corn matate

The Origin of Sibö

Sibö (the Bribrí god) made the first indigenous people from seeds of corn. He brought the seeds from a place called SuLa’kaska, which means the Place of Destiny. At the time the earth was only rock, and Sibö knew he had to create soil in order to plant his corn seeds. On another planet there lived a tapir family. Sibö asked a bat to fly to that place and suck the blood of a little girl tapir. The bat did as he was told and when he returned to the earth he defecated on the rocks. A few days later the first trees began to sprout from that place. Sibö realized that his experiment to make soil was working, so he sent the bat again to suck the blood of the little girl tapir. The bat returned and again defecated upon the rocks and more trees grew. Sibö then made more soil from the flesh and blood of the little girl tapir. Sibö then planted corn seeds of all different colors to create the indigenous people of the earth; this is why indigenous people have different skin colors and tones. Sibö brought the seeds to the earth during the nighttime; that is why the awapa chant and do their curing ceremonies at night. He named the people dtsö, which means corn seeds. One of Sibö’s relatives, Plekeköl (the king of the leaf-cutter ants) created the white people of the earth which he named síkua. The Bribrí belong to Sibö; he is their owner, they are his things, not his relatives. Bribrí creation story

Perego and colleagues obtained DNA samples from people living in Panama including Bribrí from Bocas del Toro and Chiriquí. They found that the Amerindians located in the area of the Isthmus of Panama contain some of the oldest DNA groups in the Americas (Perego et al. 2012), suggesting that the modern-day populations are related to some of the first people to populate the Americas.

“Considering the most recently accepted age estimate for haplogroup A2 in the American continent as a whole at 15–19 ka ago and as a proxy for the time of expansion of Paleo-Indians into the Americas, it can be suggested that the initial settlement of Panama occurred fairly rapidly after the initial colonization of the American continent. These data fully support the hypothesis that the Pacific coast was the major entry point and diffusion route for the earliest human settlers. Moreover, the antiquity and high frequency of subclade A2af provides evidence of the existing mitochondrial DNA legacy between modern Panamanians and America’s first inhabitants” (Perego et al. 2012:7).

This suggests that the arrival of the ancestors of the Bribrí occurred fairly rapidly after the initial arrival of humans to the Americas. We also know that maize (corn) cultivation did not begin in the area until roughly 5,000 years ago. For example, Arford and Horn obtained a radiocarbon date of 4760 years before present of charcoal within an interval of maize pollen from Laguna Martinez, Costa Rica (2004). We also have evidence of a stratified, complex society in existence soon after this in the Talamancan area of Costa Rica where most Bribrí currently reside. The Rivas Site, located in Western Talamanca north of the town of San Isidro, is described as a ceremonial and trade center, due the existence of elite burials nearby which contain gold artifacts and fancy polychrome pottery, some originating from areas south in Panama and east on the other side of the Talamancan Range, in addition to monumental architecture and petroglyphs (Quilter and Vargas 1995). The oldest radiocarbon date obtained from the site is 3,380 years before present. This puts the possible initial construction of Rivas soon after the earliest known dates of maize cultivation in the area. The presence of large open mouthed bowls as much as a meter in diameter was also found at Rivas; perhaps these were made for the consumption of the fermented corn beverage, chicha, in ceremonial contexts.

So, thinking about the Bribrí creation story and taking into account the archaeological data presented in Arford and Horn and Quilter and Vargas, I was wondering, “How can you explain that Sibö created the Bribrí from maize seeds when the ancestors of the Bribrí were in the area fully 5,000 years before maize?” I have two opposing hypotheses: first, the creation story developed over time soon after a group of migrants traveling from Beringia by way of the Pacific coast settled in Talamanca. To account for the conundrum of the time lag in the arrival of maize I suggest that initially the story stated that Sibö used a different seed, perhaps cacao, to create his people. The story was then transformed as maize became a more important part of the culture 5,000 years later. This change over time of “myths” is common. For example in the Creek Narrative, The Orphan and the Origin of Corn, the use of the word “corn” initially increases over time and then dramatically decreases (Swanton 1929). My second hypothesis is that the current Bribrí creation story only became popular after the beginning of maize cultivation, perhaps signaling the coalescing of hunter gatherer groups into a small scale agricultural society based on the mundane and ritual production and consumption of maize. Could Sibö have been an actual person, perhaps a shaman, who brought corn to the area or was instrumental in its introduction as a crop?

I am a firm believer in the idea that “myths” originate from actual happenings or describe actual people (or the cultural beliefs concerning them). My undergrad professor, Dr. Buys, and I would often discuss the possibility that many of the different “gods” found in cultures throughout the world (my Odin included) were actual shamans who over time were described not as exceptional leaders who brought something essential to the people, but rather as supernatural beings-gods. This is one of the reasons I pursued graduate degrees in anthropology instead of psychology; the unique combination of biology (DNA analysis), archaeology (material remains), and cultural anthropology (studying living peoples) offers the researcher a multitude of tools to address some of these (to me) fascinating puzzles concerning human history and cultural evolution.

Arford, Martin R. and Sally P. Horn (2004) Pollen Evidence of the Earliest Maize Agriculture in Costa Rica. Journal of Latin American Geography 3(1)108-115.

Perego, Ugo A., Hovirag Lancioni, Maribel Tribaldos, Norman Angerhofer, Jayne E. Ekins, Anna Olivieri, Scott R. Woodward, Juan Miguel Pascale, Richard Cooke, Jorge Motta, and Alessandro Achilli  (2012) Decrypting the Mitochondrial Gene Pool of Modern Panamanians. Plos One 7(6):1-10.

Quilter, Jeffrey and Aida Blanco Vargas (1995) Monumental Architecture and Social Organization at the Rivas Site, Costa Rica. Journal of Field Archaeology 22:203-221.

Swanton, John (1929) Three Versions of the Creek Narrative, “The Orphan and the Origin of Corn.” In Myths and Tales of the Southeastern Indians. Washington D.C.: Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 88:10-17.







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