and richness of this critical and understudied zone of the Americas."

In an interview with La Prensa Libre, a representative from the Nicaraguan Institute of Culture added the findings help archaeologists "rescue the cultural identity of the old settlers of Managua."

Artifacts from around the same time period have been found in cities to the south and east of Managua.

Archaeologists believe that Lake Managua, which lies near the city, may have been a hub for local tribes that hunted and fished in the region.


When the Spanish arrived in Nicaragua in the early 16th century, three distinct tribes with their own customs and languages were documented. However, disease soon wiped out much of the region's indigenous population.

While much is known about pre-Columbian civilizations such as the Maya, which have been documented in the south of what is modern-day Mexico, and the Inca, which inhabited the western coast of South America, less is known about Central America's indigenous tribes.

In an emailed statement to National Geographic, Nicaraguan Institute of Culture director Ivonne Miranda Tapia stated researchers believe the findings may correspond with the region's Chorotega tribe. The Chorotega were a powerful semidemocratic tribe that elected chiefs and spoke the language Mangue. It's believed they may have migrated south from the Mexican state of Chiapas.

Speaking with local paper El Nuevo Diario, Tapia claimed it was the first time a cemetery of this density had been found buried all in one location.

According to Miranda, the dead were initially buried until they decomposed. The remaining bones were then placed in urns or other ceramic containers.

"Some of the [urns] were reused or were previously intended for other purposes and finally used to bury their family members," Miranda told El Nuevo Diario. (Translated from Spanish.)

Previously discovered urns from the same time period, documented by the Nicaraguan Museum of Art and Archaeology, have been found with skulls placed just outside of urns, possible evidence of using heads as trophies.

The cemetery was discovered in a relatively uninhabited neighborhood of Managua. It was only as recent as the 1990s that the city saw urban development in the region. Traces of other indigenous activity have been found in more recently built neighborhoods.

According to regional papers, remains have been transferred to the National Palace of Culture where they will undergo laboratory analysis.

Construction for the originally planned baseball stadium will continue on the site.

This article has been updated to reflect emailed statements from the Nicaraguan Institute of Culture.