Villa Quetzal

Villa Quetzal

Friday, September 2, 2011

Indigenous Ancestors of the Costa Rican people

When my Husband and I moved to Costa Rica, I thought that we would be encountering a rich and interesting indigenous culture, to my surprise I found out that Costa Rica never had a thriving indigenous culture such as the empires of the Mayan, Aztec or Inca people.  Mesoamerican tribes from Central America and cultures from northern South America, today Colombia, culturally influenced the native people.   
Most indigenous groups had a simple economy; a chief called “cacique” ruled them.  When the Spaniards arrived, many tribes moved back into the mountains in order to avoid slavery and taxation by the Spaniards.
Costa Rican indigenous culture did not leave many artifacts behind, most of them are simple products like pottery and ornaments.  Most prominent are the Stone Spheres that were found in the southern area of the Terraba River, around Palmar Sur/Palmar Norte.  Some of those spheres weigh up to 15 tons and it is unclear who made them, who transported them, and what was the purpose of its creation.
The extinction of the indigenous of Costa Rica was due mostly to diseases, rather than targeted genocide as what we believe happened in other Latin American countries, like Guatemala and El Salvador.  Today, there are only about 64'000 indigenous people living in Costa Rica (around 1.7% of the population), mostly living in remote mountain zones.
Nevertheless, Costa Rica has several Indigenous groups that are very much a part of the traditional makeup of the country. 
  • Gutatusos/Malekus
  • Chorotegas
  • Huetares
  • Cabecares
  • Bribri
  • Terrabas (Teribes)
  • Borucas (Bruncas)
  • Guaymies                       
    The Malekus are one of the smallest indigenous groups in Costa Rica.  The Maleku Tribe is the one with the least land property, 40% of the families do not own their land.
    Location: Northern plains of Costa Rica, Alajuela province, Canton de San Rafael de Guatuso.
    Cultural Identity: Maleku jaica is their native dialect and is still spoken next to Spanish.  In order to conserve the use of traditional language, school education is provided in both languages.
    Activities:  agriculture (cacao, pejibaye, palm oil), freshwater fishing.
    Crafts: manufacture of figurines, ceramics, medicinal plants, bows, and wooden arrows. 

    Cultural Identity: This is small ethnic group established around the year 595 in Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica.  There are only around 790 members left.  Even though their native language is extinct, one Chorotega tradition lives on and that is the creation of beautiful pieces of pottery.  In the tiny village of Guaitil in Nicoya, that tradition remains alive and well as Costa Rican families earn their livelihoods creating and selling these exquisite pottery pieces, and figurines.
    Location: Guanacaste Province, Guaitil, and Santa Barbara.
    Activities: agriculture (crops, vegetable gardening, beekeeping)

    Cultural Identity: In the middle of the XVI century, the Huetar tribe established their home in Costa Rica.  From the central valley to the central pacific coast, they had a powerful and progressive kingdom; however, after the Hispanic conquest, the kingdom was dismantled and forced to leave their original way of life; over time even their language disappeared, as well as their culture.  Today, only a small community of native Huetares is still around.
    Despite the fact that their cultural identity has been lost, they have managed to preserve few traditions, such as the “Fiesta del Maíz”, and the use of medicinal plants.  Today Huetares speak Spanish.
    Location: Province of San José, Canton de Puriscal, and Quepos.
    Activities: the natives land is relatively unfertile and a varied agriculture did not develop; corn is one of the only products grown by Huetares.
    Crafts: products based on palm leaf and vegetable fibers.  The Huetares are specialists in natural colors for dyeing clothes.  Ceramic artifacts are sold at roadsides and at "ferias" (markets). 

    Cultural Identity: This is probably the indigenous group with the most distinct traditions.  There are around 10'000 Cabecares, who still preserve their language, natural medicine, and patrimonial culture (caciques are allowed to marry several women).  They have rich a rich compilation of stories and legends, some of which are written in both Spanish and the Cabecar language.
    Location: Southern Atlantic Coast, Limón province, Chirripó (Pacuare valley), valley of the Rio Estrella and the Talamanca reserve.  Ujarrás de Buenos Aires and China Kichá.
    Activities: agriculture (coffee, cocoa, and bananas), bird hunting, and fishing.
    It is possible to visit areas where Cabecar Indians still live in their traditional way.

    Location: Southern Pacific: Puntarenas province, indigenous reservations of Salitre and Cabagra in the Canton of Buenos Aires.
    Southern Atlantic: Limón province, indigenous reservation of Talamanca.  
    Cultural Identity: The Bribri still speak their native language, but use the Latin alphabet and a number of additional characters for phonetic transcription in writing.
    Activities: Agriculture (cocoa, bananas, corn, beans), pig breeding, bird hunting.
    Crafts: jewelry made with natural seed, wood and coconut shell, basket weaving and manufacture of musical instruments with natural materials, fabrics, fibers, and natural pigments. To cross the river Sixaola on the border of Panama, they use boats and rafts. 

    Terrabas (or Teribes)
    Today there are hardly only few Térrabas in Costa Rica.
    Location: Canton of Buenos Aires in the Reserve of Boruca-Térraba.
    Cultural Identity: although this ethnic group has preserved its cultural identity, the original language Terraba is no longer spoken today.
    Activities: Agriculture (corn, beans, rice, bananas, citrus fruit).  Today many non-indigenous peasants populate their territory.

    Borucas (or Bruncas)
    Cultural Identity: The indigenous Borucas of Costa Rica are still in close touch with their ancestral traditions, and they express it in their legends, dance, and crafts.  They are particularly known for the “Fiesta de los Diablitos”, a 3-day festival that starts on December 30 and ends on January 1.
    During the festivity, fights between the native Boruca Indians (the devils) and the Spanish Conquistadores (the bull) are staged.  The Borucas use wooden masks and drink lots of homemade chicha (chicha is a fermented alcoholic beverage, made with corn).
    Location: Canton of Buenos Aires; their indigenous reservation includes several communities (El Centro de Boruca, Rey Curré, Changuena, Maíz and Bijagua)
    The Borucas are widely known for their beautiful and elaborate crafts.
    Activities: Agriculture (crops, livestock).
    Crafts: cotton-based fabrics, preparation of natural pigments, carving of wooden masks primarily used in "Fiesta de los Diablitos".

    Guaymies are the largest surviving native people in Costa Rica.  In the 1960s, this tribe, also called Ngöbegue, emigrated from Panama to Costa Rica.
    Location: Southern Pacific, Province of Puntarenas; Communities of Abrojos in the Canton of Corredores, Conteburica in the Golfito Canton and Coto Brus.
    Cultural Identity: The colorful and handcrafted traditional garments are part of their everyday life.  Their language is Guaymí, but some of the chiefs and officers also speak Spanish. A literacy program has been established for the Indian reservation.
    Activities: Agriculture (cocoa, rice, beans, corn, palm oil, and bananas).  Hunting, fishing, pig breeding.
    Crafts: garment manufacturing from natural fibers, colored with natural pigments, mats, and hats made from tree bark.


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