Ancient Costa Rica

Ancient Costa Rica

by Margaret Young-Sánchez, Ph.D.

One of the most ecologically diverse places on the planet, Costa Rica is located in Central America, south of Nicaragua and to the north and west of Panama. It is bounded on the west by the Pacific Ocean and on the east by the Caribbean Sea. Although its area is only 19,652 square miles (51,100 square kilometers) Costa Rica's terrain and climate are quite varied. The central portion of the country, dominated by chains of volcanic mountain ranges, is verdant and mild. Hot, humid tropical forests occupy the low-lying territories on the east coast and the southern part of the Pacific coast. In contrast, Guanacaste and the Nicoya Peninsula in northwestern Costa Rica are comparatively arid, with pronounced seasonal fluctuations in rainfall. The range of habitats, the country's location between North and South America, and enlightened conservation policies account for the astonishing variety of plants, insects, butterflies, amphibians, birds, and mammals found in Costa Rica today.

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Southern Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama

In addition to its abundant wildlife and scenic beauty, Costa Rica is home to the Guayabo de Turrialba archaeological park and several museums that showcase the aesthetic sophistication and skill of the area's ancient indigenous inhabitants. Sculptures of carved volcanic stone, breastplates and pendants of cast and hammered gold or highly polished jade, and beautifully modeled and painted ceramics dating from around 500 B.C. to the time of the first contact with Europeans in the early 1500s reveal the natural, social, and spiritual world of the region's people. Many works depict animals, especially those that exhibit aggressive, predatory, or dangerous behavior (like the crocodile, jaguar, and harpy eagle). Humans (both men and women), often holding or wearing items that reveal occupation or rank, are also popular subjects. Many human figures have non-natural features (like wings or animal heads) that may represent special powers or spiritual or social affiliations. Some works seemingly give evidence of shamanism, in which spiritually powerful individuals transformed themselves in order to visit the spirit world. Shamans reputedly had the ability to heal the sick and could also cause illness or injury.

The first Europeans to reach Costa Rica, in 1502, were members of Christopher Columbus's fourth voyage. His expedition explored the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama, and he and his men interacted with both local inhabitants and maritime traders. Accounts of the voyage note that local peoples were wary and frequently bellicose, yet they were usually eager to trade. Anxious to discover wealth, Columbus was especially interested in gold. He bartered for gold ornaments and inquired assiduously about sources of the precious metal in the newly discovered region. Spanish exploration continued, and in the ensuing decades, a succession of Spanish expeditions traversed Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua, struggling to conquer and Christianize the native populations, establish Spanish settlements, and expand Spanish political and economic control.

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View of the central residential core of Guayabo de Turriabla site from a nearby overlook. © John Hoopes

Spanish accounts of the region's peoples in the 1500s describe small, warlike groups led by caciques, or chiefs, that formed shifting alliances and traded actively with one another and with long-distance traders from the north and the south. The villages the Spaniards encountered lacked masonry architecture, and monumental stone sculpture was rare. Buildings were made of wood and thatch but could be very large. Written language in the form of either inscriptions or books was unknown. In common with all of the Americas before European contact, the region's peoples lacked draft animals and wheeled vehicles, iron technology, and gunpowder.

From about A.D. 600 until the 1500s, the typical Costa Rican political organization can be described as a chiefdom. Chiefdoms generally have smaller populations than states or empires, and their political structure is less complex and hierarchical. Chiefdoms are usually characterized by villages, rather than cities, with the chief ruling over several villages. The chief's power is often at least partly spiritual in nature, and while the office is hereditary, it must be earned by the individual leader through skill and force of personality.

The indigenous population of Panama and Costa Rica at the time of Spanish contact is now estimated at about 2.2 million (Ibarra 2003, 392), which was soon reduced by new diseases, warfare, and social and economic disruption. Costa Rica's sixteenth-century peoples were ethnically and linguistically diverse, but it is believed that the majority of the population spoke Chibchan (a family of languages also spoken in Panama and Colombia). Nahua and Mangue languages were spoken in northwestern Costa Rica and southeastern Nicaragua by the descendants of successive waves of migrants into the region from Mexico and Guatemala (Hoopes and Fonseca Zamora 2003). Unfortunately, early Spanish chroniclers often identified groups by the name of their chief and were unclear on their ethnic or linguistic affiliations. They also failed to record detailed information on native material culture, customs, beliefs, and oral histories. This makes it difficult to interpret cultural practices and interaction patterns at the time of the Spanish conquest. Deriving an accurate understanding of earlier centuries, in the total absence of written information, is even more challenging.

