Costa Rica


Pre-Columbian History: Even though Costa Rica is a relative newcomer from the geological standpoint, man is an even more recent arrival.

Current theory proposes that the most probable route by which humans first reached Central America was via the Bering Strait land bridge that formed with the lowering of sea level during the last of the great glacial periods, about 11,000 years ago. Undoubtedly, the earliest human inhabitants of North America came from Mongolian races that migrated along this route. Nonetheless, based on linguistic similarities, some anthropologists argue that Polynesian peoples may have sailed to the Pacific coast of South America, begun colonization of that continent, and continued their way north into this region; although, if this occurred, it was more likely within the past 3,000 years.

Little or no exact evidence exists to indicate how long our species has resided in what is now Costa Rica, but it is generally agreed that the area has been inhabited for at least the past 7,000 years. Those early dwellers in this tropical land were roaming hunter-gatherers. Their movements were likely related to local elimination, or severe decline, in the larger game species populations (e.g., peccaries and deer).

As the generations passed and they gained knowledge of the local plant species and their potential uses as food, fiber, building material, and medicine, the foundation for more sedentary populations was laid. The first plants to come into widespread cultivation in the region were corn (Zea mays), yuca or cassava (Manihot esculenta) and pejibaye or peach palm (Bactris gasipaes). Corn was introduced from northern Central America, the latter two crops are of South American origin.

At about the same time that rudimentary agriculture was becoming an established practice some 2,500 years ago, pottery also was introduced. The knowledge of the techniques necessary to create ceramic items was probably first developed in Colombia and Venezuela and eventually spread to Costa Rica several centuries later.

Both the transfer of plant species for cultivation and the art of pottery point to the fact that the native populations of the time did not live in total isolation from one another. Archeologists trace the appearance of workmanship styles in pottery, stoneware, and jewelry throughout the entire region to show where certain styles most likely originated and how far they spread.

Creativity and artistic ability are also well exemplified in much of the stone carvings that have been discovered at pre-Columbian archeological sites in Costa Rica. Numerous figurines have been found, many in the seated position of the shaman and others depicting victorious warriors, each holding the head of a victim (a clear illustration that life in those early societies was not entirely peaceful). But the most impressive items carved from stone are the ceremonial metates, or grinding plates mounted on three or four legs. Many of the ones on display in the National Museum are handsomely decorated with animal motifs and geometric designs. However, the existence of many metates found without decorations reveals they were also essential household items for grinding corn and other grains, as well as for mashing root crops.

One of the great pre-Columbian mysteries is that of the almost perfectly spherical stones found in southwestern Costa Rica, the largest measuring more than 10 ft. in diameter and weighing several tons. Made of granitic rock from high in the Talamanca Mountains, the stone spheres are only known from lowland sites such as Palmar and Caño Island Biological Reserve. Neither the method of their fabrication nor the exact nature of their usage by the native people is known.

High levels of artistry were likewise achieved with gold and jade. Several techniques were developed for working the gold obtained from local deposits and pieces produced here have been unearthed in places as far away as Mexico. Guatemala was the apparent source of the jade discovered in Costa Rican archeological sites. All of which again points to trade within the Mesoamerican region.

Native peoples undoubtedly had mastered craftsmanship with a variety of other materials such as wood and plant fibers, but these normally have not survived to the present day due to the effects of the tropical climate on such perishable substances. For this same reason, we can only infer about their housing since the actual building materials have long since decayed without any trace. Based on construction techniques still used in some places by the few remaining indigenous peoples, it is probable that palm thatch was used for roofing, and walls and floors (when present) were made of wild cane stalks or split palm trunks, perhaps cemented together with mud. Buildings may often have been round, judging by the circular foundations in evidence at Guayabo National Monument and other archeological sites.

Hammocks woven of natural fibers were likely used for sleeping. Baskets in a broad array of shapes and sizes for an endless variety of uses would have been constructed of fibers from grasses and vines. Clothing could have been obtained from animal skins, pounded bark from certain trees, and woven from cotton fibers.

Beginning about 1,200 years ago, native societies throughout the region began to show an increased level of complexity with the creation of territories controlled by caciques, or tribal chieftains. As a result, for the first time a division of classes could be detected. Nevertheless, one of the prevailing traditions in these societies was that of reciprocity in which goods were shared rather than traded or sold (notions of property and currency as held by Westerners were totally unknown concepts). The seat of each chieftainship may have served as a regional center for the reception and redistribution of products between outlying communities.

With the development of successful agricultural practices in accordance with the climatic conditions of each region, combined with hunting, fishing, and gathering of fruits, nuts, shellfish, and other seasonally or locally abundant items such as turtle eggs and bee honey, enough food could be supplied to allow certain groups, or clans, to dedicate their time and efforts to the manufacture of ceramics, stone implements, objects from precious metals, and weaving of baskets and cloth. Channeled through the regional chieftainship, these various goods were shared and redistributed among the different clans.

Another member of each community whose importance cannot be overestimated was the sukia or shaman. Trained by a previous elder shaman, each sukia was a reservoir of medicinal and spiritual knowledge. Having no written language, these peoples were dependent on this lineage of "chosen ones" to keep their traditions alive by passing them orally from generation to generation.

In the area that is now Costa Rica, no large monuments have been uncovered. The principal reason for the lack of large-scale architecture such as that found in Copán in Honduras or Tikál in Guatemala, was probably a shortage of manpower. Estimates of the native population here at the time of the first Spaniards' arrival range from 25,000 to 400,000.



 Home | Geological History and Climate | Pre-Columbian History | National Parks | Colonial Costa Rica
Since Independence | Alajuela | Cartago | Guanacaste | Heredia | Limón | Puntarenas | San José

Richard Garrigues Ó 1996