Spearhead Shows Cultural Crossroads

October 28, 2005

ON a pineapple plantation in northcentralCosta Rica, a ditch-digging crewwith a backhoe recently unearthed a thin,finely crafted fishtail – or Magellan – slatespearhead chipped to a point by the earliesthumans who lived in what is today CostaRica, probably 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.Birlen Montero, a field hand on the plantation,sought out archaeologist MagdalenaLeón when she was investigating the constructionsite of a clinic in the area, LaVírgen de Sarapiquí, and showed her severalprehistoric artifacts from the nearbyplantation. Most were ceramic shards, butthe Paleo-Indian spearhead is only the secondfound in Costa Rica and is of the highestquality. Its thinness and low weightmake it “super special,” León said.The discovery fortifies archaeologists’theory that Costa Rica took its post as acultural crossroads between North andSouth America as far back as 12,000 or13,000 years ago. Here, archaeologistshave discovered both fishtail points, whichare found throughout South America butnot north of Costa Rica, and narrower,longer clovis points, which are scatteredthroughout North American sites but arenot found further south than Panama.“There’s no question about it: CostaRica was a two-way bridge long beforecivilizations evolved,” consulting archaeologistMichael Snarskis said.AS Snarskis tells it, the first humans inthe Americas descended from the BeringStrait between Siberia and Alaska intoNorth and South America. (He discountsthe possibility that significant numbers ofpeople crossed the Pacific or Atlantic –“When they landed they were all eaten,” hesaid.) They developed clovis and fishtailspear points, as well as others, and used theclovis design only in the north and the fishtailonly in the south. It was a matter offunction, he said.“The game they were hunting waskilled more easily with certain kinds ofpoints,” he said.Snarskis and León suspect theSarapiquí plantation is a workshop site, nota kill site – they noticed some chippingdebris, flakes of slate knocked from thetools as they were crafted.“A good archaeologist can even piecethe flakes back into the original stone theycame from,” Snarskis said.If the pineapple plantation was indeeda workshop site, it may be another pivotalfind in Costa Rica, on par with theTurrialba site, on the Caribbean slope,where Snarskis discovered the first fishtailpoint in 1975. Both discoveries also representthe often accidental state of archaeologyin the country: the first site, too, waschurned up by farmers, on sugarcane fieldsplowed for 50 years before Snarskis led ateam of archaeology students to collect thechipped stone tools and weapons after thecane was burned.LEÓN negotiated the opportunity toresearch the pineapple plantation after thenext harvest next January. She will teamwith a climatologist and try to determinewhat kind of climate the area had 10,000years ago. The scant evidence foundthroughout the country suggests a coolerCosta Rica where mammoths andmastodons plodded through the CentralValley and giant sloths and armadillos,saber-toothed tigers, cave bears, theAmerican horse and other extinct beastsroamed the country’s forests. León imaginesthe pineapple plantation was probably thestomping ground for tapir, giant armadilloand deer hunters, but, she admits, “We don’tknow what kind of animals there were.”Judging by the quality of the spearpoint found and of others like it from theperiod, the first Costa Ricans wereextremely skilled hunters. They poundedout points that were much lighter and better-made than those of the Neanderthals inthe Old World, for example, who manufacturedheavier, cruder and bigger points thatthey muscled into their prey from closerdistances than the early Costa Ricans.OVER time, however, points in CostaRica and elsewhere became thicker andmore poorly made as people became lessdependent on hunting and settled into agriculture-based societies. The fishtail pointwas made at the height of craftsmanshipquality – points found from later periodshave not measured up.The people who made the fishtail pointwere nomadic hunters and gatherers inbands of 20 or 30 who followed gameroutes and the fruits that were in season.The point is at the National Museum,but not on display. If it were, it would bethe only such point visible there, since thefirst fishtail was stolen from its displaycase in the early 1980s.

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