"The Rich Coast" : A Look at Costa Rica's Native Inhabitants

This topic submitted by Emily Vaas ( vaaser@miamioh.edu) at 3:15 PM on 5/16/06.

Getting ready for the flight to Bocas, Panama!

Tropical Field Courses -Western Program-Miami University

Emily Vaas
GLG 412
Costa Rica (May 06)

“The Rich Coast”
A Look at Costa Rica’s Native Inhabitants.

Costa Rica, also nicknamed “The Last Country the Gods Made,” is often noted for its long history of “peace, democracy, stability, and democracy” (Miller, 7). Although its early inhabitants paved the way for freedom and independence from Spain, Costa Rica has remained relatively peaceful among its many Hispanic neighbors. In the following sections, I will look at the history of the settlement of Costa Rica, its native inhabitants, and their current independence. I will focus, as well, on one specific indigenous group, the Bribri peoples, and their current way of life.

The History of Costa Rica

As I mentioned above, the recent history of Costa Rica has remained relatively peaceful throughout its days. However, as we will look at throughout this section, it did not begin in this way. Rather, the native peoples of Costa Rica were ravaged by diseases from the Spanish Conquistadores, used as slaves, and subjected to the status of being a Spanish colony.

Native Inhabitants

The earliest inhabitants of Costa Rica, thought to have been nomadic hunters, have been traced back to a time period between 12,000-11,000 B.C. (it differs between texts) (Miller, 24). These native peoples were thought to have descended from groups that crossed Central America and gradually made their way to the rainforest-dominated area of Costa Rica (Colesberry et al., 27). Gradually, the indigenous groups shifted from a “shore-area lifestyle” to an efficient agricultural society, using such methods as the slash-and-burn technique (27). “The indigenous populations were largely agrarian, cultivating cassava, sweet potatoes, corn and beans” as their staple crops (Helmuth, xix).
The people often lived in local family groups or tribes, rather than large colonies and settlements in the Central Valley and Pacific area (24). “By A.D. 1, Costa Rican Indians had separated into three regional groups based on the South American forest culture” (Colesberry et al., 27). To the southwest was the Diquis region, to the northwest was the Nicoya area, and those in the remainder of the country were in the Central Highlands and Atlantic Watershed regions (27).
Around 500 C.E., these indigenous groups were constructed in hierarchical social structures, with the cacique or warrior chief at the top (Helmuth, 5). Under the leadership of the cacique were the warriors and the lower classes (Colesberry et al., 27). The family structure, as mentioned above, gave each tribe its certain identity (5).
The structure of these smaller local populations resulted in the lack of massive structures and contributed to considerable warring between the smaller tribes (Miller, 25).
Unlike other civilizations of the time, such as the Mayans in Guatemala and similar areas, the tribes of Costa Rica did not erect large structures or build impressive cities. The explanation for this appears to be that these early tribes lived autonomously in local groups and were not organized together as part of a larger civilization…archaeological remains suggest that the indigenous tribes frequently warred with each other (25).