Today, the vast majority of Costa Ricans speak Spanish and may not identify with specific historical indigenous groups. Many of Costa Rica's indigenous languages are now extinct, but Chibchan languages are still spoken by groups such as the Bribri and Cabécar peoples of eastern Costa Rica. Nineteenth and twentieth-century visitors and ethnologists have studied and recorded the language, lifeways, and religious beliefs of the Cabécar and Bribri, which constitute important sources of information for interpreting the cultures of ancient Chibchan-speaking peoples in Costa Rica. Scholars also frequently refer to historical and ethnographic accounts of indigenous peoples in Panama and northern South America.

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Excavation of a multiple burial (about A.D. 1200) at Nacascolo site, on the north side of Culebra Bay. Photo by Henry Wallace.

Another significant source of information is archaeological excavation, which unearths the enduring residues of human existence, including subsistence activities (hunting, gathering, agriculture, etc.), food processing and consumption, settlement (including architecture and urban planning), manufacturing, trade or exchange, and ritual, including funerary and burial practices. Because the archaeological record is inherently fragmentary and incomplete, it is important to gather and synthesize the results of numerous, geographically dispersed excavations. This process is underway in Costa Rica and is continually yielding new data for analysis and interpretation. Unfortunately, both casual treasure hunting and systematic looting have also been practiced for many years. Objects recovered in this fashion lose association data that might aid in their interpretation, and the archaeological record itself is irreparably damaged. For all these reasons, huge gaps in knowledge remain, limiting our ability to accurately understand and interpret ancient Costa Rican cultures.

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A shattered dish accompanied by a light-blue jade avian axe god pendant, excavated at Loma Corral 3 site, Culebra Bay. © Michael Snarskis

Humidity and soil conditions in most of Costa Rica lead to poor preservation of organic remains such as wood, leather, cloth, basketry, featherwork, or even bones and teeth. As a result, only the most durable artifacts survive: stone, ceramics, gold, jade. Special local conditions occasionally permit the preservation of artifacts made of carved wood or bone, and the imprint of textiles or cordage may be preserved on ceramics. But for the most part these perishable aspects of ancient Costa Rica's material culture are lost to us. Non-material aspects of culture like music, dance, oral history, and mythologies are even more ephemeral.

Most of the pre-Columbian art from Costa Rica in the collections of the Denver Art Museum and other institutions was discovered or excavated informally, rather than by trained archaeologists pursuing specific research goals. These objects can be interpreted on the basis of intrinsic qualities like materials, technology, form, and decoration; through comparison with archaeologically excavated materials; and sometimes with the aid of historic or ethnographic information. Using these methods, the objects included in this website are identified as to place of origin, estimated date of manufacture, materials, and in the case of ceramics, type name-for example, Rosales Zoned Engraved, or Pataky Polychrome. Such type names often combine a geographic name (frequently that of a site, farm, or town) with descriptive words. This information is being continually updated, as new information and research results become available. Because of the vagueness of the historic accounts mentioned above, the ethnic or cultural identity of the artist or craftsman cannot be definitively specified, and ethnohistoric analogy must be used very carefully when interpreting function or symbolism.

This uncertainty with regard to identity stands in contrast to cultural regions to the north in Mesoamerica (Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, and part of El Salvador) or to the south, in Andean South America. There, archaeological sites and objects are usually identified by culture. Ancient groups often can be identified securely based on contact period or even modern descendant populations. With increasingly ancient cultures it may be impossible to accurately identify populations by ethnicity or language, and therefore geographic appellations are often applied (Nazca, or Huari). These are used as culture names, because it is generally assumed that material patterns, including artistic style, correspond to cultural identities.

