Jack EwingNature and Local History Stories

Petroglyphs, Head Hunters, and Gold Seeking Grave Robbers

By Jack Ewing


Quite a few years ago someone wrote a short article for a local magazine in which they stated that at the beginning of the twentieth century the area around Dominical was covered with forests and inhabited by indigenous people who lived at peace with each other and in harmony with nature. The person who wrote those words obviously hadn’t studied any of the available evidence about indigenous people in this part of Costa Rica and was writing straight from their imagination. The part about the area being covered with forest is true, but at the beginning of the last century, there were no Indians here at all, and hadn’t been any for at least four hundred years. The last Indians to inhabit this region, far from living in peace with their fellow man were head hunters, who practiced slavery and human sacrifice. Whether or not they lived in harmony with nature is a matter of debate, but they were fairly advanced agriculturalists and must have done a lot of deforestation in order to grow the corn that was the basis of their diet. Nevertheless, they probably didn’t do as much damage to their environment as modern humans.

Hacienda Baru

I first visited the National Museum in San Jose in 1971. At the time I was familiar with both Guanacaste and the Caribbean zones, but had never been to the southern Pacific part of the country. One of the things about the museum that stuck in my mind was a map of the country containing information about the pre Colombian cultures. Curious about the people who had once inhabited the areas where I worked, and knowing that there was a richness of artefacts and grave sites in both places, I studied the map with great interest. Most of the country was colored and covered with drawings and notations, but there was one large blank, white area located on the southern Pacific coast. There was no information on this part of the map, only a notation saying that there had been no indigenous peoples in that particular area. I remember thinking how strange that the whole country had been rich in pre Colombian culture, and one area apparently had had no indigenous people at all. The blank area was centered around what is today known as Dominical.

The following year, I visited Hacienda Barú for the first time, and later came to work and live here. On my very first trip to the hacienda I learned that there were a great many pre Colombian grave sites on the property, most of which had been dug up by grave robbers. Rumors abounded of elaborate gold ornaments that had supposedly been found in these graves. I was later to learn that there was much more here than cemeteries. Artefacts of all kinds were found on the property and in the surrounding area. Additionally there were petroglyphs (figures etched on rocks,) and a little to the south of Dominical some strange spheres were found. These spheres have been found only in the southern Pacific region of Costa Rica and have puzzled archeologists for years. I remember thinking about the blank white area on that map and wondering why the people at the museum thought that this region had been devoid of Indians. The next time I visited the museum, about ten years after the first visit, the map had been changed. The once white area now had some coloring, and the notation read that nothing was known about the indigenous peoples who had once inhabited this area.

I don’t know if that map or one similar to it still forms part of the museum display, but if it does, I wouldn’t be surprised if it still says much the same as it did at that time, 30 years ago. There has never been a formal archeological study of the area between the Savegre River and the Uvita River, though there have been some extensive studies in other parts of the southern zone, such as Quebradas, Rey Curre, and the Diquis Valley. There have also been several informal visits to Hacienda Barú by museum personnel. From these and other sources we can glean certain information and draw some tentative conclusions about the cultures that once thrived in the area where we live. In reality though, there are more questions than answers.

If we take a map of Central and South America and draw boundaries between the different indigenous cultures, the Mesoamerican civilizations of the Aztec and Maya would be found to the north and the Inca empire to the south. In between these two is an intermediate area where no great civilization existed and the indigenous people were considerably more primitive. There were no cities,  pyramids or great temples, and the people lived in tribal fashion. This area includes the eastern half of Nicaragua, all of Costa Rica except Guanacaste, all of Panama, Venezuela and Columbia and the northern part of Ecuador.

Archeologists and anthropologists have classified the pre Colombian inhabitants of our region in three different categories which correspond to three different chronological phases. The first archeological record of nomadic bands of hunter gatherers in Costa Rica and Panama dates to about 8000 BC, but this doesn’t rule out that they may have been here earlier. The first evidence of village dwellers in southern Costa Rica, who practiced an agriculture based primarily on roots and tubers, appears in the record around 1000 BC. That phase, called Aguas Buenas by geologists, lasted until about 700 AD when the record shows a sudden jump to a higher level of social organization and an agriculture dependent primarily on corn. Far more evidence exists about this final phase, which archeologists call the Chiriquí phase, than either of the other two. In addition to the archeological record we have a great deal of information about the Chiriquí people from the records of the Spaniards who lived with them and observed them at the time of first contact and the years that followed.

The first Spaniards to explore the Pacific coastal lands of Costa Rica were led by a man named Gil González Dávila. When their ship was damaged they were forced to abandon it near present day Golfito. From there the group consisting of sailors, soldiers and priests walked northwest up the coastline for three years until they were picked up by another Spanish ship in what today is known as Guanacaste. There was little information in their log about the area around Dominical, but they did mention that no indigenous peoples inhabited the area between the Barú and Savegre Rivers. This is surprising because those of us who live here today know from an abundance of evidence that there must have been a sizable population here at one time. So what happened to them?