However, it was the division among the native people of Costa Rica that made it much more difficult for others to dominate them, as I will look at later on with the Spanish Conquistadores (25).
The early indigenous populations became largely commercial as they began to set up trade relations and alliances with other tribes and countries (Helmuth, 5). “The Atlantic Indian groups began trading with others as far south as what is today known as Ecuador, and those on the Pacific with peoples as far north as Mexico, distributing salt, cacao, quetzal feathers, and dyes extracted from shells” (5). Between 800 and 1500 C.E., the Costa Rican indigenous populations supplemented their predominantly agrarian culture with hunting, as well as “gathering honey, salt, and fruit” (5).
Spanish Conquistadores
The first European settlers in the Costa Rica region arrived 1502 with the arrival of Christopher Columbus (on his fourth journey) at Puerto Limon (6). At this time, the indigenous populations peaked at about 400,000 throughout the country (5). The Chorotegas (meaning “the people who escaped”) were the most developed indigenous group among the many individual tribes (Daling, 6). “According to the sixteenth-century Spanish explorer, Gonzalo Fernando de Oviedo, the Chorotegas were culturally related to the Aztecs and the Mayans and excelled as potters and farmers” (6). However, the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadores brought about disease and death for many of these indigenous populations.
“During his seventeen-day stay Columbus discovered that some of the Indians were wearing articles made of gold, from which the Spaniards assumed that much more gold was to be found further inland, and they accordingly and optimistically, named the region Costa Rica, meaning ‘rich coast’” (6-7). After many explorations and continual efforts to find gold in this new land, the Spanish found no substantial quantity of gold which would help Spain’s economy (Miller, 26).
However, by 1561, the Spanish had set up settlements in what is now Cartaga in the Central Valley (26). Along with people, the Spanish also brought diseases which destroyed much of the indigenous populations (16). “Most of the local population was ravaged and killed by new diseases brought by the Spanish settlers. These included smallpox, typhoid fever, and measles” (26). Many tribes and populations, also, found themselves in enslavement by the Spanish, escaping and dispersing to the Talamaca mountains (26). “Some indigenous people survived by fleeing to remote forested areas where they could not be found by the Spanish settlers” (26).
As a result of the lack of gold and many indigenous deaths, Costa Rica became unimportant to Spain, often being neglected as one of the Spanish colonies (26). It was called the “Cinderella” of the Spanish colonies “for it was taxed, scolded, ignored, and kept miserably poor” (26). Despite the years of mistreatment, Spanish settlers moved into the land and began what is currently known as the Costa Rican population, intermixing with the indigenous peoples (27).
Around the 1820’s, however, Costa Rica, as well as a handful of other Central American countries, declared themselves free from Spain (Helmuth, 9). On September 15, 1821, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala declared themselves free from both the Spanish and Mexican rule (9).
However, Costa Rica’s independence from Spain lead to the invasion of individuals, such as William Walker from the United States, (funded by Cornelius Vanderbilt), to allow for an east-west canal along the boarder of Nicaragua and Costa Rica (10). With the gradual defeat of the U.S. forces, attributed mainly to the leadership of Juan Santamaria, the Costa Rican population found itself united (11). “The ousting of a foreign invader caused the Costa Rican citizens to rally around the common goal of national defense. Their victory consolidated patriotic sentiment among Costa Ricans and created in them a sense of national identity” (11). San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, was named in honor of Juan Santamaria (11).
Interrelations since Independence

As recent as 1977, the Indians of Costa Rica were given the right to live on their native lands by the establishment of reserves. The establishment of these reserves “gave the natives the right to stay in self-governed communities, but at the same time the government withheld the land titles” (Infocostarica). CONAI is the official institution in which the affairs of the reservations are dealt with and maintained, although it is not seen as very efficient and not very effective (Infocostarica). In 1994, the first indigenous bank was created in the Talamanca area, which significantly aided the farmers in monetary transactions and loans since it was hard to obtain them from any other sources (Infocostarica).
“Apart from financial and political limitations, part of the Indian population on reserves suffers great social problems. Alcoholism and more recently, drug-use, have become another predicament for these groups” (Infocostarica). However, although there are many struggles that the indigenous peoples of Costa Rica face, (as I will describe a little further in my discussion on the Bribri), the future is growing brighter, with more and more rights being given to Costa Rica’s native descendants (Infocostarica). “Furthermore, some Indian groups like the Bribris have insisted in preserving their culture and in teaching their native language and customs alongside with the official educational program” (Infocostarica).
Brَibri Today
The Bribri Indians still live in the southern region of Costa Rica in the Talamanca Mountains where they were dispersed hundreds of years before (Helmuth, 5). “The largest category—called the Talamanca after the cordillera to which they were forcibly removed to in which they found refuge—comprises 8,000 to 10,000 Indians in Costa Rica” (the total indigenous population number is much larger currently, being 30,000, composing 1% of the Costa Rican population according to Miller, 53) (Nelson, 92). This term, Talamanca, covers two groups of Indians: the Cabecare and the Bribri (92). However, these groups, though having similarities, consider themselves quite distinct populations (92).
The Bribri have allowed their culture to continually flourish throughout the generations, maintaining their religion, agricultural practices, and even their respect and coexistence with nature. They continue to use and teach the Bribri language, as well, which further aids in maintaining the connection to the past generations.
“No comprehensive study of indigenous religions traditions is available to date” (Helmuth, 44). Interest in this area, however, has grown tremendously (44). “The most extensive studies of ongoing native religious traditions that can be found today—due in part to the relatively large size of and access to their communities—center on the Bribri Indians in the Talamanca region” (Helmuth, 44).
According to the Bribri religion, scholars have learned that their world is composed of eight levels, also known as “houses,” in which the souls of men, created by Sibo, could reside (44). Sula, the creator of souls, is composed of two males and two females, which sculpt each man and woman and bathe them in colored waters to give them the desired attributes (44). When the individual died, their souls (there was more than one soul in an individual) was sent to a particular house which represented the individual’s behavior before death (45). “The Bribri adherence to a strict code of behavior—condemning specific acts such as cruelty to animals, stinginess, and incest—is the basis for determining the soul’s destination” (45).
As mentioned above, the Bribri continue to remain in the Talamanca mountain range on what is known as the Talamanca reservation (Arnason). “Approximately 5200 Bribri people have maintained an indigenous culture that's different from the rest of the country” (Arnason). They remain extremely isolated from the rest of the surrounding inhabitants, resulting in an elaborate bartering system, in which women mainly participate (Arnason). But the isolation of the Bribri tribes and families has caused them to remain very poor and uneducated, as well as having little health care (Arnason).
However, “this isolation has made the Bribri a relatively self-sufficient society where there are enough crops grown and livestock raised to sustain them” (Arnason). The participate in unique practices such as iguana farming, in which they raise these unique animals until they are of five years of age, and then release them into the rainforest (Arnason). These animals are important to the forest and have been depleted due to hunting practices (Arnason).
Here is one account of the way of life and overwhelming views of the nature of