Costa Rica is instead conventionally divided into several large cultural and geographic regions. Unsurprisingly, these do not correspond exactly with modern political boundaries. Rivas, in southwestern Nicaragua, is generally acknowledged to belong to the same cultural sphere as adjacent Guanacaste and the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica. The larger region is commonly referred to in the archaeological literature as Greater Nicoya. Similarly, the ancient inhabitants of Chiriquí, in westernmost Panama, were culturally affiliated with their neighbors in the Diquís region of southwestern Costa Rica; the combined culture region is known as Greater Chiriquí. What is here called the Central region is a large and geographically varied territory that incorporates Costa Rica's central highlands and the slopes and coastal plains of the Atlantic watershed. While stylistic and technological variation in the Central region's archaeological remains undoubtedly reflects both cultural diversity and change through time, there is enough unity to regard it as a single culture region.

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Greater Nicoya

Human habitation of the Greater Nicoya region of southwestern Nicaragua and northwestern Costa Rica extends back in time to the Paleo-Indian period (about 10,000 B.C.), as evidenced by a fluted spearpoint (Snarskis 1981a, 25). Settled human life, probably coinciding with the beginnings of agriculture, began by around 1000 B.C. By 500 B.C. the region's inhabitants had initiated what was to become a 2,000-year tradition of producing artistically excellent ceramics. While plain, utilitarian pottery was always made for food cooking and storage, clay was also used extensively as an expressive artistic medium. Vessels, figures, and musical instruments were manufactured (generally using the coiling method), then decorated with modeling, carving, punctation (repeated indentations), and slip painting.

Firing was usually accomplished by placing the fully dry wares in a slight depression on the ground, then piling fuel over and around them. The relatively low firing temperatures achieved with this method produced earthenware, which is somewhat soft and porous. In some styles, additional decoration (such as incision, scorching, or smoking) was applied after firing. Some of the earliest ceramics (such as Rosales Zoned Engraved) are highly sophisticated, combining sculptural forms with surfaces decorated with carved or incised outlines filled with contrasting slip colors. Throughout the centuries, ceramicists in the region fully explored clay's decorative possibilities, producing solid-colored jars or vessels in the shape of animals or humans (effigy vessels) adorned with linear designs or texturing; spectacular, profusely modeled incense burners with cut-out openings; and beautifully painted polychrome (multicolored) bowls, jars, and figures with smoothly polished surfaces.

From about A.D. 1 to 500, high-status grave offerings in the Greater Nicoya region incorporate a distinctive constellation of finely crafted grave goods. These include decorative ceramics, stone mace-head finials, jade pendants, and three-legged metates. The deceased could be laid out atop (or sometimes below) the metates, with the additional offerings placed on or adjacent to the body. Metates are stone grinding platforms used with a muller, or mano, for processing food, especially maize. The metates from this era have a thin, curved plate with a usually undecorated upper surface, supported by three tapering cylindrical legs. The underside of the plate is carved in low relief, with a human or animal image surrounded by a geometric framing band. Quite often, the metate's forward leg is incorporated into the relief design, forming a projecting head or other element. Slightly later metates from the region may take the form (somewhat abstracted) of an animal: they have a curved plate, three angular legs (frequently decorated with intricate openwork carving), and a projecting, sculptural animal head. The mace-head finials are small stone sculptures (often in the form of human or animal heads) with large cylindrical openings for mounting on wooden shafts. Although their basic form is that of a weapon, the finials are often carved of fine-grained stone, and many were inlaid with shell or other materials. It is believed that these sculptures were too delicate and highly decorated to have served a practical, militaristic purpose. Instead they were probably display items that signaled clan allegiance or some other form of identity.

Jade ornaments were likely valued for both their green color and the strength and luster of the stone. They undoubtedly gained additional prestige through the material's origin in distant lands (the only known source of jadeite in the Americas is the Motagua Valley of highland Guatemala). [1] Much of the jade was probably imported to Costa Rica in the form of celts, or axe-blades, that could then be worked locally into a variety of pendants, beads, or small sculptures. Because of jadeite's toughness (resistance to chipping or shattering), it was the ideal tool for axe blades, used throughout the Americas to clear the forest for agriculture. The Olmec (Mesoamerica's earliest civilization, about 1200-500 B.C.) clearly treasured jadeite blades, which they associated with preciousness and agricultural fertility, and they sometimes polished their surfaces to a mirror finish and carved them with images of deities. Numerous Olmec celts were placed in special deposits or caches as buried offerings. The celt form clearly retained symbolic importance among later civilizations, including those in Costa Rica. In many cases, the celt form was deliberately retained or only partially modified by Costa Rican jade workers as they manufactured pendants and other ornaments from the imported material.

