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

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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.

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