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Snake-like petroglyphs on a rock on Ometepe island

The Mysterious Petroglyphs of Ometepe, Nicaragua

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Ometepe is an island located on Lake Nicaragua in Nicaragua. The name of this island comes from the indigenous Nahuatl language. Ome means as ‘two’, whilst tepetl means ‘peaks / hills / mountains’. Hence, Ometepe may be translated as ‘the place of two hills’. The first Nahuatl-speaking inhabitants of Ometepe are said to have arrived on the island after following a prediction that instructed them to search out an ‘island paradise that consisted of two peaks’. Prior to their arrival, however, Ometepe had already been inhabited by a number of other tribes and cultures, as evidenced by the large quantity of petroglyphs scattered throughout the island.

Ometepe, the island of two peaks

Ometepe, the island of two peaks (Wikimedia Commons)

According to the Ometepe Archaeological Project (OAP), which is a long-term volunteer archaeological field survey of the Maderas half of the Nicaraguan island of Ometepe, “approximately 2,000 boulders with petroglyphs or other cultural modifications have been photographed, drawn, and described as part of the survey.” It has been suggested that the petroglyphs were produced by native artists using flint and obsidian chisels. The exact age of these petroglyphs is unknown. Nevertheless, it has been suggested that some of them may be over 3,000 years old. Furthermore, excavations carried out in the early 1880s by J. F. Bransford, and in the late 1960s by Wolfgang Haberland showed that Ometepe was probably settled as late as 800 B.C. and perhaps as early as 2000 B.C. By comparing the petroglyph motifs with designs painted on the pottery excavated on Omotepe (as well as other islands on the lake), one may be able to estimate the age of the Ometepe petroglyphs.

More than 2,000 boulders with petroglyphs have been recorded on Ometepe.

More than 2,000 boulders with petroglyphs have been recorded on Ometepe. Photo source: Wikimedia

The stylistic forms of the Ometepe petroglyphs may be divided into several broad categories. One of these categories is designated as “Abstract Curvilinear”, and is the most common type of petroglyph design. The most common motif in this group is said to be the spiral (ranging from simple single spirals to multiple spirals) which can be found in all the sites surveyed by the OAP. Another category of petroglyphs are called “Abstract Rectilinear”. Petroglyphs with these designs, however, are reported to be in a much smaller proportion to other types of motifs, and seem to be a variation of the “Abstract Curvilinear” motifs.

Anthropomorphic figures

In addition to geometric motifs, there are also petroglyphs with “Anthropomorphic” or “Zoomorphic” motifs. “Anthropomorphic” designs are relatively common, and are said to occur often at some sites, and none at all in others. These designs range from simple heads to stick figures and figures with fully outlined bodies. Some figures even make use of the three dimensional aspect of the rock, and appear to be almost sculptural. These include one that is called the bruja or witch, a naturalistic human head, and a foetus-like figure.

Anthropomorphic figure carved into a rock on Ometepe island

Anthropomorphic figure carved into a rock on Ometepe island (Wikimedia Commons)

Zoomorphic figures

“Zoomorphic” figures, on the other hand, are relatively infrequent, and occur in both representational and stylized forms. Of the former, the monkey is said to be the most common motif. Other designs include quadrupeds (infrequent, but tend to be found in complex panels), amphibians such as frogs and toads (infrequent), and birds (rare). Figures of reptiles have also been found. Images of lizards and crocodiles have occurred occasionally, whilst those of turtles are infrequent. Additionally, some figures of snakes are present in the petroglyphs. It has also been suggested that some curvilinear designs may be stylized forms of snakes. Other stylized “Zoomorphic” figures include possible bird heads and a crocodilian figure.

There are also a number of head-like designs that can neither be called anthropomorphic nor zoomorphic. These have been placed by the researchers under the category of “Mask-like Forms”. Finally, there is a category called “Miscellaneous Motifs”. These include images of flowers or butterflies, sun-like symbols, calendars, and cruciform figures.

Snake-like petroglyphs on a rock on Ometepe island

Snake-like petroglyphs on a rock on Ometepe island (Megan / flickr)

In spite of the surveys done by the OAP, there are many questions surrounding the petroglyphs of Ometepe that are yet to be answered. For instance, the reason(s) for the production of these petroglyphs is still a mystery. This is due to the fact that no written records are known to have been left behind by the people who made the petroglyphs. Therefore, for the time being, one can only imagine what these petroglyphs were for. Were they meant to be aesthetic, ritualistic, or practical? Or, could they have served a totally different function?

Featured image: Petroglyph carved into a rock on Ometepe Island (Latincoming)

By Ḏḥwty


Baker, S., 2015. The Petroglyphs of Ometepe Island, Nicaragua. [Online]
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Lange, F., 2015. Petroglyphs. [Online]
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Nalley, J. H., 2011. Exploring Isla de Ometepe in Nicaragua. [Online]
Available at:, 2015. About the Ometepe Archaeological Project. [Online]
Available at:, 2015. Petroglyphs in Ometepe. [Online]
Available at:, 2015. The Petroglyphs on Ometepe. [Online]
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Bet the last rock petroglyph picture is a map ! but all those walk (path) ways are of course encased under jungle growth, never be found because no one desires to search for them. So again, if we just bother, a significant dicovery could/would be made, meantime answers there, right under our noseS. :(

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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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