Pre-Columbian Costa Rica

Little is known of the earliest people of Costa Rica. As many as 25 distinct groups resided here, each maintaining their own unique identity and culture.

In the Northwest

The Chorotegas

The largest and most advanced of Costa Rica's indigenous people, the Chorotegas (which translates to "fleeing people") migrated around A.D. 500 from Southern Mexico into the Nicoya Peninsula to escape slavery. Their customs, language and calendar were largely influenced by more advanced cultures of Mexico and Guatemala. The influence of the Mayans was evident in their written language and use of a calendar, while their spoken language, Nahua, is distinctly Aztec in origin.

The Chorotegas excelled at farming, growing abundant harvests of corn, as well as cotton, beans, fruits and cacao. The latter was originally introduced to Costa Rica by the Chorotegas, and they used its seeds as currency. The land was communally owned and harvests were divided according to need. This assured that even those unable to maintain crops, such as widows or the elderly, were provided for.

Like most of the advanced, early Latin American civilizations, the cities of the Chorotegas often featured central plazas with a marketplace and religious center. As many as 20,000 people may have populated a single city, and entire clans lived in longhouses constructed of wood with thatched-roofs.

Ceramic art was a very important facet of Chorotegas culture and was primarily practiced by women. Ceramic objects were customarily painted in black and red, then decorated with serpents, crocodiles, monkeys and jaguars.

The Chorotegas maintained an organized military which fought to protect their territory and generate a source of slaves.

Sacrificing slaves for religious purposes was fairly common, and virgins were often sacrificed by throwing them into the craters of volcanoes. In addition, as a purification rite, the sacrifice human was often eaten.

Along the Coasts

The Chibcha

From Columbia came the Chibcha people who migrated and settled in the South Pacific region. They lived in well-fortified towns and were constantly embroiled in wars with rival tribes for the best land of the region. These battles also afforded them a supply of prisoners who they used as slaves or sacrifices.

Their intense concern for security was likely generated by their possession of gold, which they fashioned into human and animal figures.

The Chibcha people are thought to be responsible for Costa Rica's greatest ancient mystery. Around the Rio Terraba valley and on Isla del Cano off the coast of the Osa Peninsula, linear formations of granite spheres exists that have baffled archaeologists and anthropologists for years. The spheres, ranging in size from a few centimeters to 2 meters, weigh as much as 16 tons. How were they created? Remarkably, the largest spheres are perfectly spherical to within a centimeter or two. Probably the most bewildering question surrounding the mystery is how these enormous monoliths were transported from the source of their granite more than 20 miles away.

Jungle People of the Caribbean Coast

Migrating to the lowland jungles of Coast Rica's Atlantic Coast, tribes from the jungles of Brazil and Ecuador lived semi-nomadically. They hunted, fished and cultivated a variety of crops including yucca, pumpkin and squash. The nobility of their chief was passed down through the maternal blood line, and warriors, of both sexes, were held in the highest esteem. Visible through the stone figurines later found in that region, warriors apparently saved the decapitated heads of their enemies.

In the Central Highlands

The Corobicís

The predominant group of the Central Highlands were the Corobicís. They were farmers and hunter-gatherers that lived in small tribes. They were excellent at goldsmithing. Specializing in exquisite amulets and figurines that represented their idols, the Corobicís were able to set up a market for their gold with people of the lowland tribes.

The Cabécar and Guaymí

Further south in the Talamancas, the Cabécar and Guaymí tribes were primarily hunter-gatherers. They are noted for their reverence of the jaguar, their philosophy of living harmoniously with nature, and the importance of Shamans in the community.

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Costa Rica 101

History of Costa Rica

Little is known of the earliest people of Costa Rica. As many as 25 distinct groups resided here, each maintaining their own unique identity and culture.

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