Ancient Costa Rica Part I: Lost history in the land of the crossroads

By Maggie Koerth-Baker

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The Maya built pyramids. The Inca constructed Machu Picchu. But what do you know about the historical exploits of the Maléku, the Cabécar or the Bribri?

Chances are, not a whole heck of a lot. All three are indigenous peoples native to Costa Rica, part of a larger cultural and linguistic group that archaeologists call Chibchan. Their ancestors were the earliest inhabitants of Costa Rica, but the general public (even within that country) knows very little about them.

Despite a scarcity of giant tourist-attracting monuments, ancient Costa Rica was a pretty hopping place—a nexus of trade where the cultures of Mexico and Central America met those of northern South America, and elements of both were incorporated into the unique and diverse Chibchan culture. Gold ornaments, jade carvings and pottery are literally just below the surface, uncovered by modern construction—or even just poking around in the backyard. So why the low profile? Blame the combined forces of local climate, indigenous tragedy and looting as national pastime.

EDIT: I've added a bunch more photos of Chibchan art.

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"Tourists can visit the Gold Museum and the Jade Museum in San Jose. But they're meaningless scientifically, like a bank vault or a jewelry store. Every item in them comes from looting," said Michael Snarskis, Ph.D. "Only the National Museum has an active research program with didactic exhibitions based on its own scientific excavations."

Thanks to Henry "Indiana" Jones, Ph.D., you're probably well-acquainted with the war cry, "It belongs in a museum!" But the real slogan of archaeology goes deeper. More like, "It belongs in a museum, after having first been carefully excavated and cataloged, so we know where it was found, in what layer of earth and with what other objects." It's an important distinction (and one the good Dr. Jones usually missed). Without that information, there's no context. Without context, all you've got is a pretty gold figurine that can only tell you a limited amount about the people who made it.

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Most of the art and artifacts uncovered in Costa Rica during the 20th century lack context, coming either directly from for-profit looters, or from pre-scientific archaeologists who did their work in the grab-and-go method of Indiana Jones. Snarskis was among the first of a core of pioneers who brought scientific archaeology to the region beginning in the 1950s. He helped turn Costa Rica's National Museum into a showcase for scientific archaeology, rather than just pretty objects, and contributed to the training of the first generation of Costa Rican archaeologists to work in their own country's National Museum. All of which is somewhat ironic, he said, considering the way he got involved in archaeology.

"I knew zip about archaeology when I joined the Peace Corps in Costa Rica. I was a Spanish Literature major, and when I arrived I saw all these looters coming in with amazing stuff and I started collecting it, and I thought that was archaeology. I shipped that collection back home after the Peace Corps and when I applied to the archaeology Ph.D. program at Columbia, I even mentioned, among my qualifications, that I had this rather interesting collection of Costa Rican artifacts. Which is, you know, unprofessional, and just with that, they could have axed me. I still don't know how they accepted me," he said.

It only took a couple weeks in the program for Snarskis' thinking to switch gears. He eventually returned the entire collection to Costa Rica.

"I remember thinking, 'My God, what have I done?'", he said.

Costa Rica certainly isn't the only Central American country with a history of looting ancient artifacts, but Snarskis said the damage done there has been more thorough, largely because there were so few people who saw the artifacts as more than potential profit. In Guatemala, for instance, the descendants of the ancient Maya remained relatively numerous and, in many places, were even able to keep their cultural identity intact. They saw Mayan artifacts as a part of their history, and their presence helped other people see the pieces as important, too—a part of the national identity, even for those who had no cultural or genetic connection to the Maya.

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This ceremonial metate—basically a fancy, special-occasion version of the grinding stones used for everyday cooking—is carved from a single piece of stone.

The indigenous peoples of Costa Rica, on the other hand, were almost completely wiped out by disease within 100 years of Christopher Columbus setting foot on their shores in 1502. Their descendants have struggled to keep even their tribes alive, let alone their culture. Their small numbers made them easy to ignore. Only in the second half of the 20th century did average Costa Ricans really start valuing their country's archaeology, Snarskis said.

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Another factor was the lack of big architecture. Early archaeologists were drawn to places where they could uncover the ruins of massive pyramids—not to places where they would spend weeks digging in the dirt for a carved jade pendant. So Costa Rica never developed a storied, international reputation as a cool place to learn about ancient history.

Finally, Costa Rica itself played a role in diminishing local archaeology. The ancient Chibchan people did build some impressive architecture, but they built it mostly out of wood, adobe and cane. The acidic soil, and the tropical climate which cycles yearly between wet and dry seasons, destroyed all that, leaving only the stone foundations. Most human remains are also eaten by the tropics.

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But what has been found, and found scientifically, has shown that Costa Rica was hardly some ancient, backwater version of flyover country. In fact, it was one of the most artistically diverse regions in the Americas. Put it this way: Usually, you'll have an area the size of Indiana, where any given period of time has one predominant style of pottery associated with it. In Costa Rica—a country roughly the size of Maryland—you might have three or four different styles.

Tomorrow, you'll get a closer look at the Chibchan world, as Snarskis and I travel to Guayabo, a sophisticated ancient city in the Costa Rican rainforest.

Michael Snarskis offers guided tours of Costa Rica's National Museum, Jade Museum, Gold Museum and the ancient city of Guayabo. If you'll be visiting Costa Rica and you're interested in archaeology, you can contact him by email or by phone at 011-506-2235-8824.

Amulet showing a pair of frogs, made from tumbaga (an alloy of gold and copper). From Costa Rica's Gold Museum, taken by Flickr user stevendepolo, via CC

All other images, courtesy Michael Snarskis.

