Pre-columbiean Costa Rica


The largest and most developed pre-Columbian population in Costa Rica was that of the Chorotegas , whose ancestors had migrated from Southern Mexico to the Nicoya Peninsula , probably in the thirteenth century. They were running away from enemies who wanted to enslave them; their name translates as "fleeing people."

Much of the information we have about the Chorotegas was collected by Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo, a Spanish explorer who lived with them for a short period in 1529.

Outstanding farmers, they obtained three harvests of com per year. They also grew cotton, beans, fruits, and cacao, which they introduced to Costa Rica . They used cacao seeds as currency. Land was communally owned and the harvest was divided according to need, so that old people and widows with children could be cared for. They lived in cities of up to 20,000 people. The towns had central plazas with a marketplace and a religious center; only women could enter the market. Women wore skirts, the length of which depended upon their social level. Men could go naked but often wore a large cloth or a woven and dyed sleeveless cotton shirt.

Women worked in ceramics, producing vessels painted in black and red, decorated with plumed serpents (the symbol for unity of matter and spirit), jaguars, monkeys, and crocodiles. They carved stylized jade figures in human and animal shapes. The figures could have been used in fertility ceremonies or to bring good luck in the hunt. They wrote books on deerskin parchment, and used a ritual calendar.

War was institutionalized. There was a permanent military organization that fought to obtain land and slaves. Slaves were used as human sacrifices. Eating someone who had been sacrificed to the gods was a purification rite. The Chorotegas would also sacrifice virgins by throwing them into volcano craters.

The Chibcha Indians from Colombia migrated to the South Pacific part of Costa Rica . They lived in permanent, well-fortified towns. Their concern with security could have arisen from their possession of gold they fashioned it into human and animal figures (especially turtles, armadillos and sharks). Both women and men fought for the best lands and for prisoners, whom they used as slaves or human sacrifices. They believed in life after death; vultures eating corpses performed a vital role in transporting people to the other world.

These people probably made the granite spheres that lie in linear formations in the valley of the Rio Terraba and on the Isla del Cano off the coast of the Peninsula de Osa . They range in diameter from 7.5 centimeters (the size of an orange) to 1.8 meters. Their almost perfect sphericity and careful placement make their meaning one of Costa Rica 's pre-Columbian mysteries.

Indians from the jungles of Brazil and Ecuador migrated to the lowland jungles of the Costa Rican Atlantic Coast. They lived semi-nomadically, hunting, fishing and cultivating yuca , pejibaye , pumpkin and squash. Their chief's nobility was hereditary, passed down through the female line of the family.

Social prestige was gained by good warriors. Apparently, decapitated heads of enemies were war trophies. Their stone figurines represent warriors with a knife in one hand and a head in the other.

They worshipped the sun, the moon and the bones of their ancestors. All things had souls. During religious festivals there was a ritual inebriation with a fermented chicha made from yuca or pejibaye . The burial mounds of these people have yielded the greatest number of precolumbian artifacts in the country.

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