Impact of pre-Columbian agriculture, climate change, and tectonic activity inferred from a 5,700-year paleolimnological record from Lake Nicaragua

Jennifer E. Slate, Thomas C. Johnson, Ted C. Moore

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7 Scopus citations


Lake Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America, is a promising site for paleolimnological study of past climate change, tectonic and volcanic activity, and pre-Columbian agriculture in the region. It is near the northern limit of the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), which brings the rainy season to the tropics, so effects of decreasing precipitation due to southern migration of the ITCZ through the Holocene should be observable. Because fault zones and an active volcano lie within the lake, the long-term impact of tectonic and volcanic activity can also be examined. Finally, the fertile volcanic soils near the lake may have encouraged early agriculture. We analyzed diatoms, biogenic silica (BSi), total organic carbon (TOC), water content, volcanic glass, and magnetic susceptibility in a sediment core from Lake Nicaragua with eleven accelerator mass spectroscopy radiocarbon dates, spanning ~5,700 years. Sediment accumulation rates decreased from the bottom to the top of the core, indicating a general drying trend through the Holocene. An increase in eutrophic diatom abundance suggests that pre-Columbian agriculture impacted the lake as early as ~5,400 cal yr BP. Above a horizon of coarser grains deposited sometime between ~5,200 and 1,600 cal yr BP, planktonic diatoms increased and remained dominant to the top of the core, indicating that water depth permanently increased. Although magnetic susceptibility peaked and water content dipped at the coarse horizon, volcanic glass fragments did not increase, suggesting that the coarse horizon and subsequent increase in water depth were caused by tectonic rather than by volcanic activity. Decreased accumulation rates of BSi and TOC indicate that water became clearer when depth increased.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)139-149
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Paleolimnology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jun 2013

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Acknowledgments We thank Jerry Urquhart for invaluable efforts to obtain the sediment core, Yvonne Chan for the geochemical data, and Kelly Burzic for counting volcanic glass fragments. Norm Andresen, Becky Bixby, Amy Bloom, Chris Donar, Mark Edlund, Kurt Haberyan, Matt Julius, Eduardo Morales, and Gene Stoermer provided helpful feedback about diatom identifications. Justin Funk kindly provided the bathymetric map of Lake Nicaragua. Isabelle Larocque and two anonymous reviewers provided helpful comments that improved the manuscript. This research was supported by NSF grant #9711788.

Copyright 2013 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • Central America
  • Diatoms
  • Eutrophication
  • Lake depth
  • Paleoclimate
  • Tectonic activity

Continental Scientific Drilling Facility tags

  • 51


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