Pacific Nicaragua has long been recognized as a cultural crossroads, with groups of historically documented migrants from central Mexico integrating with Chibchan groups affiliated with Central and South America. This multicultural setting has inspired decades of archaeological investigation, particularly in search of the southeastern frontier of the Mesoamerican culture area. Following ethnohistorical accounts, Nahuat-speaking groups migrated into and colonized the Rivas area in the late Postclassic / Ometepe period (c. 1300–1525 CE). The most prominent ceramic type used to identify this time period was Luna Polychrome, often found in mortuary contexts and therefore currently the best artifact class for inferring Nahua culture and ideology. This paper presents a detailed analysis of sixty Luna vessels. We suggest that the overarching theme of the painted designs relates to the praying mantis. This interpretation coincides with oral traditions identifying the mantis as the “Madre Culebra,” a powerful and revered predator of the insect world and closely affiliated with female symbolic authority. Iconography on some of the more elaborate pots parallels polychrome ceramic female figurines that have been interpreted as ritual practitioners, or shamans, and we suggest a possible correlation between painted designs with visions experienced during trances. Through this analysis we explore the role of ceramic iconography as an expression of ritual practice.
Desde hace mucho tiempo, se reconoce el Pacífico nicaragüense como un cruce de caminos cultural, donde hay registros históricos de grupos de migrantes del centro de México que se unió a grupos Chibchan originarios de América Central y del Sur. Este entorno multicultural ha inspirado décadas de investigación arqueológica, que se ha interesado particularmente en definir la frontera sureste de la zona cultural mesoamericana. De acuerdo con relatos etnohistóricos, los grupos de habla nahua emigraron y colonizaron el área de Rivas en el período Posclásico Tardío, también llamado Ometepe (c. 1300–1525 CE). La principal cerámica que se ha usado para identificar esta era fue la del Polícromo Luna, que, ya que se encuentra a menudo en contextos mortuorios, constituye hoy día la mejor clase de artefacto para reconocer la cultura e ideología nahua. Este artículo presenta un análisis detallado de sesenta vasos Luna. Mantenemos que el tema general de los diseños pintados se relaciona con la mantis religiosa. Esta interpretación coincide con las tradiciones orales que identifican a la mantis como la “Madre Culebra”, un depredador poderoso y venerado del mundo de los insectos y estrechamente relacionado con la autoridad simbólica femenina. La iconografía en algunas de las macetas más elaboradas se asemeja a la de las estatuillas femeninas de cerámica policromada, en las que algunos han querido ver a practicantes de rituales o chamanes. Por nuestra parte, proponemos una posible correlación entre los diseños pintados y las visiones típicas de los trances. A través de este análisis, exploramos el papel de la iconografía cerámica como expresión de la práctica ritual.
A Nicarágua do Pacífico é reconhecida há muito tempo como uma encruzilhada cultural, com um importante grupo sendo documentado historicamente como migrantes do centro do México, integrando-se a grupos de Chibchan afiliados à América Central e do Sul. Esse cenário multicultural inspirou décadas de investigação arqueológica, particularmente em busca da fronteira sudeste da área cultural mesoamericana. Segundo relatos etno-históricos, grupos falantes de Nahuat migraram para e colonizaram a região de Rivas no período pós-clássico tardio/Ometepe (c. 1300–1525 dC). A cerâmica mais proeminentemente utilizada para diagnosticar esse período de tempo foi o policromo Luna, frequentemente encontrado em contextos mortuários e, portanto, atualmente a melhor classe de artefato para inferir a cultura e a ideologia de Nahua. Este artigo apresenta uma análise detalhada de sessenta recipientes Luna. Sugerimos que o tema dominante dos desenhos pintados esteja relacionado ao louva-a-deus. Essa interpretação coincide com tradições orais que identificam o louva-a-deus como a “Madre Culebra”, uma predadora poderosa e reverenciada do mundo dos insetos e intimamente afiliada à autoridade simbólica feminina. A iconografia de alguns dos vasos mais elaborados é paralela às figuras femininas de cerâmica policromada que foram interpretadas como praticantes de rituais, ou xamãs, e sugerimos uma possível correlação entre desenhos pintados e visões experimentadas durante os transes. Através desta análise, exploramos o papel da iconografia cerâmica como expressão da prática ritual.
To movie buffs, the Predator is one of the most ferocious hunters of the extraterrestrial universe. Within nature, the praying mantis shares that reputation (as well as the multiple jaws). Indeed, members of the mantis family are known to capture, kill, and consume animals much larger than they are; for example, snatching hummingbirds out of the air before chewing through their skulls to eat the brains. Females are known to kill and consume their mates' heads—during copulation. Lovely creatures. So it is not surprising that these bizarre predators have often been incorporated into horror fiction.
But to what extent were mantids also incorporated into Native iconography? In this article we argue that a pervasive motif on Luna Polychrome pottery from late Postclassic / Ometepe period (1300–1525 CE) Pacific Nicaragua represents the praying mantis, known locally as the “Madre Culebra” or mother serpent, and we suggest that mantids may have played a prominent role in animistic religion just prior to European contact. Specifically, we suggest a symbolic association between female ritual practitioners and mantids, which may have played a role in divination and trance-state visions.1
The archaeology of Pacific Nicaragua has undergone sporadic periods of investigation for over one hundred fifty years, albeit hindered by periods of political upheaval as well as greater scholarly attention paid to the neighboring “high civilizations” of Mesoamerica and Andean South America.2 Consequently our understanding of Nicaraguan prehistory remains rudimentary, with significant gaps. Despite colonial period accounts of Indigenous society at European contact, the late Postclassic / Ometepe period is one of those gaps—almost no archaeological contexts have been scientifically investigated to shed light on that period. That said, however, numerous cemeteries have been looted to fill museums and private collections with artifacts from the Ometepe period, notably with the elaborate Luna Polychrome that is the subject of this discussion. While the use of looted objects is subject to justifiable criticism and skepticism, decorative iconography on ceramics has often been used to interpret ideologies of the past.3 With the near-total lack of excavated materials from Pacific Nicaragua just prior to European contact, the study of Luna Polychrome provides a unique window onto cultural beliefs.
Ethnohistorical accounts describe the Late Postclassic of Pacific Nicaragua as having strong Mesoamerican influences, especially relating to the Nicarao culture, which spoke a dialect of the Nahuat language, also used by the Aztecs of central Mexico and as a trading language throughout Mesoamerica.4 Support for this Mexican connection is found in the historical linguistics of the early colonial period, where Indigenous groups spoke variations of Nahuat as well as dialects of Oto-Manguean, also a language that originated in central and southern Mexico.5 Art historians and archaeologists have contributed to the debate by recognizing iconographic similarities linking the polychrome pottery of Postclassic Pacific Nicaragua with the Mixteca-Puebla stylistic tradition of central Mexico, especially representations of the Feathered Serpent.6 The Mexican connection has become the foundation for Nicaragua's dominant cultural identity: the name Nicaragua itself derives from the name of the Nahua/Nicarao chief first encountered by the Spanish conquistador Gil Gonzalez de Davila in 1522.7
A diagnostic ceramic type used to identify the late Postclassic / Ometepe period, Luna Polychrome is characterized by fine-line painted designs in black and occasionally red over a light cream-colored slip.8 Confusion over the precise definition and nomenclature by different analysts has complicated the discussion, with “El Menco” becoming first a variety and then a separate type from the original “Luna” based on design configurations. To simplify the present discussion, we consider both as part of a ‘Luna Complex’ and will gloss the complex simply as Luna. Luna vessels are a serving ware, often appearing as superhemispherical, hemispherical, flat-bottom conical, or tripod-supported conical bowls. A common motif on the superhemispherical bowls is of a long-limbed creature with a triangular or heart-shaped head that has traditionally been identified as a monkey but which we now interpret as a praying mantis (fig. 1). Aspects of mantids appear on the great majority of the vessels analyzed, suggesting that there was something specific to the function of Luna vessels that involved mantis symbolism. Our challenge, then, is to make sense of why this creature would be emblazoned on the walls and bases of this highly decorated vessel form. The association of Luna Complex polychromes with mortuary rituals offers some insight into this ritual practice, while ethnographic analogy and comparisons with other regions suggest a connection with the supernatural.
This paper will begin with a theoretical discussion of the role of visual culture, especially on decorated ceramics, in non-Western cultures. This will be followed by establishing a cultural context for pre-Columbian Nicaragua, based on archaeological, ethnohistorical, and linguistic evidence. A formal description of the iconography of Luna Complex polychromes will be presented, in which we demonstrate the mantis characteristics. We conclude with a description of praying mantises in the natural world and in Nicaraguan traditional folklore. Our overarching conclusion is that the praying mantis was symbolically linked to Indigenous religious practice, both as a source of divination and as an animal co-essence linking the natural with the supernatural realms.
