San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Agricultural Villages, Chiefdoms & Better Pottery

While the sites of the Early Ceramic Period in Costa Rica (circa 1500-500 B.C.) are few, small and difficult to locate and identify (TT, Oct. 10, 2008) – only one nearly complete ceramic vessel is known from this time – the period between roughly 400 B.C. until A.D. 400 was a major cultural watershed in the country’s ancient past. This period witnessed a dramatic increase in sites and population, sedentism (the tendency to live in one place longer), agriculture and ceramic and lapidary (jade jewelry) production, coupled with a trend toward social stratification.

In terms of sociopolitical organization, this time span marked the first clear appearance of what anthropologists and archaeologists call “chiefdoms.” With various degrees of complexity, chiefdoms dominated in most of the habitable Americas during the millennia  between simple egalitarian bands and highly structured political states/empires like the Aztec in Mexico and the Inca in Peru, both of which met the first European explorers from Spain. Many cultures in the indigenous New World, including those of Costa Rica, did not evolve beyond the chiefdom stage of sociopolitical organization.

Given the evidence from controlled archaeological excavations and analysis, it seems that power, status and wealth were at least partially hereditary, and there was a remarkable explosion of special, fancy artifacts that were intrinsically ceremonial in nature as well as symbolic of rank and high status.

Trade and exchange systems – some were long-distance seagoing routes – became more important, and it was during this period that the three major archaeological culture regions in Costa Rica that we recognize today became clearly differentiated: Guanacaste- Nicoya, the drier northwest quarter of the country and the northern portion of the Greater Nicoya Region that includes Rivas, Nicaragua; the Central Region, which includes the Central Valley, the Central Caribbean and Pacific Watersheds (the northeast and southeast corners of Costa Rica are still little known archaeologically); and the Diquis Subregion, part of the Greater Chiriquí Region, which includes northwestern Panama. Obviously, modern national frontiers were nonexistent in ancient times.

Agriculture, Pottery & Houses

The type of agriculture practiced during the time span in question was slash and burn, or swidden, in which trees and brush were cut down with stone axes, clearing enough ground for planting, usually quite near the settlement itself. After a few generations, soil fertility decreased and agricultural plots as nearby as possible were sought. Over hundreds of years, this shifting pattern of farming and settlement resulted in cultural remains, especially pottery, being scattered over a wide area. Like stone tools and charcoal (chemically inert, and preferred for radiocarbon or C-14 dating), fired pottery is virtually nonperishable and traditionally has been the principal means for identifying and seriating (placing in rough chronological order without recourse to “absolute” dating techniques like C-14) different archaeological cultures.

I have carried out numerous excavations of sites from this 400 B.C. to A.D. 400 time period in the CentralHighlands and the Central Caribbean Watershed. In them, tiny carbonized maize cobs, bunches of maize kernels, common beans and the very hard inner seeds of peach palms (pejibayes) were recovered. The richest lode of carbonized floral remains was found at the Barreal de Heredia site, north of San José, where two bell-shaped storage pits, later used as refuse dumps, contained a six-inch-thick layer of burned but recognizable samples of all the abovementioned flora on their floors, two meters in diameter. Samples were sent to respected paleobotanists in the United States for secure identification.

Interestingly, morning glory seeds, which have psychotropic properties, were also identified, suggesting shamanistic rituals in the last centuries before Christ. It must be emphasized that all these botanical remains, preserved only because they were carbonized, do not constitute the full range of plants used in agriculture or through collection in the wild; many others were not amenable to carbonization in recognizable form.

It was at the Severo Ledesma site near Guácimo, in the Central Caribbean lowlands, where I identified and excavated the first stone cobble house foundations known for the time period in question here, the earliest semipermanent houses known in Costa Rica. I was surprised to find they were rectangular, about nine by 34 feet, and one was a double house 47 by 79 feet with only one entry and what was probably an open central courtyard for domestic chores. I believe the two sides of this double, much larger house represent a male-female division of residence in the higher-ranking segment of the village population. A social hierarchy was inferred from the rich tombs, with copious funerary offerings of many kinds found beneath and around the double house.

The house foundations I excavated were some 300 feet apart – in effect, a spread-out village (the spaces between them were likely agricultural plots) – and in a nearby cemetery I found the first clear examples of what I called “corridor tombs,” long rectangles of cobbles ranging from six by 12 feet up to almost 30 feet in length. Other long, rectangular tombs were subsequently found in different archaeological sites nearby and in the TurrialbaValley.

The pottery made during this period must be considered the best-made from a technical standpoint, as well as having elegant, clean lines and a wide variety of forms, both quotidian and ceremonial. I believe this reflects a long, relatively peaceful stretch of centuries, without the obsession with warfare, head-hunting and human sacrifice typical of the periods that followed. These first chiefdoms in Costa Rica also were able to designate and support specialized ceramic artisans who dedicated most of their time to pottery making. Archaeologists today think these artisans were women.

A graduate of Yale and Columbia universities, Michael Snarskis, Ph.D., has worked in Costa Rica for more than 30 years. He guides tours to Guayabo, a pre-Columbian city, and to all local museums. Direct queries to or phone/fax 2235-8824; see, or, or call 1-800-8308-3394 toll-free from North America.


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