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PhD project

Of Islanders and Foreigners? Tracing local identities and cultural encounters in the Gulf of Fonseca, Central America (AD 400-1521)

How did local lifeways and crafting practices persist and develop in the diverse environments of the increasingly interconnected Gulf of Fonseca (AD 400-1521)?

2020 - 2026
Marie Kolbenstetter
NWO PhDs in the Humanities Grant NWO PhDs in the Humanities Grant
Stichting Fonds Catharine van Tussenbroek Fund Stichting Fonds Catharine van Tussenbroek Fund
Fondation Martine Aublet Bourse Doctorale
  • Université Paris Nanterre, UMR8066, Technologie et Ethnologie des Mondes Préhistoriques
  • Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras, Faculdad de Ciencias Sociales, Carrera de Antropología
  • Centro Francés de Estudios Mexicanos y Centroamericanos


Around AD 600, an increase in river-based and maritime trade seems to have taken place in the Gulf of Fonseca, on the Pacific Coast of Central America, leading to the emergence of a new social landscape. This research project investigates how, in the face of increasing interconnectedness, the daily practices of precolonial communities of Tigre island (Honduras) shaped the way they inhabited and interacted across the different environments of the Gulf of Fonseca. Through ethnographic interviews, survey, excavation, and technological analysis of ceramic and lithic artefacts, this research will shed light on the precolonial occupation of this unique geographical feature, contesting the colonial conception of the Gulf, its islands and mangrove forests, as inhospitable environments.

Societal relevance

Globalization has long been at the center of scientific and social discourses. In a time where nations are trying to redefine local identities in the international geo-political landscape, questions of cultural resilience and integration have become a central part of the debate. The Gulf of Fonseca is no stranger to this aspect, as the influence of recent neoliberal policies has led to major social inequities affecting mainly small communities. Indeed, globalization has been responsible for the destruction of ecosystems to benefit the shrimp farming industry, and governmental projects are allowing foreign investors to transform pieces of land into economic assets. This often happens to the detriment of local communities who do not partake in the benefits. Currently, one of these governmental projects, financed by foreign investors, is aiming to develop El Tigre into a large port facility for the trans-Pacific transportation of goods, putting the island once again at the center of long-distance trade.

This study aims to preserve material remains of local histories in the context of globalization. As construction projects are developed, parts of (in)tangible heritage disappear. El Tigre is one of the islands where this threat is imminent, making the documentation of its past in collaboration with the local community a priority. 

Scientific relevance

The Gulf of Fonseca, at the border with El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, is described in the literature as one of the key places to understand precolonial exchange and mobility on the Pacific Coast of Central America. However, no project aimed at the systematic documentation of precolonial sites on the islands or the coasts of the Gulf of Fonseca has ever been developed. This project thus aims to start filling this gap in the regional scholarship.

Why Leiden University

This research project is affiliated with both the Faculty of Archaeology Leiden University (primary affiliation) and the Technologie et Ethnologie des Mondes Préhistoriques Research Unit from the University Paris Nanterre (secondary affiliation). The choice of institutional embedding is motivated by both institutions’ longstanding history of archaeological work in Central America and their legacy in the field of technological analysis of materials.

The Faculty of Archaeology has, over the last decades, developed as one of the only places in Europe with an active research presence in Central American archaeology. Combined with the internationally recognized excellence of its Laboratory for Artefact studies, as well as the Faculty's strong theoretical orientation, Leiden University offers an ideal environment for this type of research.

The first fieldwork phase of the project, which took place in 2021, consisted in ethnographic interviews and assessment of possible comparative ceramic collections. 
The second fieldwork phase of the project, taking place in 2022, will be a semi-systematic survey of the island of El Tigre and an opportunistic survey of the mangrove forests lining the Gulf of Fonseca.

The third fieldwork phase consists of excavations on the island to be carried out in 2023.

Both lithic and ceramic material from survey and excavations will be subjected to technological analysis to delimit communities of practices through time and space.

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