The puzzle of Santa Isabel

By Chris Beauchamp

A University of Calgary archeologist is fresh back from his fourth year digging in Nicaragua with conclusions that not only challenge the historical record, but his own work as well.

“It’s always nice when data comes back which supports your ideas, but it’s even better when it challenges them,” said Dr. Geoff McCafferty. McCafferty made headlines last year when he presented evidence challenging the historical interpretation of the Nicarao people of Nicaragua.

Based on differing burial techniques and the lack of cooking implements associated with the Nahua peoples of central Mexico, McCafferty’s team concluded last year that the Nicarao people were likely indigenous to Nicaragua, not migratory ancestors of the Nahua, as was previously thought. The Spanish historical record describes the migration of the Nahua people south from Mexico during the 1300s.

Now, thanks largely to radio-carbon dating of the team’s finds from the Santa Isabel site, the data suggests the people McCafferty’s team have been studying since 2000 are likely not related to the Nahua at all.

Although the total picture is still unclear, it is evident to McCafferty the site is actually a lot older than previously understood.

“With the changes it throws the history into question,” said McCafferty, noting the remains found at the site date from 900 to 1250 AD. “It throws the established chronology into question. We’re thinking that they weren’t Nicarao people. They could be Chorottega or they could be a Chibcha resident population.”

McCafferty said new DNA techniques used to study human teeth found on site will be able to determine whether the people were related to the Chibcha or not. He likened the process of reconstructing DNA from incomplete strands to techniques used in the film Jurassic Park.

This year’s dig marked the end of the grant funding the project and McCafferty noted the team limited the scope of their dig to ensure a full analysis could be completed.

The team included one graduate student and six undergraduates from the U of C.

“Everybody reacts differently to challenging experiences,” said McCafferty, adding the team put up with an earthquake and a boa constrictor in the women’s dorm, on top of the requisite heat, humidity and mosquitoes. “It’s different trying to do research there than a lab down on the third floor, where the worst things that can happen is your test tubes break.”

“The students were just magnificent in the amount of effort they put into the analysis,” he added.

McCafferty noted his most recent conclusions are being challenged in the same way as his work last year by the Nicaraguan academic community.

“Even with this [evidence] in hand there are highly respected people trying to not have to change their conclusions,” he said. “It’s funny how we academics get particularly enamored with our conclusions and assumptions.”

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