Nicaragua Table of Contents

Present-day Nicaragua is located south of the pre-Columbian culture areas of the Maya and the Aztec in Mexico and northern Central America. Although conventional wisdom states that the culture of lower Central America did not reach the levels of political or cultural development achieved in Mexico and northern Central America, recent excavations in Cuscutlatán, El Salvador may prove that assumption erroneous.

Two basic culture groups existed in precolonial Nicaragua. In the central highlands and Pacific coast regions, the native peoples were linguistically and culturally similar to the Aztec and the Maya. The oral history of the people of western Nicaragua indicates that they had migrated south from Mexico several centuries before the arrival of the Spanish, a theory supported by linguistic research. Most people of central and western Nicaragua spoke dialects of Pipil, a language closely related to Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec. The culture and food of the peoples of western Nicaragua also confirmed a link with the early inhabitants of Mexico; the staple foods of both populations were corn, beans, chili peppers, and avocados, still the most common foods in Nicaragua today. Chocolate was drunk at ceremonial occasions, and turkeys and dogs were raised for their meat.

Most of Nicaragua's Caribbean lowlands area was inhabited by tribes that migrated north from what is now Colombia. The various dialects and languages in this area are related to Chibcha, spoken by groups in northern Colombia. Eastern Nicaragua's population consisted of extended families or tribes. Food was obtained by hunting, fishing, and slash-and-burn agriculture. Root crops (especially cassava), plantains, and pineapples were the staple foods. The people of eastern Nicaragua appear to have traded with and been influenced by the native peoples of the Caribbean, as round thatched huts and canoes, both typical of the Caribbean, were common in eastern Nicaragua.

When the Spanish arrived in western Nicaragua in the early 1500s, they found three principal tribes, each with a different culture and language: the Niquirano, the Chorotegano, and the Chontal. Each one of these diverse groups occupied much of Nicaragua's territory, with independent chieftains (cacicazgos) who ruled according to each group's laws and customs. Their weapons consisted of swords, lances, and arrows made out of wood. Monarchy was the form of government of most tribes; the supreme ruler was the chief, or cacique, who, surrounded by his princes, formed the nobility. Laws and regulations were disseminated by royal messengers who visited each township and assembled the inhabitants to give their chief's orders.

The Chontal were culturally less advanced than the Niquirano and Chorotegano, who lived in well-established nation-states. The differences in the origin and level of civilization of these groups led to frequent violent encounters, in which one group would displace whole tribes from their territory, contributing to multiple divisions within each tribe. Occupying the territory between Lago de Nicaragua and the Pacific Coast, the Niquirano were governed by chief Nicarao, or Nicaragua, a rich ruler who lived in Nicaraocali, now the city of Rivas. The Chorotegano lived in the central region of Nicaragua. These two groups had intimate contact with the Spanish conquerors, paving the way for the racial mix of native and European stock now known as mestizos. The Chontal (the term means foreigner) occupied the central mountain region. This group was smaller than the other two, and it is not known when they first settled in Nicaragua.

In the west and highland areas where the Spanish settled, the indigenous population was almost completely wiped out by the rapid spread of new diseases, for which the native population had no immunity, and the virtual enslavement of the remainder of the indigenous people. In the east, where the Europeans did not settle, most indigenous groups survived. The English, however, did introduce guns and ammunition to one of the local peoples, the Bawihka, who lived in northeast Nicaragua. The Bawihka later intermarried with runaway slaves from Britain's Caribbean possessions, and the resulting population, with its access to superior weapons, began to expand its territory and push other indigenous groups into the interior. This Afro-indigenous group became known to the Europeans as Miskito, and the displaced survivors of their expansionist activities were called the Sumu.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress