Archaeologist Michael Snarskis first laid eyes on the site in late 2005, at the height of the rainy season.
The hilltop terrace, with sweeping views over the azure Bahía Culebra and the endless Pacific Ocean beyond, was cloaked in dense, dripping wet tropical forest and already destined to become a luxury hotel and community in the northwestern province of Guanacaste.
It wasn’t obvious at first – but Snarskis had a hunch.
In 2006, while working together with University of Costa Rica student assistants Kenneth Carvajal and Uri Salas, and later Juan Vicente Guerrero, a National Museum archaeologist, Snarskis’ hunch would uncover one of the most significant archaeological finds in Costa Rican history – a largely intact pre-Columbian cemetery complete with more than 70 burials and 140 pieces of jade and ceramics believed to be approximately 2,000 years old.
The discovery of a virgin site like this one, now known as Loma Corral 3, untouched by looters in a country renowned for a black market rife with jade and gold artifacts, would be reason enough to celebrate, Snarskis told the Tico Times this week.
But there’s more: He has tied some of the ceramic vessels discovered at the site to El Salvador – firm proof of contact between peoples long thought to be more or less isolated.
“This is the first definitive, concrete evidence of long-distance contact, and perhaps trade, between Costa Rica and the high cultures of the Mesoamerica,” Snarskis said.
The announcement came earlier this week from the NationalMuseum, which plans to eventually put together a public exhibit of the site.
For longtime resident Snarskis, a U.S. archaeologist who’s been combing Costa Rica’s jungles for more than three decades since he established the National Museum’s first scientific archaeology program in 1974, the discovery of the site was equal parts good fortune and good timing.
It started in October 2005, when a foreign development corporation – which prefers to remain anonymous – contacted him about artifacts discovered on property they’d slated for an ocean-view luxury resort. Costa Rican law requires companies to report such findings – though not all do, according to Myrna Rojas, director of Anthropological History at the NationalMuseum.
“When construction begins and any artifact is found, anyone – government officials, construction or development companies, is required to stop everything and immediately contact the NationalMuseum,” she said.
In the past, looting – or indifference – was rampant, particularly in the 1970s and 80s, before the new laws were approved.
“This company did everything right. They gave us adequate notice to do a good and thorough job,” Rojas told the Tico Times.
The law, however, protects only the artifacts, not the site, which is still slated for development.
Snarskis, a former archaeology professor at the University of Costa Rica, was immediately intrigued with the discovery – Bahía Culebra, one of the few natural ports on the northern Pacific coast, had been the site of lucrative archaeological excavations since the late 1950s.
The process that followed – inspection, evaluation and rescue, or complete excavation, took more than six months, during which Snarskis, his student assistants and National Museum staff uncovered an entire intact cemetery and hundreds of artifacts, including ceramics, stone metates, which were used to grind corn, jade pendants, and tombs in which the egg-shell thin, ultrafragile remains of human teeth were found.
Few other bones were found in the burial ground, but Snarskis isn’t surprised.
“In Costa Rica, the soils are subjected to wet and dry cycles, and are too acidic to preserve most organic materials, so you rarely find complete skeletons, much less wood, cloth, feathers or food stuffs,” Snarskis said.
But ornate ceramic artifacts, which Snarskis is certain date back to the time of Christ, were abundant, further proving an existing theory that indigenous cultures in Costa Rica were well developed, and quite sophisticated.
“These people were dedicated artisans, they weren’t carving these pieces in their spare time,” he said.
According to NationalMuseum archaeologist Guerrero, an enormous amount of tools – and part of an artisan’s tool kit – were found, including raw materials, drills and engravers. Though such tools had been found in two other locations, never have they been discovered in such large quantities, and in an unmolested context.
“The tools are here because an artisan was likely buried here. It’s very important to the archaeology of this zone, because it gives us a detailed look at how these people worked,” he said.“This is really the first burial from this era we have, and the oldest in the country.”
The discovery of the burial ground at this height overlooking the ocean also affirmed another theory: that Costa Rica’s indigenous cultures 2,000 years ago liked to bury their dead in ocean-view cemeteries.
The alignment of the various features in the cemetery with the setting sun, said Snarskis, also seems to indicate an understanding of the earth’s orbit, possibly with regards to appropriate times for planting and harvesting, something previously thought unique to Mesoamerican civilizations and their sophisticated calendars.
“You hear a lot of nonsense when it comes to astronomy and indigenous cultures, but this seems to be something concrete,” he said.
Unlike the more advanced Maya and Aztec civilizations to the north, in Guatemala and Mexico, Costa Rican indigenous peoples never acquired a system of writing, and lived in dispersed farming villages, a trait that likely helped impede invasion by Spanish conquistadores.
But the discoveries at Loma Corral indicate more contact with civilizations to the north than was once believed.
“See the high forehead, and the serene look on his face,” said Snarskis as he pointed out the features of a vessel carved to depict a man’s face inside a jaguar’s mouth.
“It’s an Usulután stylistic trait, from El Salvador. It’s really the first link between the two cultures,” he continued. The piece is cumbersome and was probably too heavy to transport overland through Central America.
“It may have come by boat, especially considering where we found it, so near the ocean and the protective anchorage afforded by CulebraBay,” Snarskis said.
Such theories, however, are still just that, he said.
And discoveries like this one, in a controlled, scientific environment, he adds, help fill in gaps of understanding in a civilization that’s born the brunt of looters, development and the ever-encroaching jungle.
“This site was not looted. It’s not a mixing up of different time periods, like you find in so many sites. It’s very important to archaeology in Costa Rica,” Snarskis said.