Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Costa Rica Part 2: Ancient artifacts and active volcanoes

Ceramic feline from the Middle Polychrome Period (800 AD - 1200 AD). The figure comes from the Gran Nicoya area of Costa Rica's northwest coast. Jaguars and other large predators were viewed with awe by pre-hispanic people. The jaguar, which hunts at night, was believed to move freely between the world of the living and that of the dead. When we visited the Poás Volcano's Visitor Center, we found a small museum containing pre-hispanic artifacts, as well as exhibits about the volcano. In this posting, I'll highlight the wonderful craftsmanship of those ancient people and provide a brief outline of their history. In addition, we'll look at the Volcán Poás, one of Costa Rica's most active volcanoes.

Before the Spaniards

Ancient inhabitants at work and play in a forest glade. A woman makes pots while a man prepares a fire and several children frolic. The mild climate required few clothes. Evidence of human occupation in Costa Rica dates back 12,000 years. These early people hunted sloths, mastadons, and giant armadillos. The end of the Ice Age led to environmental change and people had to adapt as their original prey animals disappeared. Joining together into highly mobile groups, they began to hunt smaller game and exploit the area's plant resources. Agriculture appeared around 5,000 years ago, mainly of roots and tubers. The need to tend crops led people to settle in small villages. With the introduction of corn, food surpluses enabled a completely settled life. Around 1000 BC, pottery appeared. The widespread use of easily breakable ceramic goods is only possible in a sedentary society.

Incense burner with an alligator motif, Middle Polychrome Period (800 AD - 1200 AD). As you will see, the craftsmanship displayed by these ancient people is impressive. Imaginative animal images are utilized in almost every artifact. Crocodilian figures are often portrayed on ancient Costa Rican artifacts. The ancient people believed that these dangerous creatures possessed supernatural powers. Incense burners, called censers, were used in religious ceremonies. When the ancients burned copal resin inside the pot, the smoke escaped from the holes you can see around censer's top and on on the alligator's body. Copal produces a thick, but pleasant-smelling, smoke that was believed to represent the brains of the gods.

Ocarina shaped like a blowfish, Central Caribbean Region (undated). An ocarina is a musical instrument, kind of like a flute. These instruments have existed around the world for more than 12,000 years. In Mesoamerica, they were especially popular among the Maya and Aztecs. The use of ocarinas probably spread through the trade networks. The instrument is played by blowing into the tube extending to the right (see above). The air resonates within the hollow chamber and different tones can be produced by pressing on one or another of the 4 holes in the top. The blowfish design testifies to the native people's close relationship with the sea and its animals.

An ocarina and a censer, both with animal motifs. The ocarina (top) bears the face of a coatimundi, a forest creature that is a relative of the raccoon. The censer (bottom) is decorated with the image of a bird. Both of these artifacts were found in the northwest coastal region of Guanacaste and date from between 300 BC and 300 AD. Pre-hispanic people used musical instruments for religious rituals, political ceremonies, and sometimes just for fun. Costa Rica occupies what historians call the Intermediate Area, where influence of the cultures of Central Mexico overlapped that of the Andean cultures centered in the area of Peru. Over the millennia, successive waves of settlers arrived in the area from both the north and the south. This created an interesting mix of people, cultural traditions, technologies, and art. In addition to the influence of migration, trade networks extended through Costa Rica, linking the empires of Peru with those of Central Mexico.While ocarinas, censers, or other physical and cultural artifacts may have arrived from elsewhere, the ancient people of Costa Rica soon developed their own unique designs and styles.

Bowl, supported by three toucans (100 BC - 0 AD). This is a particularly beautiful example of the ceramic style called Red Ware. The toucans are very realistically portrayed. Their large, curved beaks form the handles of the bowl, which may have been used for ceremonial purposes. As towns and small cities developed, pre-hispanic societies in Costa Rica became stratified, specialized, and hierarchical. By 500 AD, chieftaincies had become hereditary and an astronomically-oriented priesthood had developed. Along with these, specialized classes of artisans, warriors, and farmers appeared.

Five-legged bowl from the Middle Polychrome Period (800 AD - 1200 AD). The bowl is shaped to resemble a writhing serpent, with a snake head on one end. The style of this unusual piece is called Orange Pottery. Until fairly recently, archaeologists thought that only villages and small towns had developed in Costa Rica's pre-hispanic period. Several recent discoveries have begun to change this consensus.