COSMOLOGY IN THE VISUAL CULTURE OF PRE-COLUMBIAN SOCIETY
Underlying this research topic is the question, Why did ancient potters decorate their ceramics? To the extent that pottery decoration is related to discussions of style as a form of information exchange,9 it may often be conceived as emblematic of group identity.10 Different potting communities produced ceramics with distinctive characteristics, either intentionally to express group identity or less purposefully (“isochrestically,” sensu Sackett)11 based on traditional practice. Archaeologists rely on this distinction to seriate change through time and infer cultural interaction, but only rarely do they consider the underlying meanings that relate to the decoration and the intent of the artist.
This theme was specifically addressed by Nicholas David and colleagues in reference to pottery from northern Cameroon, where pots embody animistic roles, including human and other spirits. Decoration creates different kinds of identity and can be used as a way of “insulating” against supernatural dangers. “Specific decorative motifs represent cosmological and religious concepts, and similar patterns of decoration on different pot types express coherent underlying perceptions.”12
For example, Anthony Wonderley described painted decoration on Naco bichrome pottery from eastern Honduras that featured characteristic avian imagery related to an origin myth. Similar depictions had been a common design element several centuries previously, but returned to the iconographic canon in response to ethnic changes in the region. Wonderley interpreted this as a strategy by the potters to resurrect a cultural identity in resistance to new political realities.13
Decorated pottery from the Mississippian culture encoded deeper significance about cosmological beliefs.14 Incised rims on diagnostic Ramey Incised pottery embodied profound symbolism characteristic of the dominant Cahokian ideology. A recent review of this argument indicates that hinterland groups may have used this same mode of symbolic communication to negotiate local variations more consistent with their own worldview.15
Another recent approach to ceramic meaning involves visual rhetoric and semiotechnology to consider both the production and circulation of ideas. Using a case study of decorated pottery from the Maya site of Tayza, Prudence Rice analyzed different vessel types and motifs to infer the kinds of information that they circulated in order to “decode the visual rhetoric—the ‘concepts, ideas, themes, and allusions’—mobilized and deployed in the styles, layouts, and motifs.” In the complex social context of a Maya political center, one of the central factors in the interpretation was the power relations communicated through the “meaning-full semiotechnology.”16 Some of these motifs drew on historical references from earlier time periods, while others referenced religious iconography such as the pan-Mesoamerican Feathered Serpent cult.
An overarching premise of studies of archaeological ceramic iconography is pottery's roles in social interaction. Serving ware was among the most public of domestic arts, especially when employed during community feasts, and these are the vessels that were most typically decorated. Utilitarian wares for cooking and food storage were generally not part of public practice and tended to be less often decorated. Exceptions occurred, of course, and deserve to be considered as particular historical case studies. “Designs on pottery, far from being ‘mere decoration,’ art for art's sake, or messages consciously emblemic of ethnicity, are low-technology channels through which society implants its values in the individual every day at mealtimes.”17 This theme echoes discussion by Daniel Miller, who argues that domestic ceramics act to frame social practice, creating a context for meaningful interaction.18
In exceptional cases, as described by David et al.,19 pottery can play an active role in animistic belief systems. Forms, appendages, and surface decoration can replicate elements of the natural world; this even spills over into the terminology applied to ceramic vessels, such as lip, mouth, and leg. Following David et al.'s interpretation, in special cases pots are people, while in other cases they may embody other aspects of the supernatural world. Elaborate vessels such as Moche portrait vessels include very realistic images of humans (and many other creatures), and in the Greater Nicoya region of Central America human faces are modeled onto the exterior walls of vessels,20 which we will suggest is a form of animistic embodiment. More typically, however, pottery is decorated with zoomorphic images, sometimes very naturalistic but extending to highly stylized ones, and occasionally morphing into monstrous composite creatures. The precise meanings undoubtedly vary, but one popular interpretation is that these represent a bestiary from the natural world with supernatural characteristics.
The premise of pottery decorated with cosmological imagery was considered by Christine and Todd VanPool based on three thousand vessels from Paquimé / Casas Grandes in northern Mexico. They found that images of birds, humans, and serpents were predominant in the iconography, while animals that were more abundant in the faunal assemblage and used as food were nearly absent. Their conclusion was that the ceramic symbolism related to a fundamental shamanic worldview.21 They follow Mircea Eliade22 and many others in defining shamans as intermediaries between the natural and supernatural (but see Klein et al.),23 with shamanic practice found throughout the Americas in both middle level and complex societies. VanPool and VanPool argue that the animals selected for pottery decoration are precisely those able to cross between planes of a three-tiered cosmos: birds of the heavens and earth, and serpents of the earth and underworld.24 They place particular emphasis on the horned or feathered serpents that often appear in association with humans that they interpret as shamans.25 These are typically shown flying, often accompanied by a spirit guide to navigate otherworldly dimensions.
Some of the Paquimé / Casas Grandes pottery is highly intricate, combining geometric motifs with anthropomorphic and zoomorphic themes that VanPool and VanPool suggest represents the experience that a shaman might have during a trance in which the spirit leaves the body and flies.26 This attempt to illustrate a vision is reminiscent of the shaman/weavers of the modern-day Huichol of northwestern Mexico, who incorporate their hallucinogen-induced visions in their art.27 A central theme in Huichol art is often the peyote cactus, but it is integrated with creatures with supernatural significance, especially deer and serpents. The multicolor weavings (as well as yarn art and beadwork) present a complex montage of images meaningful to the artist as they attempt to recapture and record their visions.
Elaborate iconography is also a trait on pottery from Central America, where it is again interpreted as directly related to shamanism.28 Zoomorphic images ranging from naturalistic to fantastic are abundant motifs, often embedded in panels of radiating lines. Here, again, the interpretation is the recording of trancelike visions. Rebecca Stone (2011) describes different stages of visions experienced by shamans of Central and South America, and then relates these to the pre-Columbian arts of the region.29 A common trait was the ability to transform into animal co-essences to travel in the natural realm and communicate with the supernatural. Jaguars, as one of the most powerful and ferocious creatures, were among the most prominent of spirit animals, but many other creatures were also identified. Other zoomorphic images combined aspects of multiple animals to create fantastic creatures.
Feathered serpents have a long history in Mesoamerican mythology, appearing in the iconography of virtually all cultures since the Olmec of the southern Gulf Coast in about 1000 BCE.30 The specific meanings associated with the imagery probably varied, but as a creature associated with both the upper and lower planes of the cosmos, feathered serpents were likely linked with concepts of transcendence. By the early Postclassic period (c. 900 CE) the feathered serpent evolved anthropomorphic traits as the deity Quetzalcoatl (Nahua) or Kukulkan (Maya), both literal translations of feather + serpent. Beginning at this time, the Quetzalcoatl cult was adopted by elites as well as long-distance merchants;31 pilgrimage centers for the cult emerged at prominent urban centers such as Cholula and Chichén Itzá, and merchants traveled as far as Nicaragua to exchange precious commodities. Closely associated with the cult was the Mixteca-Puebla stylistic tradition (also known as the International Style),32 found on murals, costume, and other forms of material culture, but particularly on polychrome pottery on which ideologically charged iconography was painted.33 Symbolism of the feathered serpent was a prominent design element on Mixteca-Puebla pottery.
Mixteca-Puebla style pottery is found over a wide swath of ancient Mesoamerica, interpreted as a form of religio-commercial hegemony centered at Cholula.34 It first appeared in Pacific Nicaragua by about 800 CE, along with other changes that are generally related to migration but could also be the result of long-distance trade and the spread of the Quetzalcoatl cult. The representation of symbolically charged iconography on new forms of polychrome pottery suggests dramatic changes in foodways, especially the ritual consumption of a cacao drink,35 as well as innovations to the local worldview. The introduction of Luna Complex polychromes may represent a late stage of this same cultural transition.
LUNA COMPLEX POLYCHROMES IN THE ARCHAEOLOGY OF PACIFIC NICARAGUA
Located between the “high” civilizations of Mesoamerica and Andean South America, Nicaragua has tended to be overlooked by archaeologists (fig. 2). Early explorers of the nineteenth century included broadly trained naturalists only tangentially interested in Indigenous cultures and their pre-Columbian antecedents,36 but the monumental sculpture and beautiful polychrome pottery did attract international attention. Interest shifted away from Nicaragua in the early twentieth century, attracted by important discoveries in Panama, Costa Rica, and El Salvador. An exception was a two-volume publication on the ceramics of Nicaragua and Costa Rica by Samuel Lothrop. Using beautiful full-color plates, Lothrop highlighted the symbolically rich pottery with interpretations of its possible significance and relations to surrounding regions. In reference to Luna Polychrome,37 he placed emphasis on Feathered Serpent imagery, including some with a circular head and extended wings. A monkey motif was identified by its head and “serpentine” arm; this is the image we now interpret as a praying mantis.
