The Miami Herald
May 22, 2000

Headless remains of Nicaragua's conquistador founder discovered

A Historic Find


 LEON VIEJO, Nicaragua -- Just a tiny pile of bone fragments, yet they contain, in
 a way, the entire history of this troubled country. Conquest. Betrayal. Rebellion.
 Murder. No wonder the archaeologists who discovered the headless remains of
 Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba, the Spanish conquistador who founded
 Nicaragua, speak softly around the bones.

 ``Imagine the Alamo for Texans,'' anthropologist Luis Hurtado de Mendoza said.
 ``That's what this means to Nicaragua.''

 Nearly 500 years after he was decapitated by a ruthless boss, and 400 years
 since his grave was lost in the aftermath of a volcanic eruption, the remains of
 Hernandez de Cordoba have been discovered. Nicaraguan archaeologists made
 the find earlier this month in the dusty ruins of a church here on the banks of Lake
 Managua, 30 miles northwest of the capital.

 Beside him, perhaps, were the bones of the man who had him decapitated,
 Pedrarias Davila, a politician whose savage lust for gold so appalled even his
 fellow Spaniards that they called him -- softly, behind his back -- Pedrarias the

 ``It is one of life's ironies, no?'' mused Carlos Tunnermann, former university
 president who 33 years ago began the archaeological explorations that led to the
 discovery. ``There was a Spanish historian who wrote that when Pedrarias
 reached the next life, he would have to explain to Hernandez de Cordoba what
 happened to his head. Perhaps that conversation is going on now.''

 The discovery of the remains has highlighted renewed Nicaraguan exploration of
 what scientists say is one of the hemisphere's most valuable archaeological
 sites. Although the abandoned ruins of Leon Viejo -- one of Nicaragua's first two
 cities -- were found in 1967, natural and political catastrophes prevented any
 steady excavation until recently.

 What scientists are finding is the archaeological equivalent of a gold mine for
 researchers interested in the Spanish conquest of the New World.

 ``This is the best-preserved lowland Spanish colonial site in the hemisphere,''
 declared Fred Lange, an American anthropologist who advises the Nicaraguan
 Institute of Culture, which is excavating Leon Viejo. ``No shopping centers were
 built over the place, no highways, no condos. The city wasn't torn down, it just


 That has enabled archaeologists to study in detail the way Spaniards planned and
 built a colonial city. And the dig has exposed numerous artifacts such as clay
 pots and metal tools -- and at least nine sets of human remains, one of the
 largest collections of colonial skeletons anywhere.

 Already archaeologists have learned that Leon Viejo was unusually advanced for
 such a small frontier outpost; there are clues that suggest it even had a small
 glass factory. Other evidence shows that the relationship between the Spaniards
 and the Indians was more intimate and complex than many historians had
 thought. Not only did the Indians live inside the city walls, they taught the
 Spanish a number of new skills, including how to make and use obsidian tools.

 Leon Viejo's archaeological riches have prompted Nicaraguan authorities to
 petition the United Nations to designate it a World Heritage site, which would
 provide funds to protect and explore it further. Approval is expected later this year.


 While archaeologists mull over the wealth of new details on Spanish architecture
 and construction, it's the human remains that have caught the imagination of
 Nicaraguans -- particularly those of Hernandez de Cordoba.

 Hernandez de Cordoba came here in 1524 from Panama, where the Spaniards
 had established a foothold a few years earlier. He founded Nicaragua's first two
 cities, Leon and Grenada -- they still squabble over which was first -- and
 governed with relative beneficence.

 ``He's one of the few Spanish conquistadors of whom there are no accounts of
 atrocities against the Indians,'' Tunnermann noted. ``That's very unusual.''

 But if Hernandez de Cordoba got along well with the local Indians, he had nothing
 but trouble with his fellow Spaniards. First he had to fight off an invasion from rival
 conquistadors based in Honduras. Then, when Hernandez de Cordoba asked to
 be made governor of the province he had founded, his jealous boss Pedrarias
 Davila came with an army to arrest him for treason.


