The archaeology of Lower Central America is traditionally divided into 6 periods that span from the Paleoindian period until the Spanish Conquest.
- Period I or Paleoindian (ca 10,000 - 8000 B.C): Evidence are scarce. Projectile points similar to North and South American traditions (fluted and fish-tail points) have been found in different contexts in Lower Central America. Apparently, two main traditions dominated: a big-game hunting and a forest hunter-gatherer tradition, with a percussion-type tool industry.
- Period II, Tropical Archaic (8000-4000 BC): Limited data are available for this period. Tropical Archaic cultures specialized in hunter-collector strategies. A set of footprints, apparently from this period, come from the site of Acahualinca in Managua (Nicaragua). Coastal swamps seem to have been exploited by expanding human population on the Atlantic side. Here investigators found temporary sites and permanent hamlets, rock shelters, whereas population is scarce on the Pacific coast.
- Period III (4000-1000 BC): This period marks a transition from collection to cultivation. Both manioc and maize cultivation seems to appear in this period, probably still as a complement of other subsistence strategies, especially along the coasts. By the end of this period the use of ceramics is widespread in the region. Its earliest development, though, seems to have occurred at around 3000/2500 BC in Panama and the southern area. Important sites: Tronadora in lake Arenal of the Guanacaste region (Costa Rica) and La Mula, Western Panama.
- Period IV (1000 BC-AD 500): Sedentary village life based on farming. By 500 BC emergence of wealth distribution and social hierarchy (chiefdom-type of social organization) materialized through public architecture and distribution of jade and greenstone. Polychrome pottery appears in this period in Greater Nicoya. At around 100 BC, in Honduras, evidence of specialized buildings at Los Naranjos and Yarumela.
- Period V (AD 500-1000): Population growth, development of new trade routes. In the regions of Nicaragua and Costa Rica there is a new population movement toward the coast. Gold work seems to replace jade as luxury good, and this metallurgical technology starts to reach the northern areas from South America. Stone sculpture is widespread and, in general, there is a trend toward political centralization.
- Period VI (AD 1000-1520): this period is marked by stronger regionalisms in ceramic styles and other craftworks, as well as an increasing trading connection with Mesoamerica and South America. At the time of the Spanish invasion, travelers described chiefdoms in Panama and Colombia, with fortified towns and capitals in several areas, suggesting a higher degree of political conflict.
Willey Gordon R., 1980, A Summary of the Archaeology of Lower Central America, in The Archaeology of Lower Central America, edited by Frederick Lange and Doris Stone, School for American Research Book, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, pp 341-378.