By Dr. Fred Lange

Long before there was canvas or paper, indigenous peoples around the world used rock surfaces to record designs and images, and long before the camera was invented they utilized the same surfaces to capture memories and to preserve them for the future. Just like the images we find on surfaces in the contemporary world, some petroglyphs were serious and some were graffiti. And, because many of these peoples left no written records to explain these images, we have lost an important historical thread in terms of being able to interpret them. But the lack of a Rosetta Stone to interpret the petroglyphs with also leaves our minds free to imagine their possible meanings. There are literally thousands of petroglyph images left behind by the ancient peoples of Nicaragua, and the largest concentration occurs on Ometepe Island.

How Old Are They? We do not really know. Probably, few are more than 3000 years old. We can estimate the age of some by comparing the symbols to designs painted on pottery or carved on the stone columns from Ometepe, Zapatera, and other islands in Lake Nicaragua.

What Do the Symbols Mean? Again, with no written records from the people who carved them, we can never be sure what the symbols meant to them. Many symbols, such as faces and spirals occur in widely scattered locations around the world. In cases where such symbols are documented we know that they do not have the same meaning everywhere.

For example, the double-spiral (Figure 8) that is often cited in Nicaragua as having been a map of Ometepe Island also occurs in the Glen Canyon area of Utah in North America, where it almost certainly was not a map of Ometepe Island!

But, since we can never be sure we are right, we also can never be sure we are wrong, so let your imagination take off and soar!

For many years, archaeologists and art historians studying Central America have discussed developing a database containing as many images as can be recorded from all of the different countries. Modern political boundaries make it difficult to compare petroglyph data from one country to the next. Now, with digital cameras and the Internet such comparisons can be made without leaving the home or office, if the database can be developed!

Preserving the Past. Petroglyphs are fragile and are gradually eroded by a combination of sunlight, rain, wind, and vegetation. These processes are accelerated by painting them with chalk or other foreign substances, and by touching them, or climbing on them. Moving a small stone with a petroglyph on it, or cutting off part of a larger stone ruins any possibility of interpreting the drawings, and ruins future enjoyment of the petroglyphs by future visitors.

The Isla Muerto Platform. This is one of the most stunning groups of petroglyphs in Nicaragua, although in an increasingly serious state of deterioration. Also, in contrast with most other petroglyphs in the region, they are on a horiztonal rather than vertical surface. There is a striking mixture of geometric forms, masked figures, feathered serpents, and other symbols on the platform. The rock into which the petroglyphs were carved is very soft. The winds and rains have undercut the northern edge of the platform and it is gradually collapsing into Lake Nicaragua. Urgent conservation steps are required if this national artistic and cultural treasure is to be preserved.