Interest in Pacific Nicaragua was briefly revived in the mid-twentieth century,38 including Paul Healy's important analysis39 of an earlier Harvard University research program in the Rivas area.40 In his ceramic typology Healy provided a description of Luna Polychrome based on 134 vessel fragments, all of which came from Ometepe Island. One of his students, Norma Knowlton, conducted a more detailed analysis of Luna Polychrome using complete vessels from private and museum collections,41 and also identified a closely related type, El Menco Polychrome.42 Knowlton distinguished five varieties of Luna, with distinctive design configurations and vessel forms, and continued the tradition of identifying the long-limbed creature as a monkey.
Archaeological research in Pacific Nicaragua has greatly increased in the new millennium, with several international projects. The most extensive of these has been done by the University of Calgary, excavating along the western shore of Lake Cocibolca (also known as Lake Nicaragua).43 Although the explicit research design of this project was to explore European contact-period Nicaraguan culture using both archaeological and ethnohistorical evidence, in fact after twenty years of excavations almost no evidence of the late Postclassic / Ometepe period occupation has been found. The same problem is reported by other research teams, with the end result that while the cultural history of Pacific Nicaragua is coming into greater focus, the final years—those best represented in ethnohistorical accounts—remain almost invisible from an archaeological perspective.
This is particularly surprising because, based on the ceramic chronologies developed in the 1980s and 1990s,44 Ometepe period diagnostics included types such as Vallejo Polychrome, Castillo Engraved, and Luna Polychrome; Vallejo in particular has strong stylistic affiliation with the Mixteca-Puebla tradition of central Mexico, in support of the ethnohistorical claims of migration and colonization. Extensive analyses of ceramics from Santa Isabel and El Rayo,45 accompanied by over thirty radiocarbon dates, now clearly demonstrate that Vallejo Polychrome and Castillo Engraved were well represented in the preceding early Postclassic / Sapoá period.46 This leaves Luna Polychrome as the only major ceramic diagnostic of the final pre-Conquest period.
Larry Steinbrenner completed an extensive PhD dissertation on the ceramics of Santa Isabel, supplemented with examples of complete vessels from private and museum collections. Acknowledging Knowlton's study, Steinbrenner identified new varieties of the El Menco Polychrome type.47 He identified four varieties of El Menco Polychrome based on design elements. One of these varieties, El Menco: Simio variety, is distinguished by its “spider monkey” motif set,48 which is precisely the motif we now interpret as a praying mantis.
Another approach to the ceramics of Pacific Nicaragua is less concerned with stylistic analysis and iconography but rather focusses on the mineral composition of the clay paste in order to identify manufacturing loci.49 Carrie Dennett has recently expanded that study using pottery excavated by University of Calgary projects. Among her findings she confirmed the Luna complex as being produced in the Rivas/Ometepe zone of southwestern Nicaragua, the area most closely associated with Nahua Nicarao occupation at European contact.50
Despite the long history of archaeological investigation in Pacific Nicaragua, research has been sporadic, and often underanalyzed or underreported. This is particularly problematic for the late Postclassic / Ometepe period just prior to the Spanish conquest but for which the ethnohistorical sources are most complete. Consequently this late stage of Nicaraguan prehistory is almost completely reliant on colonial accounts, and the cultural interpretations are strongly biased by the Nahua informants used by the chroniclers, such as Bobadilla and Oviedo y Valdés.51 More archaeological evidence from solid contexts would undoubtedly adjust for this bias to document other ethnic groups in the cultural mosaic that seems to have existed.
THE CULTURAL MOSAIC OF PRE-COLUMBIAN PACIFIC NICARAGUA
Archaeological, ethnohistorical, and historical linguistic data all provide information on the pre-Columbian cultures of Pacific Nicaragua, and this can be supplemented by interpretations of the rich visual culture preserved on decorated ceramics, stone sculpture, and other elements of material culture. At European contact in the early sixteenth century, numerous cultural groups existed along the western side of what is now Nicaragua, especially along the shores of Lake Cocibolca and Lake Xolotlan (also known as Lake Managua). The fertile plains between the lakes and the Pacific Ocean were also the regions of greatest population density before the devastations of the Spanish conquest.
Colonial Spanish chroniclers provided information on Indigenous life at the time of the Conquest. Of particular interest to the chroniclers were Indigenous groups who spoke dialects of Oto-Manguean and Nahuat, both common in central and southern Mexico.52 Oto-Manguean is the language family that includes Zapotec, Mixtec, and Chiapanec of the Mexican southern highlands, while Nahuat is the language family of the Toltecs and Aztecs of central Mexico but was also a trading language used along the Gulf Coast by groups such as the pochteca, long-distance merchants. These linguistic links corresponded with ethnohistorical accounts of migrants from central Mexico who settled along the lakeshores. The accounts indicate that the Oto-Manguean speakers, known as the Chorotega, were the first to arrive in Pacific Nicaragua.53 Archaeologists suggest that this probably occurred about 800 CE. Some centuries later the Nahuat-speaking Nicarao moved into the region, especially around the Bay of Fonseca that borders Nicaragua with Honduras and El Salvador, and also on the Isthmus of Rivas.54
What is less well established is which cultural groups occupied Pacific Nicaragua before the arrival of Mesoamerican migrants. And to what extent did these groups continue to occupy the region until the arrival of Europeans? Groups affiliated with the macro-Chibchan language family still live along the Caribbean coast and into the central highlands of Nicaragua, so it is plausible that they also inhabited the Pacific region. Archaeological evidence supports a level of continuity between pre-Mexican material culture (dating before 800 CE) from Pacific Nicaragua and adjacent parts of Central America.55
Details of Nahua Nicarao culture were recorded by several colonial period chroniclers, especially Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés in the 1520s.56 Oviedo relied on a Spanish priest, Bobadilla,57 who had met with and interviewed Indigenous informants during initial contact, as well as Oviedo's own eye-witness observations. One of the topics of interest was native religion, and perhaps because the Spanish used Nahuat-speaking interpreters, they focused on the Nahua Nicarao populations.58 Bobadilla and Oviedo described the Nicarao pantheon that included deities with close parallels to the Nahua of central Mexico.
From an archaeological perspective, the information is still problematic. The most explicit artifact class with an ideological component was crafted ceramic figurines. These were most often representations of seated females, and this format spanned the two thousand years of pre-Columbian occupation in Pacific Nicaragua, from about 500 BCE until European contact, with minimal change to the overarching theme.59 These figurines were typically of nude females, seated with legs extended, an overly large head, and occasional body decoration. During the Tempisque (500 BCE–300 CE) and Bagaces (300–800 CE) periods, these small terracotta sculptures were reddish in color with occasional black highlights. But beginning with the Sapoá period (800–1300 CE) the female figurines were often mold-made and painted in polychrome red, orange, and black over a whitish slip. The seated position continues as a dominant posture, but standing figures with hands on hips become more common.
Due to the nature of Pacific Nicaraguan archaeology or lack thereof, few intact figurines have been found in their cultural context, thereby limiting their interpretation. Since most complete objects come from mortuary deposits, however, we can tentatively surmise that complete figurines were included with burials and therefore had some ritual significance. Fragmentary figurines are often found with household refuse, so they may have also played a role in domestic practice. Art historian Laura Wingfield argues that the female figurines represent ritual practitioners, or shamans, and therefore played an important role in interactions with the supernatural.60 That this tradition appears among the earliest evidence for material culture and continues virtually unbroken throughout pre-Columbian history demonstrates remarkable continuity and suggests that this aspect, at least, of Nicaraguan religion had deep roots.
Another hint at ancient belief systems is found on decorated ceramics, where painted and incised iconography of both realistic and fabulous creatures provide some indication of the natural world and its potential relationship with the supernatural. During the Postclassic Sapoá/Ometepe periods, polychrome decoration was very common on ceramic serving ware, with many different motifs. One of the most common was variations on the Feathered Serpent, known from Mesoamerican cultures as an important deity associated with the wind, priestly knowledge, and trade.61 Different motifs became characteristics of distinct ceramic types and varieties, possibly representing ideological variations between the different potting communities.62 A similar range of variation occurred on hollow supports from tripod bowls, which often had animal head motifs. A recurring form that cross-cut several types and varieties was anthropomorphic, but with an exaggerated red buccal mask which is interpreted as a representation of the wind god Ehecatl of the Nahua Nicarao pantheon, an avatar of Quetzalcoatl.63
With the arrival of Spanish priests and conquerors, Indigenous culture was often described in reference to European preconceptions. Thus, the leaders of the small polities of Pacific Nicaragua were identified as chiefs, using the term cacique borrowed from the Natives of the Caribbean, or the Nahuat-derived teyte. The political system was further confused using comparisons with the Nahua Aztec of central Mexico, so early chroniclers described a complex political organization with multitiered hierarchies and intergroup warfare. Archaeological evidence only weakly corroborates these ethnohistorical accounts of political organization.64 Instead, settlement pattern data suggest small polities with minimal hierarchical organization, minimal evidence of weaponry, a lack of monumental architecture, and a relative lack of social inequality.
