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Archaeology of the Colonial Period Gulf of Fonseca, Eastern El Salvador


This dissertation is an archaeological and historical study of culture contact and colonialism at Conchagua Vieja, an indigenous village site on the Salvadoran island of Conchagüita, in the Gulf of Fonseca. Based on ethnohistorical research, Conchagua Vieja was inhabited by Lenca-speaking peoples at the time of Spanish contact in 1522. Conchagua Vieja was later abandoned at the turn of the seventeenth century because of pirate incursions into the area. The culture and lifeways of the indigenous peoples that resided on the island of Conchagüita, along with their multi-ethnic neighbors that inhabited the Gulf of Fonseca region, were irrevocably transformed by culture contact and colonization.

The events and processes of colonization and missionization created, and depended upon, complex new forms of interaction between and within groups of Mesoamerican Indians, Africans, Europeans, and mixed-race American-born colonial subjects. The dynamics of this entanglement between peoples of regional, ethnic, racial, and cultural distinctions are significant to any study of Central America. The research presented here investigates the multifaceted nature of cultural entanglements between European and indigenous peoples through archival research, archaeological survey and excavations, and laboratory analyses.

There are two primary objectives to this dissertation. First, shed light on a local experience on an island in the Gulf of Fonseca that addresses larger themes of colonialism and nationalism in El Salvador. In a country with arguably the weakest historiography in Latin America, the need to carry out such an extensive empirical research project could not be greater. Second, develop a nuanced social history of colonialism in El Salvador, one that explores how colonialism was differentially experienced on a variety of scales. Addressing the first goal complements archaeological research in Central America that has not dealt with the Gulf of Fonseca, an area that has received scant archaeological and historical attention. The second goal is important not only as the backdrop for a theoretical and methodological exercise, but also as an exploration of a noteworthy, but often overlooked, colonial venue in El Salvador and Central America. Illuminating the experiences of an indigenous community that did not include resident Spaniards further unveils the diversity of culture contact in Central America, providing new data for comparative work and revealing critical moments in indigenous histories along the Pacific coast of Central America.

The investigation brings together five bodies of data: (1) published and unpublished archival records related to the island of Conchagüita and the Gulf of Fonseca; (2) survey data that reveals patterns of indigenous landscape practices; (3) archaeological evidence of architectural practices in the Spanish church that was constructed in the middle of Conchagua Vieja at the turn of the seventeenth century; (4) evidence of household practices acquired through excavations of residential contexts; and (5) ceramics, material culture, and dietary remains recovered from midden deposits. These inquiries into the conditions of daily life in the indigenous community provide the empirical foundation for a rich historical reconstruction of cultural practices at Conchagua Vieja.

The convergence of data from topographic mapping, archaeological excavations, and unpublished archival documents from repositories in Guatemala provides a basis for evaluating the changing nature of human occupation in the Gulf region under Spanish colonization. Positioned among historical, environmental and cultural studies and at a powerful confluence of sub-disciplines within anthropology, the historical anthropology of the multi-ethnic Gulf of Fonseca region will stimulate further dialogue and intellectual exchange among anthropologists, historians, and other scholars working in El Salvador and Central America.

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