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Pre-Colombian History: Guanacaste's Rich Past

by Armando Valverde (translated by Auriana Koutnik)

Guanacaste is a region of tropical dry forests, vast pasturelands and winding rivers, endless beaches and scenic coastline, and a rich cultural and archaeological history.When Spanish explorers first arrived to this area, they found "an exuberant tropical environment inhabited by a growing civilization of aborigines organized in groups and tribes, with a lifestyle characterized by the predominance of agricultural activity," according to 16th Century historian Eugenia Ibarra, in her book "The Tribal Societies of Costa Rica."Remnants of these Mesoamerican cultures can be observed in the National Museum, in San José, and various archaeological sites throughout Guanacaste, as well as in the food, music and traditions of the area today, considered by many to have the country's richest cultural history. Costa Rica archaeologists and anthropologists have classified this region as part of the Greater Nicoya Archaeological Region, which extends through this part of Costa Rica north into Nicaragua.

Before and during the 16th Century, the region's largest and most important tribe was the Nicoya, spanning the area from the current city of Nicoya (about 327 km. northwest of San José), north to the banks of the Tempisque River. Smaller tribes believed to have inhabited the coastal region of what is now known as the Nicoya Peninsula include the Abangares, Chomes, Corobicí and Orotina. The different tribes interacted with each other through trade and other socioeconomic activities.

Historians are not sure how many people lived in this region prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1502. Estimates range from Bishop Thiel's guess last century of 27,200 total inhabitants, to today's widely accepted theory that roughly 400,000 people populated the area upon the Spaniard's arrival.

Their dwellings were oval-shaped, thatched wooden huts inhabited by several related families under one leader. The chief's sisters and their husbands, children and grandchildren made up the "tribal family." Other architectural elements of the village included plazas, temples and pathways.

The principal economic activity of these tribes was agriculture, although they also depended on hunting and fishing to supplement their diet. Their main crop, which they harvested up to three times per year, was corn. Corn was a dietary staple, and they used it to prepare many of the foods still widely consumed throughout this region, such as corn mush and tortillas. A drink prepared from fermented corn, "Chicha," was drunk from a gourd passed around during socio-religious ceremonies to symbolize peace and brotherhood between the tribes. In Nicoya, "chicha" was alternated with another drink made from cocoa beans, although this was consumed in lesser quantities.

Within this social system, the men were in charge of the agricultural activities while the women prepared the food and artistry, including beautifully designed ceramic pottery, and ran the markets and inter-tribal trading. The ceramic and stone work, replicas of which are available in the region today, included various types of bowls and metates (used for grinding corn, similar to a mortar and pestle). The earlier work had intricate two-color designs, with polychrome designs showing up in later works.

The tribes were also known for their skill in the crafting of nets, hammocks, rope and baskets made from sturdy vines, and for a major salt processing plant in what is today called Bahía Culebra (Snake Bay) in northern Guanacaste.

Although the tribes are not considered war-like, inter-tribal tension and conflict sometimes led to full-fledged wars between them. For example, when the Spaniards arrived, the Nicaraos (from southern Nicaragua) were at war with the Chorotegas (from northern Guanacaste), who were also at war with several tribes from the Central Valley. Historians believe the principal cause of these wars was to defend "tribal identity" ­ each pueblo's customs, traditions, territories and religious beliefs, which were put at risk by the influence of other tribes.

Another great cause of their wars is believed to be reproduction-related, to ensure continuation of the tribe. The kidnapping of strong men, healthy women of child-bearing age and children was part of their survival strategy; as it enabled the leaders to increase their labor force with prisoners of war as well as use the women to procreate. While these women prisoners were violently taken from their homes and sometimes raped, the tribe's need to count on women's loyalty led to less-violent methods of seeking new blood, such as the inter-tribal exchange of women and arranged marriages.

Few of Costa Rica's archeological sites have been studied extensively, and even fewer are accessible to the public, says National Museum anthropologist Francisco Corrales. Besides Guayabo National Monument (in Turrialba), which has fairly easy access and protects complex ruins of dwellings, roads, bridges and aquaducts surrounded by tropical rain forest, the remainder of Costa Rica's archaeological sites are very difficult to get to.

Inside Guanacaste National Park, "there is an area on the side of Orosi Volcano covered with volcanic rocks that are decorated with petroglyphs that are of enormous significance to Costa Rican archaeology simply because of its restricted access to the public," says Corrales. Visits to the petroglyphs can be arranged, but only with advance permission from park administrators.

Corrales said other archaeological remains are dispersed throughout the country, many inside national parks but many more are located on private lands, which limits access, research, conservation and maintenance of the sites.

"We have lacked government funds to tend to these archaeological sites," he said, "and unfortunately, there has been a lack of private support, which, coordinated through the Museum, could fund the study and preservation of these sites." While the country has done a good job protecting its ecological jewels, Corrales finds "no correlation between the protection of the natural and protection of the archaeological." Nevertheless, the National Museum has made a valiant effort to recreate the customs, traditions and way of life of pre-Columbian cultures for the general public.

Another interesting place to learn more about Costa Rica's ancient cultures is in Santa Cruz, where a movement led by cultural historian Mario Garcia is underway to convert the city's central park to an outdoor museum of the area's aboriginal culture.

Professor Cindy Hidalgo, also involved with the project, says they "are trying to demonstrate how the archaeological legacy of Santa Cruz originated with northern cultures, influenced perhaps by the Chorotega and Toltec tribes."

The region's archaeological sites, efforts of its inhabitants to preserve their indigenous roots, traditions and recipies carefully guarded and handed down for generations, make Guanacaste a place where visitors can truly feel the legacy of this country's earliest inhabitants

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