Similarly, the ethnohistorical sources describe a pantheon of deities derived from the central Mexican Aztecs, including a rain god (Quiateot) and a wind god (Hecat), among others.65 Evidence to support this Mexicanized religion focuses on polychrome ceramics depicting the Feathered Serpent. While the colonial sources derive almost exclusively from Nicarao informants, in fact the Feathered Serpent iconography first appears several centuries before the supposed arrival of the Nahua Nicarao and is more likely an introduction by the Oto-Manguean Chorotega.66
The ethnohistorical sources also document a variety of ritual practices shared between the Nahua of central Mexico and the Nicarao.67 Included was the presence of ritual practitioners, or shamans, known as texoxes, who could transform into animal spirits as intermediaries with the supernatural:
En aquella tierra hay muchas bruxas, de la qual maldita setta y escuela hay muchos hombres y mugeres en aquella provincia, a los quales bruxos llaman texoxes: e tienen ellos por muy averiguado que se transforman en lagartos de aquellos grandes, o en perro, o en tigre, o leon, o en las forma de qualquiera otro animal, segund ellos lo quieren hacer.” (Oviedo 1945, vol. 2, book 6: 143–44)
In this land there are many witches, many men and women in this cursed school from this province, called texoxes and they are established as being able to transform into large alligators, or dogs, or tigers, or lions, or whatever animal they choose. [translation by authors]
Reconstructing cultural practices from pre-Columbian Nicaragua is difficult due to the inherent biases of ethnohistorical evidence and the virtual extermination of Indigenous groups during the early colonial period. Archaeological evidence provides the best means for reconstructing past lifeways, but is challenged to demonstrate religious practices. In Pacific Nicaragua, iconography on different artifact classes presumably relates to symbolic meanings that were important to the ancient peoples. Some decorations may have been emblematic, relating to statements of group identity. Other objects, however, probably conveyed information relating to more spiritual aspects of the ancient cosmology. Shamans, as intermediaries between the natural and supernatural planes, may have experienced the otherworld during trance-induced visions, and then conveyed that information verbally to their communities and recorded the visions as part of the visual culture. In the following section, we argue that Luna Polychrome was a medium employed for this purpose during the late Postclassic / Ometepe period in Pacific Nicaragua, with particular emphasis on praying mantis iconography.
PRAYING MANTIS ICONOGRAPHY ON LUNA POLYCHROME
Luna Complex polychromes were among the first ceramic types identified from Pacific Nicaragua, discovered in association with burial urns by John Bransford in the late 1800s and designated after the Luna family property from which many of the urns were excavated.68 This association with mortuary ritual continued in subsequent excavations, including investigations at Santa Isabel, where ovoid “shoe-pots” containing infant burials were occasionally covered with Luna Complex bowls.69 Unfortunately, Ometepe period occupational contexts are virtually unknown from the region, so it is currently difficult to evaluate if Luna had domestic functions or rather was exclusively mortuary. Most known examples from private and museum collections are complete, suggesting that they were recovered from looting of pre-Columbian cemeteries, and the conventional interpretation is that they were associated with funerary urns.70 Many of the vessels do, however, exhibit use-wear on the exterior base, suggestive of a possible domestic function prior to interment as mortuary furniture. The vessel forms are consistent with other serving ware, so they could have functioned to contain liquid foods during meals. On the other hand, many of the complete vessels feature small “kill holes” through the base; killed vessels are typical of mortuary contexts throughout Mesoamerica and into northern Mexico. The practice is interpreted as releasing the animistic spirit of the vessel itself, but if the vessel is placed over a funerary urn it could also allow the spirit of the deceased to exit and reenter the body as the essence continued to interact with the mortal world.
Mi Museo in Granada, Nicaragua, is a private museum of pre-Columbian ceramics that holds a large number of Luna Complex polychromes, and they were a particular interest of founding patron Peder Kolind. One of the goals of Mi Museo was to advance the scholarly interpretation of the collection; the collection is accessible through the museum website (www.mimuseo.org). This has included detailed studies of artifact classes such as the ovoid Sacasa Striated urns, spindle whorls, figurines, and other ceramics. During the summer of 2017, we studied fifty-six Luna Polychrome vessels and conducted a detailed iconographic analysis of the painted decorations (three additional Luna vessels from the University of Calgary Archaeology museum and one from the Santa Isabel excavations were included in the final analysis). The Mi Museo collection neatly overlapped with the collection studied by Knowlton,71 so the database is comparable.
In our research into the iconography of Luna Polychrome, we created divisions based on vessel form and variation in painted details. After drawing roll-outs of the superhemispherical vessels, it was obvious that the image we were looking at was not a monkey, as had been the traditional interpretation.72 Instead, we began to entertain the thought that it was more insect-like and most similar to a praying mantis. We contacted entomologist Jean-Michel Maes from the Museo Entomológico of León, Nicaragua, who agreed that they were indeed representations of mantids. This has recently been confirmed in consultation with entomologist Dr. Gavin Svenson of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. It is also interesting to note that two artists visiting Mi Museo independently commented on the mantis imagery on the Luna vessels. Mantids are occasionally portrayed on archaeological ceramics from other cultural areas; for example, at least two vessels from Panama depict combined mantis and snake imagery,73 and mantids are a subject of mythology and representations worldwide.74
The largest group of Luna vessels were superhemispherical bowls with painted decoration on the exterior (and occasionally the interior). These often included an image of a creature with long, multijointed front legs, a segmented body, triangular to ovoid head, and lines suggesting antennae. A long “tongue” protrudes from the head, and a circular object is characteristically depicted behind the head. These attributes can all be related to the praying mantis.
There are 2500 species of mantids living on nearly all continents of the world, representing a complex evolutionary history.75 In tropical Nicaragua there are at least five families of mantids, including twenty-seven species, ranging in size to nearly 30 cm in length.76 A praying mantis (order Mantodea) typically has a triangular head attached to a long, segmented body (fig. 3). The mantis is unique in that it can rotate its head 180 degrees. It has five eyes: two large eyes on either side of the triangular head plus three ocellus receptors that distinguish between light and dark, and across a spectrum of wavelengths including ultraviolet. It has long antennae, and also multiple mouth parts for chewing—the characteristic so often reproduced in horror films. The front limbs are jointed with raptorlike forelegs for grasping, while the four back legs serve more for stability and locomotion. Mantids have forewings and hindwings stored beneath a wing casing on the long segmented body. During adolescence, mantids will shed (or molt) their exoskeleton multiple times (similar to snakes periodically shedding their skins, which may relate to the Nicaraguan vernacular term for mantids as the “mother serpent”).
The following discussion compares anatomical details of Nicaraguan mantids with corresponding images from Luna Complex polychromes. The diagnostic triangular head with large bulbous eyes is a common trait on all mantids, and the emphasis on the eyes on Luna vessels replicates this characteristic. The unique fact that mantids can rotate their heads is suggested by Luna heads in various angles. Luna vessels often include a long “tongue” emerging from the head; in fact mantids lack tongues, but in oral tradition they are believed to have tongues with which they snare their prey, much like a frog, due to the incredible speed with which they capture their prey.
Behind the head is the prothorax, which houses major organs such as the heart and lungs. The head is flexibly articulated to the prothorax, unlike all other insects, allowing the free movement of the head. On Luna vessels the prothorax is depicted as a whitish, circular design, often divided into four sections. Behind the prothorax extend two elements that we interpret as the antennae.
The mantis foreleg is jointed, and the femur and tibia feature sharp spines used for grasping prey. The back legs provide stability and locomotion. The forelimbs, the most notable elements on the Luna Polychromes, also appear as isolated elements and in bands around the rim or base.
A final anatomical element is the segmented body, where the wings and wing casing are attached. On the superhemispherical Luna vessels these extend down from the head, but on shallow bowls they appear with greater detail, also depicting the extended wings. A few examples do feature a curled tail reminiscent of the monkey imagery from the earlier Bagaces period (fig. 4). These, however, more likely depict mantids that can curl their bodies, such as the Thespidae species, which is done as part of an aggressive display. In both examples from the Mi Museo collection, a second “face” is represented on the “tongue,” perhaps in reference to the decapitation of the male by the female during copulation.77 Among Nahuat speakers of central Mexico, mantids are called tzontecomama, meaning “head carrier,”78 perhaps in reference to decapitation.
Luna conical bowls often include mantids with their wings extended. Although the heads are more squarish, they still include the diagnostic cleft on top. In addition to these more naturalistic, full-body representations, other vessel forms often include smaller motifs that we interpret as fragmentary segments of mantids. The most common of these are the serrated front legs, which often appear as a band around the circumference of the vessel. Isolated cross patterns possibly represent the design common to the prothorax. Other varieties of Luna, especially the conical tripod bowls, include small, stylized profile views of the mantis head with their front leg and occasionally with an antenna (fig. 5). Another detail may depict the area between the mantis eyes and above the mouth. Finally, miniature multilegged bugs are occasionally depicted, perhaps as a tiny representation of the mantis.
