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|People before Time|
Long before Christopher Columbus ...
The past is the only dead thing that smells sweet. ~ Early One Morning, Edward Thomas, 1878-1917Long before Christopher Columbus first sailed from the Old World into the New, Meso-America had an “old” world already. Peoples inhabited this part of the isthmus that is present-day Costa Rica for at least 11,000 years. Some of the relics left by the earliest Stone Age settlers show both North and South American influences – a sign of Costa Rica’s importance as part of the land bridge between continents.
Archeologists believe the Maya influence from the north extended into the northwestern corner and Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica. The people that lived there, principally Chorotegas, had an organized and structured civilization with rigid class lines. A Cacique – a warrior chief and high priest – led them. The Chorotega was the largest of Costa Rica’s many tribes. They left no written records, only highly stylized art and pottery. Their craftsmen worked in jade, gold and stone, and created the functional but artistic three-legged stone metates used for grinding corn. Some are still in use today, a thousand years later, by rural people. Chorotega pottery is glazed and is most often a light beige color with black markings. Local artists today have revived the lost indigenous methods and produce some unique and appealing works.
Semi-nomadic people lived in the eastern and southern tropical forests, raising corn and cassava. These Carib tribesmen chewed coca, a habit of the Andean and Inca cultures. The fierce Boruca inhabited the high Talamanca region in the south and Pacific zones. They lived in huge coneshaped communal huts that could hold nearly 100 people. The Corobicis, another tribe, were thought to have a matriarchal culture.
In the drier regions of the Central Valley and highlands, indigenous people built stone foundations and large, stockade buildings that held extended family groups. They cobbled their pathways and created aqueducts and drainage systems in the style of their southern cousins.
But the most fascinating remnants here came from the Diquis, a lost native civilization who left behind thousands of near-perfect spherical stone balls. These remarkable balls are found only in Costa Rica’s Southern Pacific zone. Some are as small as oranges and some are huge – as big as two meters/6.6 feet in diameter and weighing over 14,500 kilos (16 tons). You’ll find some specimens in the Gold Museum, the National Museum and the Children’s Museum in San José. In many private yards throughout the country, the balls are used as decorative garden ornaments. A great place to see and touch the balls in an undisturbed setting is on Isla Caño, off the Osa Peninsula.
But who made these granite, andesite and sedimentary stone balls and why? They have been found scattered all over the countryside.Were they markers or religious artifacts? No one knows, as the people who created them have long since disappeared.
The country’s most important archeological site is Guayabo, an excavated city on the slopes of Turrialba Volcano. For an unknown reason it was abandoned about 100 years before the Spanish arrival.
Recently, researchers have postulated that instead of the long accepted belief that Costa Rica had a small indigenous population, 400,000 to 500,000 people may have called Costa Rica home at the time of Columbus. The conquest quickly reduced that figure by 95%. Today, 40,000 native people, divided into eight cultural groups, live on 22 reserves, most in the remote south. The Chorotegas on the Matambú reserve in Nicoya and the Guatusu near Arenal are the only Maya descendants left. The other remaining tribes – Boruca, Bribri, Cabécares, Térrabas, Teribes, Guaymis and Malekus – are related to the South American Chibcha civilization of Columbia.
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