While most jade probably arrived in Costa Rica as celts that were reworked locally, other objects arrived in the form of already finished Olmec, Maya, or Teotihuacan-style ornaments. It is believed that most of the Mesoamerican jade ornaments found in Costa Rica made their way there via the Maya region, probably traveling down the Atlantic coast and then inland. The antiquity and exoticism of such objects, associated with great civilizations to the north, probably made them especially valuable in Costa Rica.

Central Region

The people of Costa Rica's Central region took stone carving to its greatest heights, producing not only metates but a wide array of sculptural forms. Most famous are the elaborate "flying panel" metates (about A.D. 1-500). As in Greater Nicoya, these were incorporated into burials, along with mace-head finials and jade ornaments. Carved from solid blocks of volcanic stone, flying panel metates have flat upper plates with low rims above three vertical legs that also support intricate, openwork sculptures. These incorporate long-beaked birds-sometimes pecking at severed heads; crocodiles or caimans; felines; monkeys; bats; and humans (frequently animal-headed or wearing masks). Costa Rica's highly decorated metates probably derived their prestige and symbolic importance from several factors. Metates were used to grind food like maize (consumed in Costa Rica both as a food and in the form of chicha, an alcoholic beverage) and perhaps other substances such as medicines or magical ingredients. The owner of a fancy metate proclaimed his or her control over both the substances and their preparation. The animal forms and symbolic motifs carved on the metates must have imbued the prepared substances with additional power. Finally, metates' possible use as thrones, funerary biers, and grave offerings served to emphasize the elevated rank and power of the noble owner.

The largest Central region sites, like Guayabo and Las Mercedes (about A.D. 700-1500), were extremely impressive, with broad paved causeways, plazas, and numerous stone-clad mounds surmounted by very large thatched houses. Such large settlements probably served as the residences of powerful chiefs who dominated smaller sites and local leaders in the surrounding region. Free-standing sculptures of human beings were displayed atop mounds and in plazas to impress (and sometimes intimidate) both residents and visitors. Males are often portrayed as warriors or prisoners, or wear crocodile masks and "wedding cake" (flaring tiered) headdresses. Women frequently hold their breasts, perhaps indicating abundance. Additional sculpture types include circular metates or seats, metates in the form of felines, and effigy heads that portray either ancestors or decapitated enemies. Stone slabs with carved decoration along the top and sides apparently served as grave markers, or possibly biers.

Jade ornaments from the Central region are often quite three-dimensional, incorporating long drill holes, slots, and cut outs. Multiple human and animal forms like birds, crocodiles, snakes, and felines may be combined in fantastic configurations. The Central region's ceramics are less renowned than those of Greater Nicoya but emphasize modeled decoration. Early Molino Channeled ceramics (100 B.C.-A.D. 500) frequently incorporate male and female figures who support a bowl or ring on their heads, atop which perch long-beaked birds (also a popular motif in stone sculpture and jade). Ticaban and African-type ceramics are best known for small monochrome cups with elaborately modeled tripod legs.

By around A.D. 700 or 800, jade was no longer being imported to Costa Rica in significant quantities and had ceased to be regarded as the most precious and valuable material for the manufacture of jewelry. While factors in Mesoamerica (like social or political turmoil) may have played a role in disrupting the supply of jade, its appeal to Costa Ricans may have been diminished by competition from an attractive and increasingly available material: gold. Goldworking technology developed centuries earlier in Andean South America, then spread northward through Colombia and Panama. Finished gold objects began to arrive in Costa Rica by around A.D. 500 (Bray 1981, 154). Gold's growing popularity in the succeeding centuries seems to have coincided with increased cultural influence from the south (Snarskis 1981, 54-72). Sources of gold were soon discovered in Costa Rica, and a local goldworking industry sprang up. Gold became the preferred material for the creation of prestige jewelry; although its techniques of manufacture are very different from those of jade, many of the same iconographic themes were depicted in both media.

Greater Chiriquí

Ancient Diquís is famous today as the source of spectacular hammered and cast jewelry, made of gold or gold alloy, and for mysterious stone spheres. Riverbeds in the Osa Peninsula were an important source of gold at the time of the Spanish conquest, and local rulers probably controlled both panning for gold and the production of gold ornaments. Riverbeds may also have been a source of the volcanic boulders that were shaped into the spheres, which can be very large. Unfortunately, many of the sites at which spheres or goldwork were found have been damaged by agriculture or looting. As a result, we will never know the full context of where many of these objects were found-how they were placed, or what objects were associated with them, and other details that might help us understand their meaning.