Stone platforms at El Guayabo National Park. At a site called El Guayabo, outside San José,  ruins of a small city were recently discovered. El Guayabo was built around 1000 BC and flourished until the Spanish arrival in the early 1500s. Twenty-five hundred years is an astonishingly long period of continuous occupation. Archaeologists believe that as many as 10,000 people once lived here. Numerous stone structures have been unearthed, including circular platforms, staircases, roads, and an extensive network of aqueducts. The circular platforms were once topped by towering conical structures. However, these were made of perishable materials such as wood. Only their circular stone bases have survived. The aqueducts were part of a complex plumbing system using sand and stones to filter the water. Another site, named Rivas, was discovered in southern Costa Rica near a town of the same name. People of the Chiriqui culture occupied Rivas between 900 AD and 1300 AD. Similar to El Guayabo, Rivas contains circular platforms and cobbled roads. Rivas is unusual in the number of tombs containing grave goods that have been discovered. Archaeologists have identified a road system at least 150 km (93 mi) in length which appears to connect El Guayabo, Rivas and other ancient sites in Costa Rica. This may indicate a much more complex society than previously thought. Unfortunately, the Caravan tour itinerary did not include El Guayabo, Rivas, or any other archaeological sites. I didn't find out about them until I began my research on Costa Rica's pre-hispanic history. By contrast, during our Caravan tours of Mexico, Guatemala, and Panamá, we had numerous opportunities to visit ancient ruins. (Photo from Wiki images)

Ceremonial metate from Gran Nicoya (500 AD - 800 AD). Made of volcanic rock and carved with a head in the form of a macaw, this grinding platform was used for ritual purposes. Metates are one of the oldest known tools for grinding plant-based foods. The earliest examples are paleolithic, i.e. they pre-date agriculture. During the Old Stone Age, these grinding platforms were used to crush seeds and other plant foods gathered from the natural environment. As old as this technology is, metates very similar to this can be purchased in many Mexican hardware stores. They are used to grind corn to make tortillas. Modern metates tend to be very utilitarian, however, and usually lack the wonderful animal motifs favored by the ancients. Because of their association with the all-important maiz (corn), metates held deep symbolic meanings for ancient people. They have often been found among the grave goods in ancient Costa Rican tombs.

Winged jade pendant from the Central Caribbean Coast (date unknown). The two wings are shark heads, separated by a bat. Sharks are fearsome ocean predators, equivalent to jaguars on land. As such, they became powerful symbols. A shark's tooth was sometimes used in blood-letting rituals. Bats were associated with darkness and the world of the dead because they live in caves. Winged pendants carved from jade were popular during the 1000 year period between 300 BC and 700 AD. Carved jade objects like the pendant were symbols of power and status. They appeared at a time when agricultural surpluses were enabling societal specialization and the development of hierarchies. Reverence for jade, and for objects carved from it, seems to have filtered south from Mesoamerica. Exactly how this cultural transfer occurred is not presently known but it may have involved the trade networks. Interestingly, archaeologists have not yet identified any ancient jade mining sites in Costa Rica. The jade objects found to date are mineralogically similar to those from ancient mines along the Motagua River in southern Guatemala. This reinforces theories about the influence of trade.

Fish-shaped gold ornament with alligator motif, Southern Pacific Coast (700 AD - 1550 AD). The structures extending from the fish's mouth are associated with alligators. It was not uncommon for pre-hispanic people to create art that was a mix of several different animals. Such art is called zoomorphic. Mining, smelting, and working with metal ingots had begun in the northwestern part of South America as early as 2100 BC. It is likely that metallurgy arrived in Costa Rica from the southern trade routes, just as jade had filtered down from the north. Somewhere around 500 AD, gold began to supplant jade as the favored material for the jewelry and ritual objects which symbolized social status and power. Ancient jade workshops along Costa Rica's Caribbean Coast soon began to switch over to the manufacture of gold objects. Artisans learned the "lost wax" method for casting and used it extensively. The widespread use of gold at the time of the Spanish Conquest can be seen in the very name of the country: Costa Rica means "Rich Coast". The originator of the name may have been either Christopher Columbus in 1502, or Conquistador Gil González Dávila in 1522. The coast they visited swarmed with gold-bedecked natives. Unfortunately, gold had a magnetic attraction for the Spaniards. If the native people had not possessed it, the Spanish might have bypassed them for a very long time.

Poas Volcano

A plume of gas rises from the crater of the Poas Volcano on an unusually clear day. In the center is the intercrater lagoon whose turquoise color is caused by the acid content of the water. The pH is near zero, making it the world's second most acidic natural lake. That is not its only distinction. The lagoon is one of the world's deepest, reaching 304 m (1000 ft). At 1.6 km (1 mi) across, Poás has the largest active crater in the world. The smoke is produced by fumeroles that regularly release noxious gases. The gray wall rising behind the lagoon is composed of layers of ash. Behind the ash wall, in the distance, is a green ridge which forms the caldera lip of an extinct crater. The bulging reddish area on the lower right of the lagoon rim is the main volcanic dome inside the active crater. I should confess here that I did not take the original photo. What you see above is my photo of an original hanging in the museum. You will see in the next photo why this was necessary.