Exterior vessel bases, especially those on superhemispherical and hemispherical bowls, are often decorated with a quadripartite pattern. The most detailed examples feature a triangular mantis head with two eyes and mouth at the upper end of a long body, but others are more stylized with just the triangular end and long extensions.
Flared-rim conical bowls occasionally have tripod supports with zoomorphic heads. One elaborate support has stylized serrated mantis legs around the base of the support, and an anthropomorphic face with bared teeth and large painted eyes. Above the face is a concentric oval, possibly representing the prothorax from the mantis vessels, and below the face are two small “breasts.” We suggest that this is a representation of shamanic transformation into a mantis, related to the polychrome figurines and the face vessels described below (fig. 6). A related example of this has the face upside down, and another example features two small almond-shaped eyes above the ovals. A different support type has a modeled animal head, arguably a serpent but possibly a composite including jaguar and avian elements; in this example the creature has two horns. Horns are common elements depicted during transformation among Nahua groups of western Mexico;79 and may also relate to the “horned serpents” described by VanPool and VanPool from Paquimé / Casas Grandes.80
Another characteristic of Luna decoration relates to serpent imagery; note that in Lothrop's discussion of Luna Polychrome he identified feathered serpents as the dominant decorative motif.81 A common design element is cloud-like motifs that are similar to patterns found on local serpents, such as the boa. The eyelash boa (Trachyboa boulengeri), described as endemic to Central America, features horns similar to those represented on the tripod supports.82 Repetitive patterns of alternating colors wrap around some vessel rims, similar to milk snakes (Lampropeltis triangulum). Other vessels feature consecutive squares with dots resembling a serpent body.
With these generalities, we will now discuss some of the more intricate vessels that we interpret as possibly depicting shamanic visions and transformation, conceptually similar to those from Paquimé / Casas Grandes83 and Panama.84 These are especially associated with the “face bowls,” in which a human face emerges from the exterior surface of hemispherical bowls while mantis iconography wraps around the rest of the exterior surface. Vessel PK7-1677 features a painted and modeled face with headband, two eyes, a nose, and a mouth with pointed teeth (fig. 7). The headband has a large concentric ovular object that may include an inset mouth with teeth. There are elongated protrusions on either side of the headband (possible ears). Circular protrusions also occur on either side of the chin. Face paint extends as a line from ear to ear, passing around the mouth. Painted around the exterior and interior of the vessel are segmented mantis motifs, including heads, the prothorax crosses, serrated claws, segmented bodies, wings, and so on (fig. 8).
Vessel PK7-2613 is another face bowl that is painted and has a modeled face. It has two large ovular eyes, a nose, mouth with teeth, and elongated protrusions on either side of the forehead (ears?). Red face paint goes from ear to ear, encircling the mouth. Painted decoration around the exterior of the vessel includes isolated legs, segmented mantis bodies, and a prothorax with antennae. The quadripartite motif with mantis head is on the exterior base, and a band of mantis forelimbs encircles the lower part of the hemispherical bowl.
Other complex Luna polychromes continue this pattern of featuring multiple mantises, some more complete, others segmented. Vessel PK7-1701 is a hemispherical bowl that features different types and perspectives of mantids: two large mantises with curled tails, two winged mantises, and several disembodied mantis elements on the interior surface. Both the mantises with curled tail and extended wings feature two heads, one right side up and the other upside down, again perhaps a reference to the designation tzontecomama, or head carrier. The more stylized mantises also have two heads on either end of an extended body, with the raptorlike claw and other appendages. The vessel exterior, on the other hand, features upper and lower bands of mantis forelimbs with a medial band depicting an extended serpent body that includes the cloud patterning of the boa.
A tripod conical bowl (PK7-0091) features interior and exterior panels of profile mantis heads interspersed with the cross pattern for the prothorax. A band around the interior rim could be the segmented body of a mantis or possibly a serpent, while a band around the interior base depicts the raptorlike mantis forelimbs. The tripod supports are cylindrical, with a modeled zoomorphic face featuring pronounced eyes, open mouth with pointed teeth, a headband, and circular elements on the “cheeks.” A second set of teeth is painted at the bottom of the supports. Interestingly, when the vessels are turned upside down, the face on the support is replicated.
A final vessel to be described has more serpent iconography, blended with mantis imagery (PK7-2187). This vessel uses a combination of red, black, and orange paint over the cream slip. The main design on the interior wall is a panel of serpent heads, but with a mantis head above the eye and fragmented body segments including the boa cloud pattern. One element may represent the rattles of a rattlesnake. Alternating red, black, and white decorate the rim as a possible representation of a milk snake body, and a narrow panel around the interior base features the raptorlike mantis legs. The interior base itself depicts two opposing serpent heads surrounded by the cloud motif. The design on the exterior wall continues the serpent and mantis theme. Two modeled zoomorphic faces are attached to the exterior vessel wall as possible handles, and these depict possible felines. The tripod supports also combine serpent and feline attributes, with an open mouth and “horns” on the forehead.
Luna Complex polychromes range in complexity from the fairly naturalistic forms found on the superhemispherical bowls to extremely intricate designs on conical and hemispherical bowls. The mantis iconography, however, is pervasive on nearly all of the vessels that we studied. In the following discussion we attempt to incorporate the Luna mantis iconography into the socioreligious context of late Postclassic / Ometepe period Pacific Nicaragua.
The late Postclassic / Ometepe period in Pacific Nicaragua is enigmatic due to its minimal representation in the archaeological record. Despite nearly sixty years of intensive investigation, almost no significant deposits have been identified and scientifically excavated, so at present the best evidence for the final centuries before European contact comes from Ometepe Island itself, especially from mortuary contexts.85 This is particularly unfortunate, since this final period is the focus of fairly extensive ethnohistorical accounts of Nahua/Nicarao colonization,86 especially relating to the Isthmus of Rivas. According to these sources, Nahuat speakers from Mexico (arguably central Mexico) migrated into the area about 1300 CE, driving out autochthonous Chibchan and migrant Chorotega groups. While this myth story is becoming more problematic based on recent excavations,87 it has long been a cornerstone of Nicaraguan cultural identity, and without adequate archaeological evidence with which to evaluate the tradition, it is difficult to dispute.
Ethnohistoric sources allege that the Nicarao shared many cultural traits with the Nahuas of central Mexico, including religion and religious practices.88 Through interviews with native informants, Bobadilla recorded the names of some of the prominent deities of the Nicarao pantheon with close parallels to the Aztec pantheon, for example a rain god Quiateot, comparable to Tlaloc, and a wind god Hecat/Ehecatl.89
Another prominent Aztec deity, however, was Cihuacoatl (literally “woman serpent” in Nahuatl), who was not specifically mentioned by the Nicarao informants. Cihuacoatl was a complex entity associated with death and regeneration, as well as divination.90 She had a prominent role in some of the pre-Columbian and contact period pictorial manuscripts, where she can be recognized by her characteristic skeletal buccal mask and weaving batten. Although speculative, we believe there may have been a connection between the Nicaraguan praying mantis as mother serpent and Cihuacoatl as serpent woman. The multiple mandible of the mantis may be a Nicaraguan interpretation of the skeletal buccal mask. The association of Cihuacoatl with death and regeneration could explain the use of Luna bowls in mortuary rituals to cover the opening of the shoe-pot burial urns.
One of the pervasive ideologies of Mesoamerican worldview (and widely shared throughout the Americas) is of a covenant between humankind and the earth, whereby humans must return to the earth upon death as a way of repaying all the bounty they consumed during life.91 With this in mind, the Nicaraguan Madre Culebra painted on Luna mortuary vessels may represent a local expression of this relationship, in which a creature associated with death is involved in consuming the body of the deceased.
Mantids are often seen as good omens in traditional folklore; the term mantis comes from the Greek, where it is associated with seers or prophets.92 Among traditional Chorotegas from Masaya, Nicaragua, mantids are believed to be messengers from the beyond.93 Traditional elders from Monimbo, Nicaragua recounted that different varieties of mantids, which they called tzimpillicoco (loosely translated from Nahuat as ‘honored noblewoman’), predict different kinds of weather and harvests. Flying insects such as butterflies were also believed to have carried the souls of the deceased to the land of the dead (Mictlan in central Mexican religious ideology), and this may have been another role for the winged mantids as tzontecomama (head carriers).94 Thus, mantids may also have connections linking the natural and supernatural realms.
One of the characteristics for which mantids are most infamous is their (occasional) practice of the female killing and consuming their mate during coitus.95 This can include the act of biting off the male's head. The mantis nervous system includes ganglia that run from the head through the prothorax and into the body, so the removal of the head does not immediately stop bodily functions, and the sexual act can continue. Because of this act of decapitation, praying mantises have been symbolically linked with headhunting.96 Headhunting was a tradition in the Greater Nicoya region as depicted in pre-Columbian art and related to sorcery,97 and evidence was recovered from the El Rayo cemetery of the practice.98 This may be referenced by some of the mantis images on Luna polychromes (especially those with the curled tail) in which two heads are depicted.
As the “mother serpent” or Madre Culebra, mantids may have incorporated animistic concepts from the Chorotega and Chibchan communities with innovative religious concepts from newly arrived Nahua. In this way mantis and serpent concepts became integrated with the Nahua Cihuacoatl, and the result was depicted on the Ometepe diagnostic Luna Complex. Hints of the mantis mythology may be found in earlier imagery, for example on Papagayo Mandador pottery of the Sapoá period, in which a triangular head is attached via an undulating body to a serpent head.
Within the native religion of Pacific Nicaragua, however, no pantheon of deities can be identified prior to the arrival of Mexican migrants. Instead, the archaeological evidence points toward an animistic religion of environmental and animal spirits, with ritual practitioners (or shamans) acting as intermediaries between the natural and supernatural realms. The best evidence for this practice is found in the ubiquitous ceramic figurines representing seated or standing females, usually with their hands on their hips or thighs.99 As noted, while this general posture remained consistent throughout the cultural sequence, with the introduction of polychrome decorative technology at the beginning of the early Postclassic / Sapoá period, the female figurines also included painted decoration on mold-made heads and bodies. In particular, the oversize heads featured exaggerated oval eyes and painted decoration around the mouth (fig. 9),100 in a style nearly identical to the face bowls associated with mantis imagery on Luna Polychrome. We interpret these as possible visual referents to the mother serpent, as personified mantises. As female spirit mediators merged with their animal co-essences, they may have been able to access the spirit realm for the purpose of divination and/or influence.
With this in mind, the use of hallucinogens would have amplified the connection, similar to the use of trance-inducing substances known from ethnographic examples elsewhere in Central America and in northern Mexico.101 And just as among pre-Columbian groups from Panama to Paquimé / Casas Grandes, these visions may have been recorded onto the material culture, in this case decorated pottery.102 The pervasive use of mantis imagery may have referred to the spirit guides who accompanied the shaman on their vision quests or carried the souls of the deceased.
In this paper we have argued that one of the predominant motifs on the Ometepe period diagnostic Luna/El Menco Polychrome has strong affiliation with the praying mantis as the Madre Culebra. To the extent that this entity may have been related to the Nahua Cihuacoatl, this connection could provide archaeological support for the ethnohistorical migration and colonization of Pacific Nicaragua by the Nahua Nicarao. As native and migrant ideologies merged during the Postclassic period, the animism of religious practice may have been memorialized on Luna Polychrome vessels that depicted the transformation into supernatural praying mantis/serpent beings. The association of Luna vessels with funerary urns may have also incorporated Cihuacoatl's role in death and regeneration. The mantis, as a voracious female predator, would have been a symbolic embodiment of the goddess and a strong spirit guide while traversing supernatural realms.
Throughout this paper we intersperse terms such as ritual practitioner, shaman, and spiritual mediator. We recognize that the term shaman carries baggage from its initial use to describe Siberian practitioners, yet the term has been incorporated into both anthropological and vernacular lexicon to signify someone who acts as an intermediary between natural and supernatural planes for divination and/or healing. Many of the sources we use in this research employ shaman uncritically, but its ubiquitous use in the literature reinforces its evolution into a more generic term.
Frederick W. Lange, “The Greater Nicoya Archaeological Subarea,” in The Archaeology of Lower Central America, ed. Frederick W. Lange and Doris Stone (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984), 165–94; Frederick W. Lange, “Gaps in Our Databases and Blanks in Our Syntheses: The Potential for Central American Archaeology in the Twenty-First Century,” in Paths to Central American Prehistory, ed. Frederick W. Lange (Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1996), 305–26; Geoffrey G. McCafferty, Fabio Esteban Amador, Silvia Salgado G., and Carrie L. Dennett, “Mesoamerica's Southern Frontier,” in Oxford Handbook of Mesoamerican Archaeology, ed. Deborah Nichols and Christopher Pool (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 83–105; Gordon R. Willey, “Lower Central American Archaeology: Some Comments as of 1991,” in Lange, Paths, 297–304.
See, for example, Michael D. Coe, The Maya Scribe and His World (New York: The Grolier Club, 1973); Dorie Reents-Budet, Painting the Maya Universe: Royal Ceramics of the Classic Period (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994).
We follow the convention that Nahuat refers to the general language, whereas Nahuatl refers specifically to the elite language of the Aztec/Mexica; Nahua refers to the cultural group.
Adolfo Constenla, “Las lenguas de la Gran Nicoya,” Vínculos: Revista de Antropología del Museo Nacional de Costa Rica 18–19, nos. 1–2 (1994): 191–207.
Jane Stevenson Day, “Central Mexican Imagery in Greater Nicoya,” in Mixteca-Puebla: Discoveries and Research in Mesoamerican Art and Archaeology, ed. H. B. Nicholson and E. Quiñones Keber (Culver City, CA: Labyrinthos Press, 1994), 235–48; Paul F. Healy, “Greater Nicoya and Mesoamerica: Analysis of Selected Ceramics,” in Costa Rican Art and Archaeology, ed. Frederick W. Lange (Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 1988), 293–301; Samuel K. Lothrop, The Pottery of Costa Rica, 2 vols. (New York: Heye Foundation, Museum of the American Indian, 1926); Geoffrey G. McCafferty, “Mixteca-Puebla Style Ceramics from Early Postclassic Pacific Nicaragua,” Mexicon 41, no. 3 (2019): 77–83; Geoffrey G. McCafferty and Larry Steinbrenner, “Chronological Implications for Greater Nicoya from the Santa Isabel Project, Nicaragua,” Ancient Mesoamerica 16, no. 1 (2005): 131–46.
See Geoffrey G. McCafferty, “The Mexican Legacy in Nicaragua, or Problems when Data Behave Badly,” in Constructing Legacies of Mesoamerica: Archaeological Practice and the Politics of Heritage in and beyond Mexico, ed. David S. Anderson, Dylan C. Clark, and J. Heath Anderson, special issue, Archaeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association 25, no. 1: 110–18.
Suzanne Abel-Vidor, Claude Baudez, Ronald Bishop, Leidy Bonilla, Marlin Calvo, Winifred Creamer, Jane Day et al., “Principales tipos cerámicos y variedades de la Gran Nicoya,” Vínculos: Revista de Antropología del Museo de Costa Rica 13, nos. 1–2 (1987): 35–317; Leidy Bonilla, Marlin Calvo, Juan Guerrero, Silvia Salgado, and Frederick Lange, “La cerámica de la Gran Nicoya,” Vínculos: Revista de Antropología del Museo Nacional de Costa Rica 13, nos. 1–2 (1990): 1–327; Paul F. Healy, Archaeology of the Rivas Region, Nicaragua (Waterloo, ON: Wilfred Laurier Press, 1980); Norma E. Knowlton, “Luna Polychrome,” in Lange, Paths, 143–76; Larry L. Steinbrenner, “Potting Traditions and Cultural Continuity in Pacific Nicaragua, AD 800–1350” (PhD diss., University of Calgary, 2010).
Margaret W. Conkey, “Experimenting with Style in Archaeology: Some Historical and Theoretical Issues,” in The Uses of Style in Archaeology, ed. Margaret W. Conkey and Christine A. Hastorf (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 3–17; Martin H. Wobst, “Stylistic Behavior and Information Exchange,” in Papers for the Director: Essays in Honor of James B. Griffin, ed. Charles Cleland, Anthropological Papers 6 (Ann Arbor: Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan, 1977), 317–42.
Warren R. De Boer, “Interaction, Imitation, and Communication as Expressed in Style: The Ucayali Experience,” in Conkey and Hastorf, Uses of Style, 82–104.
James R. Sackett, “Style and Ethnicity in Archaeology: The Case for Isochrestism,” in Conkey and Hastorf, Uses of Style, 32–43.
Nicholas David, Judy Sterner, and Kodzo Gavua, “Why Pots Are Decorated,” Current Anthropology 29, no. 3 (1988): 365.
Anthony W. Wonderley, “Material Symbolics in Pre-Columbian Households: The Painted Pottery of Naco Valley, Honduras,” Journal of Anthropological Research 42, no. 4 (1986): 497–534.
Timothy R. Pauketat and Thomas E. Emerson, “The Ideology of Authority and the Power of the Pot,” American Anthropologist 93 (1991): 919–41.
Christina M. Friberg, “Cosmic Negotiations: Cahokian Religion and Ramey Incised Pottery in the Northern Hinterland,” Southeastern Archaeology 37, no. 1 (2018): 39–57.
Prudence M. Rice, “Visualizing Tayza, Capital of the Peten Itzas: Teasing Meanings from Postclassic Pottery Styles,” Latin American Antiquity 28, no. 2 (2017): 180.
David, Sterner, and Gavua, “Why Pots Are Decorated,” 379.
Daniel Miller, Artefacts as Categories: A Study of Ceramic Variability in Central India (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985).
David, Sterner, and Gavua, “Why Pots Are Decorated,” 365–89.
Dana Leibsohn, “The Costa Rican Effigy Head Tradition,” in Lange, Costa Rican, 133–59.
Christine S. VanPool and Todd L. VanPool, Signs of the Casas Grandes Shamans (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2007), 21.
Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1964).
Cecelia F. Klein, Eulogio Guzman, Elisa C. Mandell, and Maya Stanfield-Mazzi, “The Role of Shamanism in Mesoamerican Art: A Reassessment,” Current Anthropology 43 (2002): 383–419.
VanPool and VanPool, Signs, 85.
VanPool and VanPool, 118.
VanPool and VanPool, 74–75.
Stacy B. Schaeffer, “The Crossing of the Souls: Peyote, Perception, and Meaning among the Huichols,” in People of the Peyote: Huichol Indian History, Religion, and Survival, ed. Stacy B. Schaeffer and Peter T. Furst (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996), 138–68; Stacy B. Schaeffer, To Think with a Good Heart: Wixarika Women, Weavers, and Shamans (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2002).
Armand J. Labbé, Guardians of the Life Stream: Shamans, Art and Power in Prehispanic Central Panama (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995); Rebecca R. Stone, The Jaguar Within: Shamanic Trance in Ancient Central and South American Art (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011).
Stone, Jaguar Within. See also G. Reichel-Dolmatoff, The Shaman and the Jaguar: A Study of Narcotic Drugs among the Indians of Colombia (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1975).
Henry B. Nicholson, “The Iconography of the Feathered Serpent in Late Postclassic Central Mexico,” in Mesoamerica's Classical Heritage: From Teotihuacan to the Aztecs, ed. Davíd Carrasco, Lindsay Jones, and Scott Sessions (Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 2000), 145–64.
Alfredo Austin López and Leonardo López Luján, “The Myth and Reality of Zuyua: The Feathered Serpent and Mesoamerican Transformations from the Classic to the Postclassic,” in Carrasco, Jones, and Sessions, Mesoamerica's Classical Heritage, 21–87; William M. Ringle, Tomás Gallareta Negrón, and George Bey III, “The Return of Queztalcoatl: Evidence for the Spread of a World Religion during the Epiclassic Period,” Ancient Mesoamerica 9 (1998): 183–232.
Elizabeth H. Boone and Michael E. Smith, “Postclassic International Styles and Symbol Sets,” in The Postclassic Mesoamerican World, ed. Michael E. Smith and Frances F. Berdan (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2003), 186–93.
Geoffrey G. McCafferty, “The Mixteca-Puebla Stylistic Tradition at Early Postclassic Cholula,” in Nicholson and Quiñones Keber, Mixteca-Puebla, 53–78; Henry B. Nicholson, “The Mixteca-Puebla Concept in Mesoamerican Archaeology: A Re-examination,” in Men and Cultures: Selected Papers from the Fifth International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, Philadelphia, September 1–9, 1956, ed. A.F.C. Wallace (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1960), 612–17; Henry B. Nicholson. “The Mixteca-Puebla Concept Re-visited,” in The Art and Iconography of Late Post-Classic Central Mexico, ed. E. H. Boone (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 1982), 227–54.
Geoffrey G. McCafferty, “So What Else Is New? A Cholula-Centric Perspective on Lowland/Highland Interaction in the Classic/Postclassic Transition,” in Twin Tollans: Chichén Itzá, Tula, and the Epiclassic to Early Postclassic Mesoamerican World, ed. Jeff Karl Kowalski and Cynthia Kristan-Graham (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collections, 2007), 449–81.
Geoffrey McCafferty and Carrie L. Dennett, “El horizonte cerámico de engobe blanco del Postclásico Temprano de México y Centro América,” in Arqueología de Nicaragua: memorias de Mi Museo y Vos, ed. Nora Zambrana Lacayo (Granada, Nicaragua: Mi Museo, Museo del Arte y Arqueología Precolombina, 2017), 316–29.
Carl Bovallius, “Nicaraguan Antiquities,” Serie Arqueologica no. 1 (Stockholm: Swedish Society of Anthropology and Geography, 1886); John F. Bransford, Archaeological Researches in Nicaragua (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1881); Ephraim G. Squier, Nicaragua: Its People, Scenery, Monuments and the Proposed Interoceanic Canal, vol. 2 (New York: D. Appleton, 1852); Ephraim G. Squier, Observations on the Archaeology and Ethnology of Nicaragua, (1853; reprint, Culver City, CA: Labyrinthos Press, 1990). See David E. Whisnant, Rascally Signs in Sacred Places: The Politics of Culture in Nicaragua (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1995) for a review of early attempts at Nicaraguan archaeology.
Lothrop, Pottery of Costa Rica, vol. 1, 189–208.
Wolfgang Haberland, “The Culture History of Ometepe Island: Preliminary Sketch (Survey and Excavations, 1962–1963),” in The Archaeology of Pacific Nicaragua, ed. Frederick W. Lange, Payson D. Sheets, Aníbal Martínez, and Suzanne Abel-Vidor (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992), 63–117.
Healy, Archaeology of the Rivas.
Albert H. Norweb, “Ceramic Stratigraphy in Southwestern Nicaragua,” Actas, 35th International Congress of Americanists 1 (1964): 551–61.
Knowlton, “Luna Polychrome.”
Note that this had previously been designated a variety of Luna Polychrome. Abel-Vidor et al., “Principales tipos cerámicos,” 307.
Geoffrey G. McCafferty, “Diez años de arqueología en Nicaragua,” Mi Museo y Vos 4, no. 14 (2010): 2–15; Geoffrey G. McCafferty, “Twenty years of Nicaraguan Archaeology: Results from the University of Calgary Projects in Rivas and Granada,” in The Archaeology of Greater Nicoya: Two Decades of Research in Nicaragua and Costa Rica, ed. Larry Steinbrenner, Alex Geurds, Geoffrey McCafferty, and Silvia Salgado (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, forthcoming).
Abel-Vidor et al., “Principales tipos cerámicos,” 35–317; Bonilla et al., “La cerámica de la Gran Nicoya, 1–327; Healy, Archaeology of the Rivas.
Carrie L. Dennett, “Ceramic Economy and Social Identity in Pre-Columbian Pacific Nicaragua” (PhD diss., University of Calgary, 2016); Geoffrey McCafferty and Carrie L. Dennett, “The Ceramics of Pacific Nicaragua: Recent Investigations in Style, Manufacture, and Distribution,” in The Dumbarton Oaks Catalogue of Central America and Colombia, ed. Colin McEwan, John Hoopes, and Bryan Cockrell (forthcoming from Dumbarton Oaks); Steinbrenner, Potting Traditions.
Alexander Geurds, “Cronología prehispanica en Centroamerica: un acercamiento preliminar,” in Zambrana Lacayo, Arqueología de Nicaragua, 78–89; Geoffrey G. McCafferty, “Domestic Practice in Postclassic Santa Isabel, Nicaragua,” Latin American Antiquity 19, no. 1 (2008): 64–82; Geoffrey McCafferty and Carrie L. Dennett, “Ethnogenesis and Hybridity in Proto-Historic Period Nicaragua,” Archaeological Review from Cambridge 28, no. 1 (2013): 189–212; McCafferty and Steinbrenner, “Chronological Implications,” 131–46.
Steinbrenner, Potting Traditions, 616.
Ronald L. Bishop, Frederick W. Lange, and Peter Lange, “Ceramic Paste Compositional Patterns in Greater Nicoya Pottery, in Lange, Costa Rican, 11–44; Ronald R. Bishop, Frederick W. Lange, Suzanne Abel-Vidor, and Peter C. Lange, “Compositional Characterization of the Nicaraguan Ceramic Sample,” in Archaeology of Pacific Nicaragua, 135–62.
Dennett, Ceramic Economy.
Fr. Francisco de Bobadilla, “Indígenas del Pacífico de Nicaragua,” in Culturas indigenas de Nicaragua, vol. 1 (1520s; repr., Managua, Nicaragua: Breviarios de la cultura nicaraguënse, 1992); Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, Nicaragua en las crónicas de Indias: Oviedo (1520s; repr., Serie Cronistas 3, Managua, Nicaragua: Banco de America, Fondo de Promoción Cultural, 1976).
Constenla, “Las lenguas,” 191–207.
Anne C. Chapman, Los Nicarao y los Chorotega según los fuentes históricas (Ciudad Universitaria, Costa Rica, 1974); Geoffrey G. McCafferty, “Etnicidad chorotega en la frontera sur de Mesoamérica,” La Universidad 14–15 (2011): 91–112.
William R. Fowler, Jr., The Evolution of Ancient Nahua Civilizations: The Pipil-Nicarao of Central America (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989).