 The history of the Spanish conquest is filled with tales of wanton ferocity and
 slaughter, but even in that context, Davila was something special. In pursuit of the
 riches of the natives, he murdered them so profligately and so barbarically that
 when his men fell into Indian hands, they were forced to drink molten gold.

 But he was equally vicious with his own men. When Davila sensed that his chief
 lieutenant in Panama, Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, was growing in popularity, he had
 him decapitated. He did the same with Hernandez de Cordoba in 1526. The head
 of Nicaragua's founder was stuck on a pole in the town plaza, a reminder to
 others of the costs of incurring Davila's wrath, while his body was buried at the
 foot of the altar in Leon Viejo's only church.

 The names of both Balboa and Hernandez de Cordoba would become immortal
 after their deaths: Panama (the balboa) and Nicaragua (the cordoba) would name
 their currencies after the two men. Meanwhile, Davila did not long survive his
 treacherous act, dying of natural causes four years after the murder of Hernandez
 de Cordoba.


 But the evil that Davila unleashed would continue to haunt Leon Viejo. In 1549,
 when the Spanish crown ordered an end to the enslaving of Indians, Davila's
 grandson murdered the local bishop, whom he regarded as a dangerous
 instigator. Leon Viejo continued to ship huge numbers of Indians off to slavery in
 Peru, emptying Nicaragua so completely that it took until the 20th Century for the
 population to rise back to its preconquest level.

 By 1610, with no Indians left and earthquakes and volcanic eruptions becoming
 distressingly regular, the remaining Spaniards concluded that the pope had
 cursed Leon Viejo in retaliation for the murder of the bishop. They left and founded
 a new Leon 18 miles to the west. Leon Viejo -- old Leon -- was swallowed by the
 underbrush and forgotten.

 It was not until the mid-1960s that teams of archaeology students directed by
 Tunnermann, then president of the National University of Nicaragua, began using
 old Spanish manuscripts in an attempt to find the lost city. They found it in 1967
 after spotting some ancient Spanish bricks in a farmhouse in the village Puerto


 A 1972 earthquake and 1982 flooding, sandwiched around two civil wars, kept
 Nicaraguan archaeologists from making much progress on the site. Hurricane
 Mitch set back exploration again in 1998, and only last year did work begin in

 Hernandez de Cordoba's remains were discovered May 2 in one of three graves at
 the foot of the church's altar. Although to the laymen's eye the bones don't
 amount to much -- seven small plastic bags full of fragments and shards -- they
 are enough to make archaeologists fairly certain of whom they had found.

 ``Bones decay, and normally what is preserved are the harder parts of the head,
 the cranium and the teeth,'' said Edgar Espinosa, head of anthropology at
 Nicaragua's National Museum. ``We found those [craniums and teeth] in the two
 graves next to this one, but not here. What that almost certainly means is that
 this body was buried without a head.''


 The grave with the headless body also was unusually long, more than six feet.
 Contemporary descriptions of Hernandez de Cordoba always stress his height,
 more than six feet, a giant in that era.

 Lange concurred in the find.

 ``The bottom line is that there's a lot of evidence in favor of this being Hernandez
 de Cordoba, and not a single shred of evidence against it,'' he said.

 Ironically, it may be that the remains of the murderer Davila will provide the final
 confirmation of Hernandez de Cordoba's identity. Nicaraguan scientists are trying
 to extract DNA from the bones believed to be those of Davila, for comparison to
 samples from several of his known descendants. Because there are several
 historical accounts that the two men were buried next to each other, a positive
 identification of Davila would make it all but certain that the other remains are
 those of Hernandez de Cordoba.

 The identity of the third body found at the altar remains a mystery, although some
 archaeologists have speculated that it may be that of the murdered bishop.

 The remains of Hernandez de Cordoba were escorted out of Leon Viejo by a
 military honor guard to lie in state at various sites throughout Nicaragua. After
 that, they'll be interred in a special crypt near the church where he was originally
 buried. Davila's bones have gone to a back room at the National Museum.