Tourists shiver in a pelting rain as a cold fog envelopes them at the caldera rim.  Poás lies to the northwest of San José, a couple of hours up some long and winding roads. The soggy folks at the rail are standing at 2700 m (8900 ft). Beyond the railing, the great caldera was a swirling, white void. Visibility was no more than 30 m (100 ft). As I mentioned in my previous post, the weather in Costa Rica's Central Valley is changeable. At the peak of Poás, it is positively mercurial. Your chances of a clear day are about 30%. Laura, our Caravan Tour Director, had warned us to bring rain gear and warm clothes, so our party was reasonably comfortable. Also present at the peak were a number of European back-packer types. They were wearing shorts and t-shirts and had obviously not been given a "heads up". Their grim expressions and blue lips required no words. Poás is one of 14 volcanoes stretched like a necklace along the crest of the mountains that form the spine of the country. The mountain range and its volcanoes grew out of tectonic activity along the Pacific subduction zone. Nine of the fourteen volcanoes are active and, of these, the most active are Irazú, Arenal, and Poás.

Huge leaves of the "Poor Man's Umbrella" are called that for a reason. The plant is formally known as Gunnera insignis and it is native to Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panamá. Since time immemorial, local people have used the broad leaves as a quick way to shelter from a downpour.

While native people knew the volcano well, Europeans were late arrivals.  The first European to visit the crater was Don Miguel Alfaro, who arrived in 1828. Almost 20 years passed before the second European visitor arrived. He was Danish botanist Andrew Oersted and he prepared a scientific report on the volcanic activity at Poás. Between 1910 and 1920, an annual hike began that brought many people to view the crater All this activity inspired Magdaleno Ugolde and Trino Araya to build a hotel in 1913, only a few kilometers from the crater. The hotel operated until 1930. Up until that time, visitors had to walk or ride a horse up the rough trails. In 1930, the first motor vehicle reached Poás. As a prize for that feat, the Chevrolet Agency presented the drivers with a spare tire. No doubt they were badly in need of a new spare by then. Finally, in 1971, Costa Rica created Parque Nacional Volcán Poás to protect 5,600 hectares (13,838 acres) of mountain and forest.The park was the brainchild of a Costa Rican student named Mario Boza. He visited Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the 1960s and was inspired to campaign for a park to protect Poás.

This scale model of the Poás Volcano is located in the Visitor Center museum. You can see the crater in the gray area of the upper center of the photo. The ash field continues off to the left center, allowing you to see the direction of the last eruptions. The small markers dotted around the top of the volcano indicate places of interest or lookout points. In 1910, Poás experienced the greatest eruption of its recorded history. Mud, gases, rock, and ashes spewed out in huge quantities. The column of smoke and ash reached 8000 m (26,246 ft) above the crater level.

Cut-away of the volcano interior. You can see how the volcano was built up in layers of ash from successive eruptions. Another crater on the side of the mountain, now filled by a lake, was created 7,500 years ago when a flow of lava branched off from the main tube. Another series of eruptions occurred between 1953-55. The plume from the volcano's mouth reach 1000 m (3281 ft) and several Costa Rican cities reported acid rain.

Flower of the Poor Man's Umbrella. Beginning in 1991, a series of "aquifer eruptions" occurred. These happen when steam is produced from the contact of ascending lava with water on the wet rocks. Fumeroles and acid rain are typical products of aquifer eruptions. Things quieted down for a time after 1994, but then another set of aquifer eruptions occurred in 2006 and 2009. The most recent significant eruption was in 2013. Scientists think the volcano is slowly building up to another major eruption. Stay tuned.

This completes Part 2 of my Costa Rica series. I hope you have enjoyed my photos and text. If you'd like to leave a comment or question, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly. 

If you leave a question in the Comments section PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Bob, that would be your first encounter with a Gunnera "flower". Crazy looking. We have one in the front yard, gets to be easily 12 feet all round. There are a couple in Stanley Park by the Rose Gardens that go 20' plus. I think the city fertilizes. Us, we cut off the leaves in the fall and pile on top. It insulates the plant, they rot and they were coming up last week. Currently in Ajijic. Cheers, David

    1. Thanks for the flower i.d. I depend upon my sharp-eyed blog visitors to i.d. things and correct my errors and oversights. Jim


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim