Cow Tongues May Be Damaging the Past


It’s 4 a.m. in the Nicaraguan frontier town of El Ayote. The kitchen chimney smoke and exhaust fumes combine with the dangling lights to give the main street an eerie vibe. Rumbling buses packed to the roof start their journey southwest to cross the mountains that mark the Nicaraguan watershed. Archaeologist and National Geographic Society/Waitt grantee Alexander Geurds maneuvers his pick-up truck in the sticky heat, past the buses, and heads into the opposite direction towards the lush vegetation of the Caribbean lowlands.

After about an hour of bouncing up and down on the unpaved path, Geurds crosses the river and arrives at an extraordinary location. Days before, Geurds and his team had discovered a pre-Hispanic settlement marked by numerous ancient sculptures; most of them still close to where indigenous people had carefully placed them some 600 or even possibly even 1,000 years ago. No one knows for sure how long they have been here or who created these magnificent sculptures. They are meticulously carved with mysterious designs depicting humans and animals. Who or what might these statues represent? Gods? Ancestors? Local elites?


This area of Nicaragua, one of the least accessible areas in Central America, was previously assumed to be devoid of any form of pre-Hispanic settlements. Now Geurds is investigating whether this site leads to a pattern of long forgotten settlements. The place is in remarkably good shape, the sculptures peacefully lying in grassy fields, as if forgotten by time. Only some occasional curious cow licking seems to have potentially damaged the sculptures. There is no direct evidence of looting, and only slight damage due to heat and moisture.

However, this could change from one day to the other since professional looters, continuously active in the region, are never far away. For now, an attentive landowner is keeping them at bay.


Evidence shows that the statues, each weighing a few tons, were hauled from a rock quarry somewhere in the surrounding landscape. Where exactly? With villages no greater than a few dozen families, harvesting and transporting these stones must have been an all-inclusive village affair. Two rivers merge within a stone’s throw from the ancient statues. Could this have been a place of pilgrimage where people came in canoes from perhaps as far as the Caribbean coast to mutually celebrate important periods in the year? If only the eyes on the statues could tell Geurds what they have seen.

For Alexander Geurds the bouncy road into the lowlands does not stop at this monumental site, it still goes on, just a bit more narrow. Local inhabitants speak of more statues (and bigger snakes!) further east.

Photographs by Alexander Geurds

Human Journey

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Amy Bucci is a web producer for National Geographic. Her projects mainly cover National Geographic explorers, grantees and initiatives.