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The Greater Nicoya Culture of Lower Central America

Pre-Columbian Culture of Costa Rica and Nicaragua Nicoya


The Greater Nicoya Culture of Lower Central America

Guanacaste-Nicoya Culture. Effigy Vessel.

by ellenm1

The term Greater Nicoya defines a Pre-Columbian cultural area that comprised the regions of Guanacaste and Nicoya in the northwestern portion of the modern Latin American countries of Costa Rica and part of the Pacific region of Nicaragua. Archaeologically, this region is part of the Intermediate Area, so defined because of its intermediate position between the Mesoamerican and South American cultural areas.

In the history of Pre-Columbian archaeology, in fact, the cultural development of this region has often been treated as secondary or strictly linked to the development of "higher" civilizations of Mesoamerica or South America, rather than acknowledging an independent florescence.

Recently, however, archaeologists working in the Nicoya-Guanacaste region, as well as elsewhere in the Intermediate Area, have proposed an independent development for the prehistory of Greater Nicoya even though they recognize the importance of Mesoamerican connections, especially in later periods.

Prominent archaeologists who have worked in the region and support an indigenous development for the Intermediate Area include: Frederick W. Lange, Payson Sheets, Oscar Fonseca and John Hoopes. Other archaeologists who worked in Guanacaste-Nicoya in the late 1950s are the French archaeologists Claude Baudez, Michael D. Coe from Yale University and German archaeologist Wolfang Haberland.

Geographical Setting of the Greater Nicoya Culture

The particularly favorable climate and environmental conditions of the Nicoya-Guanacaste region benefited the prehistoric communities living in the region, since people had access to a rich and varied array of products from both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts which are less than a week apart. Also, the Gulf of Nicoya, with its mangrove, swamps, and other marine-estuary resources offered a wide array of fish, and shellfish. The fertile inland, in contrast, crossed by the Tempisque river and other smaller, seasonal streams, was used for cultivation at least as early as 500 BC, but probably before.

Some archaeologists have argued that this differentiated subsistence strategy and the lack of a single staple crop -such maize was for Mesoamerica- allowed for the proliferation of distinct cultural groups and limited the possibility of the emergence of elite groups linked to food accumulation and redistribution at least for the earliest prehistoric periods.

Greater Nicoya Cultural Periods and Sites

The widely accepted temporal division of Greater Nicoya archaeological periods follows the standard periodization of Lower-Central America developed in 1980 during a professional meeting organized by archaeologists Frederick W. Lange and Doris Z. Stone and directed by influential archaeologist Gordon R. Willey at the School of American Research in Santa Fe, New Mexico. This comprises six periods that spanned between approximately 12,000 BC, the Archaic Period, until AD 1550 which marks the Spanish arrival.

Important archaeological sites for the cultural history of Greater Nicoya are: the archaic site of Acahualinca with evidence of human footprints, in the urban area of Managua, the cemetery of Los Angeles, the site of Ayala and Omotepe all in Nicaragua; the sites of Tronadora, Nacascolo, and the cemetery of Las Huacas in Costa Rica, as well as the shell midden site of Las Marias on the coast at the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica


Lange, Frederick W. (editor) 1996 Paths to Central American Prehistory. University of Colorado Press

Evans Toby, Susan and David Webster (editors) 2001. Archaeology of Ancient Mexico and Central America: an Encyclopedia. Garland Publishing, New York

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