Buff woman is earliest-known burial in lower Central America

The remains of a woman discovered at the Angi shell-matrix site near Monkey Point on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua are the oldest-known human remains in lower Central America.

The site was first excavated in the 1970s, but archaeological exploration of Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast in general was limited. That has begun to change in the past 10 years as a concerted effort has been made to survey and thoroughly document ancient sites. The Angi shell-matrix site was revisited in 2013 as part of this project with the aim of assessing its condition for conservation purposes. The excavation made it possible to fully document the statrigaphy of the midden and collect deposit samples, including ones that could be radiocarbon dated. The layers were made of shell (bivalve and snail), charcoal and sediment with a few fragments of ceramics found in the upper layers.

Seven and a half feet under the surface, archaeologists unearthed (unshelled?) the skeletal remains one adult buried in a shallow oval pit on its back with legs bent over the torso and arms at the sides of the body near the feet and pelvis. It was undisturbed, found in the position in which it was buried.

The body was placed over a layer of small fragments of basalt inside the pit. Underneath the basalt rocks was a base layer of charcoal-rich sediment. That was fortuitous material because not enough of the collagen in the bones had survived to make direct radiocarbon dating possible. Instead archaeologists were able to test samples of the sediment and thereby date the burial to 3900 B.C. That makes it the earliest archaeological feature ever recorded on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua as well as the oldest human remains in the area.

With permission of the local indigenous communities, archaeologists removed the skeletal remains to the Historical Cultural Museum of the Caribbean Coast (BICU–CIDCA). Osteological analysis determined the individual was a woman between 25 and 40 years old at time of death. She was 4’11” and powerfully built.

Despite the woman’s small stature, she had “strongly developed musculature of the forearm — possibly from rowing or similar activities,” [study author Mirjana] Roksandic said. Even today, local people are adept rowers.

“While we were in the village of Bankukuk Taik, [study co-researcher] Harly Duncan introduced us to a Rama elder who rowed that very day for 4 hours to visit family,” Roksandic said. “She was 82 years old. Kids as young as 9 rowed around Rama islands in a dugout.”

Moreover, like other people who eat a fair amount of shellfish, the woman had extensive wear on her teeth, Roksandic said.

Given that few ancient human remains are found in tropical places, little is known about the indigenous cultures of lower Central America, Roksandic said. While ancient people who build shell mounds are often fishers, gatherers and horticulturalists, “without further study of the site, it will not be possible to ascertain who they were and why the burial was placed there and what is the significance of this particular individual,” Roksandic said.

There’s a tight deadline on additional study of the site. Canal construction and other development will have a profound impact on the Monkey Point’s archaeological sites.

The study, published in the journal Antiquity can be read in its entirety online here.