San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

From Spear Points to Axes to Agriculture, and Pottery

We have looked at the way the first huntergatherer bands of humans in Costa Rica survived, and some of the chipped stone artifacts they made to do so (e-mail me if you would like to see others). These Paleo-Indian bands grew slowly in size over the centuries, and in this column we will look at the evolution in stone tool technology in the face of a changing natural environment, as well as the most likely hypothesis for the development of agriculture, one of the most important innovations in ancient human cultures worldwide.

Tropical Archaic Period

In Central America, especially Costa Rica, the so-called Archaic Period (about 7000 to 4000 B.C.) is the least clearly known due to the paucity of artifacts and the ephemeral nature of Archaic sites throughout the Americas.

These small, longer-lasting but still poorly defined habitation sites simply do not leave much in the way of definitive material evidence. But it is there, especially in the changing shapes of spear and/or arrow points and the first appearance of what archaeologists call ground or polished stone axes/celts. The chipped stone points are somewhat reminiscent of their fishtail ancestors, but different, in view of the rapidly disappearing Pleistocene megafauna, and the new polished axes were made specifically to use as wedges to fell and split tree trunks. Why? To clear land for agriculture.

Hey, Farming – Why Not?

I am one of those archaeologists who believe that the “idea” for agriculture came about because the seeds and other botanical foodstuffs brought back to temporary hunting camps and then discarded nearby eventually showed the early hunters and gatherers that they might actually do well to discard – or plant – these botanical remains near their campsites to avoid having to scavenge over such large areas to find them; and that their campsites should be chosen – better soils, better drainage – with this new concept of agriculture in mind, not only hunting.

The first grooved and polished axes are very distinctive because of the deep indentation ground into them to allow for very firm hafting and the hard hammering on the butt end of the axe or wedge. The work of Anthony Ranere and Richard Cooke in Panama, in tropical rain forest areas like those found in Costa Rica, has been especially key in understanding the Tropical Archaic Period in lower Central America. In Costa Rica, we have yet to find these kinds of axes in controlled excavation contexts.

Sedentism and Pottery – What?

Another of the most significant cultural technological developments in ancient human history around the world is the rise of fired ceramics. We may be getting a bit ahead of ourselves here, as the “Archaic gap” in Costa Rica is so far scarcely known. But I have decided to present the oldest pottery we know (so far) in Costa Rica at this

point because it ties in so importantly with the rise of larger, more permanent settlements.

Actually, the presence of good, functional, well-made ceramics in archaeological sites is perhaps the best evidence for sedentism, that is, the relative permanence of occupation in a single place. It is just too fragile and bulky to move over significant distances.

I was lucky enough to discover, analyze and publish the first two early ceramic complexes in Costa Rica during my time as head of the archeology program in Costa Rica’s NationalMuseum in the late 1970s. The first was the La Montaña complex, found by pure accident during the excavation of another cemetery dating to some 2000 years later. In that same year, 1977, I observed some very different-looking pottery in the mixed fill of an even later stone-box tomb cemetery in San Carlos, in north-central Costa Rica (of which more later).

Whereas La Montaña pottery was 99 percent monochrome, this new Chaparrón (after the name of a nearby village) complex featured strongly bichrome pottery, with a hard red slip zoned around the lips of vessels, usually through wide-line incising. A few years later, fellow archaeologist John Hoopes of KansasUniversity in the United States unearthed a virtually identical ceramic complex in the nearby Arenal area of Costa Rica. Unlike my original excavations, he had good stratigraphic context and was thus able to C-14 date his Tronadora complex to as early as 2000 B.C.

Harking back to my general view of ancient Costa Rica as an important frontier zone, the monochrome La Montaña pottery most closely resembles that of northern South America at the same time, and includes perfectly flat-bottomed griddles associated there with the processing of manioc or cassava – yuca in Spanish (see story on facing page).

The very well-made red on buff ceramics of the Chaparrón and Tronadora complexes, on the other hand, find their twin in the Early and Middle Preclassic periods of Mesoamerica to the north. Vessel forms there are also similar, and may have to do with the processing and storage of maize and its products.

An especially intriguing aspect of all these early ceramic complexes is that they share many vessel forms, including a big cylindrical vessel and a shiny black excised pottery with red ochre fill. This kind of pottery is seen in Costa Rica’s earliest ceramics only, and is identical to a type found in Olmec sites, the first clear pre-Columbian civilization in Mesoamerica.

Man, I was excited when I first saw these early pottery complexes. Better yet, they were so well done that they must have had even older predecessors. But we haven’t found them – yet.

A graduate of Yale and Columbia universities, archaeologist Michael Snarskis has lived and worked in Costa Rica for more than 30 years. He guides tours to Guayabo, an ancient city and ceremonial center on the Caribbean slope, and to all local museums. Direct queries to or phone/fax 2235-8824.

See his Web sites at and Reserve tours at Costa Rica Outdoors Travel Division, or call tollfree from North America at 1-800-8308-3394.


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