The Diquís region includes both highland valleys, defined by the Talamanca and coastal mountains, and the slopes leading down to the coastal plains, including the delta of the Río Grande de Terrabá. Although the region appears to have been inhabited by 1500 B.C., archaeology has located little evidence of large sites, significant architecture, or elaborate goods until about A.D. 600. This time marks the beginning of what is called the Chiriquí Phase, which lasted until about 1200 or 1300. The region was heavily populated, with both large and small settlements. Major sites are characterized by stone-walled earthen mounds (as much as 100 feet in diameter and 10 feet high), large house foundations, plazas, paved roads, stone spheres of various sizes, and stone statues of both humans and animals. The human statues represent both males and females and stand rigidly upright. Some carry human trophy heads (probably those of defeated enemies or sacrificial victims), while others are animal-headed with grinning fanged mouths. Most have small flanges at the base for mounting them in sockets. The spheres and statues probably served to demarcate social and ceremonial spaces; some have been found atop mounds. It is also possible that some of the spheres were aligned with astronomical phenomena.

High-status cemeteries in the Diquís region contained burials with stone metates and spheres and numerous gold ornaments, both cast and hammered (Lothrop 1963, 93-5). Jeffrey Quilter interprets the Rivas site, located in the upper General Valley, as a specialized funerary site associated with the Panteón de la Reina, a high-status cemetery located on the ridge above. Extensively looted decades ago, the Panteón de la Reina was reputedly the source of spectacular quantities of gold ornaments. Rivas contained numerous circular foundations and rectangular plazas, where Quilter suggests that an assortment of regional kin or social groups gathered periodically to feast, drink, dance, and hold ceremonies honoring the dead before their final interment in the ridge-top cemetery (Quilter 2004). Graves in a seemingly lower-status cemetery, located immediately adjacent to Rivas, lacked gold offerings.

The gold ornaments discovered in Diquís graves include both hammered sheet-gold items and lost-wax castings. The sheet-gold items were made of high-carat, malleable gold that was hammered and cut into the desired shape and ornamented with repoussé (pushed out from the back) work. Disks (probably used as breastplates), collars, and bandlike diadems were manufactured, as well as round or cylindrical beads. Lost-wax cast items were made of gold alloyed with varying percentages of copper (alloys melt at a lower temperature). Pendants, which were sometimes bells, were made in a wide variety of forms. Most famous are "eagle" pendants-birds with outspread wings and flaring tails. Although the species cannot usually be identified with certainty, many of the birds do appear to be raptors. Other animals represented in cast gold include felines, deer, bats, crocodiles, spiders, crabs, scorpions, fish, and frogs. Human beings were also represented, although many have animal heads or masks. Both humans and animals have supernatural features like spirals that emanate from the head or body. Some of the ornaments feature hinges that allow components to dangle and move. Many objects feature small dangling disks or squares that would have quivered and shimmered constantly.


Hoopes, John W., and Oscar M. Fonseca Zamora. 2003. "Goldwork and Chibchan Identity: Endogenous Change and Diffuse Unity in the Isthmo-Colombian Area." In Gold and Power in Ancient Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia, edited by Jeffrey Quilter and John W. Hoopes, 49-89. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

Ibarra, Eugenia. 2003. "Gold in the Everyday Lives of Indigenous Peoples of Sixteenth-century Southern Central America." In Gold and Power in Ancient Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia, edited by Jeffrey Quilter and John W. Hoopes, 383-419. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

Lothrop, Samuel K. 1963. Archaeology of the Diquís Delta, Costa Rica. Papers of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology 51. Cambridge: Harvard University.

Quilter, Jeffrey. 2004. Cobble Circles and Standing Stones: Archaeology at the Rivas Site, Costa Rica. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

Snarskis, Michael J. 1981. "The Archaeology of Costa Rica." In Between Continents/Between Seas: Precolumbian Art of Costa Rica, 15-84. New York: Harry N. Abrams; Detroit: Detroit Institute of Arts.

[1] As used here, jade is a broad term that includes both jadeite and similar green stones. Only a geologist or someone with specific training can distinguish jadeite from albitite, for example.