the Bribri Indians:

We are being welcomed by Lucas, a very sympathetic and spirited Bribri. He is proud of his people and of the legacy their ancestors left them and very much determined to pass it on to their offspring and to anyone who is interested. First Lucas shows us the iguana farm. A typical example of how the Bribri respect nature. They used to eat iguanas. When the number of iguanas diminished rapidly and extinction was to be feared they not only decided not to have them for supper
anymore, they also started a breeding farm for iguanas. Successfully so, for at this moment 1200 iguanas per year are being released into nature again and the Bribri changed their diet into chicken. In the reservation the Indians live off what nature has to offer (Hovinga).


Agriculture is still one of the greatest activities for the Bribri peoples, dating all the way back to the first inhabitants of the Costa Rican soils (Aranson). The Bribri use around 120 wild and domestic crops per hectare for materials, food, and medicine, as well as trading (agroecology.org). “Bribri bio-diverse farms are sustainable perennial polyculture systems that mimic natural rainforest architecture” (agroecology.org). Bribri farmers use the “natural nutrient cycling and symbiotic relationships between plants, insects, birds, bats, and other animals” to create pest control, rejuvenate the soil with more nutrients, “and produce relay harvests throughout the year” (agroecology.org).

As I have reviewed a brief history of the Costa Rica’s native inhabitants and nomadic beginnings, as well as the struggles that they have faced, I am reminded of the similar hardships the Native American Indians faced in North America. Ravaged by the disease the “white man” brought into the country, years of being forced out of their native lands, and even the reservations that “hold” what little land they have left reflect the lives of those on the Costa Rican landscapes.
It was by man’s greed that these individuals faced these various atrocities and, where once a thriving community of people resided, there stands only a reflection of the land these people and their ancestors once knew. However, in Costa Rica, many of the rights are being restored to the native peoples, restoring their culture piece by piece. The Bribri, and many other indigenous groups, have allowed their culture to thrive amongst the destruction and separation. This is the key to their survival as a people of the past.


Arnason, Lyle. “The Bribri People.” Mnsu.edu. Retrieved 15 May 06.

Agroecology Research Group. (1999).“Community Development with the Bribri of Costa
Rica”. Agroecology.org. Last modified 1 Oct 03. Retrieved 15 May 06.

Colesberry, and Brass McLean. (1993). Costa Rica: The Last Country the Gods
Made. Montana: Falcon Press Publishing Co.

Daling, Tjabel. (1998). Costa Rica: A Guide to the People, Politics, and Culture. New
York: Interlink Books.

Helmuth, Chalene. (2000). Culture and Customs of Costa Rica. Connecticut: Greenwood

Hovinga, Paul. “The Bribri Indians.” Insidecostarica.com 02 Mar 03. Retrieved
15 May 06. bribri_indians.htm>

“Indigenous People.” Infocostarica.com. 2000-2006. Retrieved 15 May 06.

Miller, Debra A. (2005). Costa Rica: Modern Nations of the World. Michigan: Lucent

Nelson, Harold D. (Ed). (1983). Costa Rica: A Country Study. Washington D.C.:United
States Government.

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