Published 5:00 am Mon, Jan 11, 2010

About the Author

Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. From August 2014-May 2015, she will be a Nieman-Berkman Fellow at Harvard University. You can follow Maggie's adventures in the Ivory Tower by subscribing to The Fellowship of Three Things newsletter.

13 Responses to “Ancient Costa Rica Part I: Lost history in the land of the crossroads”

  1. jeligula says:

    I was wondering when you would get to the archaeological aspect of your recent trip, Maggie. I sincerely hope Dr. Snarksis has some insight into the stone spheres. They have boggled my mind ever since I first heard about them several years ago. I have always wanted to go see for myself and hit a few hot springs while I’m there.

    • Maggie Koerth-Baker says:

      Those are fascinating, aren’t they? They’re amazing pieces of work, the result of countless hours of craftsmanship and the Chibchan understanding of geometry. And it’s hard to know a whole lot about them because almost all of them are completely lacking context–either rolled away from original sites or looted as lawn ornaments. I didn’t get a chance cover much on them while I was in Costa Rica. But my college professor, John Hoopes, who has also worked in Costa Rica, has a great big old Web site dedicated to them: http://web.ku.edu/~hoopes/balls/

    • Maggie Koerth-Baker says:

      Jeligula, Dr. Snarskis emailed me and said that he’d like to send you the PDF of an article he wrote about the Stone Balls. His email link is in the story. If you send him a message and let him know you’re the guy who was interested in the Balls from Boing Boing, he’ll get you that extra information.

  2. kyfho23 says:

    Thanks. I never knew this (one of my greatest compliments to give).
    Off topic: Try the coffee while you’re there. Costa Rica grows some great brew, and they make it closer to American style.

  3. dculberson says:

    Awesome, thank you for the cool post. I went to a lot of museums in Peru, and it’s like you said: there are a few that have context and really informative displays. Then others are a bunch of glass cases stuffed full of pottery.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Try seeing the stone balls on Canos Island at Drake’s Bay, Costa Rica. About a 20 minute walk from the beach. There are many of them lying around in the woods, and it’s an interesting problem as to how someone transported them to the island.

  5. John Riley says:

    Readers of this article may find some of my work interesting (I hope!) I did some work for the National Museum’s website, making object-spin movies of artifacts in their collection, which allow you to rotate the artifacts and view them from all sides. You can find those at:

    http://4pi-vr.com/site/object_samples/index.html

    I also made a large number of panoramas for the museum’s website. You can see these on my site at:

    http://4pi-vr.com/site/museo/index.html

    I have collaborated on some research work and photography at Guayabo as well. I was able to have access to portions of the site that tourists can not get to. If you would like to see some of those, look at:

    http://4pi-vr.com/site/guayabo/index.html

    I was not really happy with the results of most of the panoramas from Guayabo. Unfortunately, the weather was not so great, usually on the verge of raining, with ugly grey skies. My permissions were only for a specific set of dates, so I got what I could 8-)

    I hope you enjoy,

    John Riley
    Assoc. Prof. of Physics
    USC Upstate
    Spartanburg, SC

    and also proprietor of
    4Pi-VR Media Solutions
    http://4pi-vr.com

    johnriley at chesnet.net
    jriley at uscupstate.edu
    (replace “at” with @)

  6. Larry Lo says:

    Very excellent post. Can’t wait to read the next part. I used to live in Costa Rica and went to elementary and secondary school there. I remember history classes would skim over Costa Rica’s pre-Columbian cultures so quickly that if you snoozed you’d miss it. In fact I credit them with my obsession with the Maya because I think we spent more time on Mesoamerican (even getting homework in Maya math) and Andean cultures than with native Costa Rican ones.

    • Anonymous says:

      I agree with you, but im still living here.

      What you said about the teaching in schools is completely true.

      Hope more people can read this very interesting article.

  7. revansatoda says:

    Stone sphere video. Here’s a link to a 20 minute video about Chibchan stone spheres. English and Spanish versions. About 16 minutes each in two 8 minute parts. Or download to your PC. There are lots more amateur archaeological photos, articles and videos by clicking on the double, left pointing triangles on the top right.

    http://www.atoda.com/pg_video.php

  8. Anonymous says:

    There’s a great book titled Atlantis in America (Erikson & Zapp) that puts forth a very interesting theory about the stone spheres of Costa Rica. The authors have matched the stones’ patterns on the ground to star constellations and believe that they were used to teach navigation to mariners who arrived from the South Pacific and didn’t know how to get home. I know it sounds far-fetched but there are several hundred pages of evidence to consider. They also have info on their website at http://www.atlantisinamerica.com.

    If your interested in ancient maritime cultures in the Caribbean, visit http://www.TheMegaBlog.com to read about some amazing research near Bimini that’s about to rewrite the history of the “new” world.

  9. Anonymous says:

    On the Indonesian island of Bali are many amazing stone works, by far the scariest one is a gigantic stone goblet laying on it’s side where the alien mothership dropped it % ) really, though, so big it had to’ve been moved there but there is no stone material like it in the vicinity. So why carve a massive stone goblet, then move it far from the quarry, what kind of gods banquet was it going to be?

  10. Anonymous says:

    Hoy 25 Enero me acabo de enterar que el Sr. Michael J. Snarskis apareció muerto en su casa de habitacón. Es una perdida para nuestro país al perder tan grande Arqueólogo y Amigo. Paz a sus restos. At. Ulises Reyes