McCafferty and Dennett, “Ethnogenesis,” 189–212.
Miguel Léon-Portilla, “Religión de los Nicaraos: análisis y comparación de tradiciones culturales nahuas” (Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Instituto de Investigaciones Historicas, 1972).
Natasha Leullier-Snedeker, Changing Identities in Changing Times: Gendered Roles and Representations through the Ceramic Figurines of Greater Nicoya (master's thesis, University of Calgary, 2013); Laura M. Wingfield, Envisioning Greater Nicoya: Ceramics Figural Art of Costa Rica and Nicaragua, c. 800 BCE–1522 CE (PhD diss., Emory University, 2009).
Wingfield, Envisioning Greater Nicoya. See also Jane Stevenson Day and Alice Chiles Tillett, “The Nicoya Shaman,” in Lange, Paths, 221–36.
Henry B. Nicholson, “Religion in Pre-Hispanic Central Mexico,” in Handbook of Middle American Indians, vol. 10: Archaeology of Northern Mesoamerica, Part 1, ed. R. Wauchope, G. F. Ekholm, and I. Bernal (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971), 395–446; Nicholson, “Iconography of the Feathered Serpent,” 145–64.
Jessica Manion and Geoffrey G. McCafferty, “Serpientes emplumadas del Pacífico de Nicaragua,” in Lacayo, Arqueología de Nicaragua, 302–8.
McCafferty, “Domestic Practice,” 64–82.
Karen Stephanie Niemel, Social Change and Migration in the Rivas Region, Pacific Nicaragua (1000 BC–AD 1522) (PhD diss., State University of New York at Buffalo, 2003); Silvia Salgado González, Social Change in the Region of Granada, Pacific Nicaragua (1000 B.C.–1522 A.D.) (PhD diss., State University of New York at Albany, 1996).
McCafferty, “Etnicidad chorotega,” 91–112.
Bransford, Archaeological Researches.
McCafferty, “Domestic Practice,” 64–82; Geoffrey G. McCafferty and Sharisse McCafferty, “Ollas en forma de zapato tipo Sacasa Estriada: función y significado,” Mi Museo y Vos 20 (2012): 5–17; Steinbrenner, Potting Traditions, 222.
Knowlton, “Luna Polychrome,” 143–76.
The initial identification as a monkey was made by John Bransford (1881), who was a US Naval doctor stationed on Ometepe Island. The suggestion has been uncritically repeated since then. To examine the possibility that this image represented a Maya-style monkey, we consulted with Maya iconographer Dr. Marc Zender (Tulane University), who confirmed that the Luna mantis motif did not resemble any simian motif he had ever seen.
Labbé, Guardians; Julie Taylor Green, Nature and Artistry in the Ancient Americas: A Teacher's Guide (Atlanta: Michael C. Carlos, 2004).
Gene Kritsky and Ron Cherry, Insect Mythology (San Jose, CA: Writer's Club Press, 2000), 57; William L. Pressly, “The Praying Mantis in Surrealist Art,” The Art Bulletin 55, no. 4 (1973): 600–15; F. R. Prete and M. M. Wolfe, “Religious Supplicant, Seductive Cannibal, or Reflex Machine? In Search of the Praying Mantis,” Journal of the History of Biology 25, no. 1 (1992): 91–136.
Julio Rivera and Gavin J. Svenson, “The Neotropical ‘Polymorphic Earless Praying Mantises’ – Part 1: Molecular Phylogeny and Revised Higher-Level Systematics (Insecta: Mantodea, Acanthopoidea),” Systematic Entomology 41 (2016): 607–49; Gavin J. Svenson, Revision of the Neo-tropical Bark Mantis Genus Liturgusa Saussure, 1869 (Insecta, Mantodea, Liturgusini), Zookeys 390 (2014): 1–214; Gavin J. Svenson and Michael F. Whiting, “Reconstructing the Origins of Praying Mantises (Dictyoptera, Mantodea): The Roles of Gondwanan Vicariance and Morphological Convergence,” The International Journal of the Willi Hennig Society 25, no. 5 (2009): 468–514.
Jean-Michel Maes, “Los mantidae,” Insectos Beneficios no. 3 (1996), 46.
Also see Ron Cherry, “Praying Mantids as Symbols for Headhunting,” American Entomologist 50 no. 1 (2004): 12–16; Prete and Wolfe, “Religious Supplicant,” 91–136.
Jeanne Gillespie, personal communication, 2019.
Peter T. Furst, “Shamanism, Transformation, and Olmec Art,” in The Olmec World: Ritual and Rulership, ed. Jill Guthrie and Elizabeth P. Benson (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, The Art Museum, 1995), 69–81.
VanPool and VanPool, Signs, 118.
Lothrop, Pottery of Costa Rica.
Peter Uetz and Jakob Hallermann, “Trachyboa boulengeri PERACCA, 1910,” The Reptile Database, http://reptile-database.reptarium.cz/species?genus=Trachyboa&species=boulengeri.
VanPool and VanPool, Signs.
Labbé, Guardians; Stone, Jaguar Within.
Haberland, “Culture History,” 63–117.
Oviedo, Nicaragua; Fr. Juan de Torquemada, Monarquía Indiana (1615; repr., Mexico City: UNAM, 1975–83). Summarized in Suzanne Abel-Vidor, “Ethnohistorical Approaces to the Archaeology of Greater Nicoya,” in Between Continents / Between Seas: Precolumbian Art of Costa Rica, ed. Elizabeth P. Benson (New York: Harry N. Abrams Publishers, 1981), 85–92; Chapman, Los Nicarao; Fowler, Evolution; Eugenia Ibarra Rojas, Fronteras étnicas en la conquista de Nicaragua y Nicoya: entre la solidaridad y el conflicto, 800 d.C.–1544 (San José: Editorial de la Universidad de Costa Rica, 2001); Patrick S. Werner, Etnohistoria de la Nicaragua temprana: demografia y encomiendas de las comunidades indígenas (Managua, Nicaragua: Lea Grupo Editorial, 2009).
McCafferty, “Mexican Legacy,” 110–18.
Cecelia F. Klein, “Re-Thinking Cihuacoatl: Aztec Political Imagery of the Conquered Woman,” in Smoke and Mist: Mesoamerican Studies in Memory of Thelma D. Sullivan, ed. J. K. Josserand and K. Dakin (Oxford, UK: BAR International Series, 1988), 237–77; Nicholson, “Religion,” 395–446.
John Monaghan, The Convenants with Earth and Rain: Exchange, Sacrifice, and Revelation in Mixtec Society (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995).
Prete and Wolfe, “Religious Supplicant,” 91–136.
Xiomara Muñoz Ruiz, personal communication, 2017. Professor Muñoz Ruiz is an expert on Nicaraguan Indigenous culture and language.
Jeanne Gillespie, personal communication, 2019.
Prete and Wolfe, “Religious Supplicant,” 91–136.
Cherry, “Praying Mantids,” 12–16.
John W. Hoopes, “Sorcery and the Taking of Trophy Heads in Ancient Costa Rica,” in The Taking and Displaying of Human Body Parts as Trophies by Amerindians, ed. Richard J. Chacon and David Dye (New York: Springer, 2007), 444–80; Eugenia Ibarra Rojas, Pueblos que capturan: esclavitud indígena al sur de America central del siglo XVI al XIX (San José: Editorial UCR, 2012); Leibsohn, “Costa Rican Effigy Head,” 133–59.
Geoffrey G. McCafferty, Andrea Waters-Rist, Sharisse McCafferty, Celise Chilcote, Jessica Manion, and Shaelyn Rice, “Raising the Dead: Mortuary Patterns in Pacific Nicaragua,” in Steinbrenner et al., Archaeology of Greater Nicoya.
Wingfield, Envisioning Greater Nicoya.
Emilie LeBrell, “Ceramic Figurines of Pacific Nicaragua: What Form, Ornamentation, and Standardization Reveal about Pre-Columbian Life and Culture” (paper presented at the 50th Annual Chacmool Conference, Calgary, AB, 2017).
Reichel-Dolmatoff, Shaman; Schaeffer, “Crossing,” 138–68; Schaeffer, To Think. For Nicaraguan examples, see Patrick S. Werner, “La evidencia de los cacigazgos femininos en la Nicaragua del siglo XVI,” Huellas, Revista de Antropologia e Historia del Museo Nacional de Nicaragua 1 (2004): 103–18, cited in Wingfield, Envisioning Greater Nicoya. A recent article in the journal Anthropology of Consciousness considers the retinal structures of the eye and objects flowing within them as a possible link to the perception of South American shamans during hallucinogenic visions. Cesar E. Giraldo Herrera, “Shamanic Microscopy: Cellular Souls, Microbial Spirits,” Anthropology of Consciousness 29, no. 1 (2018): 8–43.
Labbé, Guardians; Stone, Jaguar Within; VanPool and VanPool, Signs.