According to archeologist Francisco Corrales PhD., the petroglyphs and most of the grave sites on Hacienda Barú belong to the Chiriqui phase, meaning that they are between 500 and 1300 years old. There may be some evidence of the Aguas Buenas phase as well, but Dr. Corrales didn’t find any of it on his two brief visits here. We have counted 268 open graves sites on Hacienda Barú. They are open because they had been excavated by grave robbers prior to my arrival at Hacienda Barú. There is a similar density of pre Colombian cemeteries on all of the neighboring properties. Yet in 1522 when González Dávila came through here, there were no people in this area, and that is probably why that old map in the museum said that there were no indigenous people in this region.

One theory as to why there was no one here is that the Quepo tribe and the Boruca tribe were constantly at war and the area between the Barú and Savegre Rivers was kind of a no-man’s-land. A second theory is that small pox had killed a large portion of the population prior to 1522, and the few survivors returned to tribal centers such as Quepo or Boruca. Though no Spaniards had yet visited the area, the diseases may have preceded them. The first case of small pox was recorded in Mexico in 1508, and according to Inca records the first case appeared in Peru in 1518, four years prior to the arrival of the Spaniards. There may be other plausible theories as well, but for the time being these are the two that have been postulated. You can take your pick. I lean toward the latter.

So what were the Chiriqui people like, and how did they live?

The late Chiriqui were organized into chiefdoms each of which consisted of several tribes. In most cases a tribe consisted of one village but there were sometimes large villages or population centers that were shared by more than one tribe. The Quepo, near present day Quepos were a chiefdom and the Turúcura in the Diquís valley were another. In other cases one tribe might be composed of several villages. Each tribe had its own chief but several tribes would unite to form one chiefdom. Each chief would still reign over his own tribe, but only one of the chiefs presided over the chiefdom. The chiefs had control over the distribution of food and other goods produced by the tribe. Goods other than agricultural products were things like pottery, textiles, tools, adornments, or weapons. Their agriculture was productive enough that not everyone in the tribe had to work growing  food, rather people tended to specialize. Some worked in agriculture and others in the production of other products.

People lived in thatch roofed structures, some of them large enough to house upwards of 400 people. These were heavily fortified for protection against attacks by enemy tribes. The family structure was complex, but was definitely matrilineal. People didn’t marry within the same family. The female members of the family all stayed together in the same village and the men came from other villages and tribes. If a man was injured or fell ill, he returned to his own family where he was cared for rather than staying with his wife’s people. Chiefs inherited their authority from the maternal side of the family.

In addition to the chief there was also a shaman who was both religious leader and medicine man. The shaman could be either a woman or a man. In some cases the shaman and the chief were the same person. Most of what we know about the everyday life of the Indians comes from the writings of Jesuits. Since these priests did everything possible to suppress the tribal religions and replace them with Christianity, very little is known about the religious beliefs and practices of the Indians. It is known that like many tribal religions they had many different gods. It is also known that some religious rites required human sacrifice.

The people sacrificed were not from the same tribe, rather they were prisoners of war. It appears that the main purpose of tribal wars was to acquire prisoners who could be enslaved and later sacrificed. Only the women and children were kept for such purposes. The men were beheaded and the heads kept as trophies by the victors. It was believed that if a warrior killed and beheaded an enemy and kept the head as a trophy, he would acquire the power that had once belonged to the slain warrior.

The petroglyphs that are found throughout this region have always been a mystery. Though most anthropologists believe that they have something to do with with religion, nobody knows for sure. Theories abound. Some people think they are star maps done by extra terrestrials. Others think they are village maps. It has been noted that petroglyphs are surprisingly similar regardless of where they are found. For example, it would be difficult or impossible to look at three petroglyphs, one from southeast Asia, one from South America and one from Costa Rica, and tell which one came from where. This gave rise to the theory that the designs etched in the stones were inspired by psychedelic experiences. Apparently many of the shapes found on the petroglyphs are similar to the shapes that are formed on the human retina during a psychedelic experience and all of the cultures where petroglyphs are found are known to have used psychedelics.

At Hacienda Barú we are now offering a tour called the Pre Colombian Rainforest Experience which allows people to see Indian cemeteries, artefacts and petroglyphs first hand. It shows the visitor a sample of the archeological evidence, tells the story of what we know about the pre Colombians who once lived here and paints a picture of how they probably lived. These were the first Costa Ricans, and I find their history fascinating. Perhaps someday funds will be available so the national museum can do a formal study of the area around Dominical and fill in some of the blank space on the pre Colombian map of Costa Rica.