Humans have inhabited the rain forests of Costa Rica for 10,000 years. The region long served as an intersection for America’s native cultures. About 500 years ago, on the eve of European discovery, it is guesstimated that as many as 400,000 people lived in today’s Costa Rica.
Knowledge about these pre-Columbian cultures is scant. The remains of lost civilizations were washed away by torrential rains, and Spanish conquerors were more intent on destroying rather than describing native lifestyles. Until recently, Costa Ricans showed little interest in their ancient past.
The region hosted roughly 20 small tribes, organized into chiefdoms, indicating a permanent leader, or cacique, who sat atop a hierarchical society that included shaman, warriors, toilers and slaves. The language of the Central Valley Huetar Indians was known throughout all regions. The Central Valley contains the only major archaeological site uncovered in Costa Rica at Guayabo. Thought to be an ancient ceremonial center, it featured paved streets, an aqueduct and decorative gold.
To the east, the Carib Indians, naked and fierce, dominated the Atlantic coastal lowlands. Adept at seafaring, the Carib tribes were a conduit of trade with the South American mainland. The Indians in the northwest were connected to the great Meso-American cultures. Aztec religious practices and Mayan jade and craftsmanship are in evidence in the Península de Nicoya, while Costa Rican quetzal feathers and golden trinkets have turned up in Mexico. These more concentrated tribes tended corn fields. The three chiefdoms found in the southwest showed the influence of Andean Indian cultures, including coca leaves, yucca and sweet potatoes.
Still a puzzle are the hundreds of hand-sculpted, monolithic stone spheres that dot the landscape of the southwest’s Diquis Valley, as well as the Isla del Caño. Weighing up to 16 tons and ranging in size from a baseball to a Volkswagen, the spheres have inspired many theories: an ancient calendar, extraterrestrial meddling, or a game of bocce gone terribly awry.