This is the second post of a series of blogs describing the Bribrí people of Talamanca, Costa Rica. I have been living in the community of Yorkín conducting research since June of 2015. Yorkín is a community of around 270 people situated on the border with Panama which has experienced rapid culture change due to increased contact with outside influences and technologies brought about as the result of initiating ecotourism in the community. My research examines how these changes are influencing health.
The Bribrí share commonalities with the major cultural centers in Mesoamerica, the Andes, and the Amazon. However, they also have their own unique history and lifeways- starting with a version of their creation myth. This version is adapted from the many occasions I documented it during ethnographic data collection. The story relates how Sibö (the Bribrí creator) 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 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 grew more trees. 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 (healers) 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.
According to the DNA and archaeological evidence, the ancestors of the Bribrí settled in Talamanca and the Isthmus of Panama rapidly after the initial arrival of humans to the Americas. In Pre-Columbian Man in Costa Rica Doris Stone provides an overview of the known archaeology of the Atlantic watershed in Costa Rica. The earliest findings include a possible Paleo-Indian occupation at a multi-component site called Turrialba, in which was found three fluted, Clovis-like points, as well as a fishtail point, scrapers, knife like blades, and axes. Later, beginning in the first century BC, there is evidence of simple habitations consisting of earth and stone house foundations, graves marked by stone circles, monochrome ceramics, jade axe-heads, and rimmed grinding stones. Also at many of these sites are petroglyphs on boulders consisting of spirals, stylized human and zoomorphic figures, sunrays, and circles. Many rocks are incised with canals that could have carried off blood from animal or human sacrifices. Small coca containers, clay mixing spoons, and an abundance of nasal snuffers, suggesting Pre-Columbian drug use were found.
There is also evidence of a stratified, complex society which was in existence in the mountains of Talamanca. The Rivas Site, located in Western Talamanca north of the town of San Isidro, is described as a ceremonial and trade center. It contained elite burials nearby that held 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, the site contained monumental architecture and petroglyphs. 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. Maize cultivation began in the area roughly 5,000 years ago. Arford and Horn obtained a radiocarbon date of 4,760 years before present on charcoal found within an interval of maize pollen from Laguna Martinez, Costa Rica. large open mouthed bowls as much as a meter in diameter were also found at Rivas; perhaps these were made for the consumption of the fermented corn beverage, chicha, in ceremonial contexts. Rivas was apparently abandoned at the time of the conquistadors’ arrival. This was most likely due to disease as there is no evidence of battles or other types of struggle.
Ubiquitous among archaeological remains in the Atlantic watershed are figurines portraying victorious warriors that bear decapitated heads of their enemies, suggesting a head-trophy cult. Bribrí people have told me the Teribes (Naso) took trophy heads during their war in the 1800’s, while Teribe people say that it was the Bribrí. Another common representation is of the beak-bird god, found on grinding stones, effigy vessels, and jade ornaments. Doris Stone suggests the beak bird reflects a Pre-Columbian pro-creation myth that a long beaked bird made an opening between the groins of sexless creatures and created females. Also common are effigies representing shamans, who still hold a respected position among the Bribrí and are called sukia.
Columbus made his first landing in Costa Rica at present day Limon in 1502 and the first European contacts in the Talamanca area occurred in 1529. The inhabitants were living in communal dwellings that sometimes held several hundred individuals. Family groups of twelve to twenty were more common. These structures were built on a stone platform, often on top of a hill, one house to a clan. Often these structures were some distance from neighboring communal houses. Also, characteristic of these communities were cobblestoned walkways connecting the house mounds. The inhabitants’ mode of livelihood was based on hunting, fishing, and tuber and peach palm agriculture supplemented by other fruits, especially cacao. Maize was only a minor crop because of the difficulties in cultivating it in areas of excessive rainfall. There are also reports of ceremonial or prayer houses, one of which supposedly held a great quantity of gold, pearls, and other objects. It was sacked by the conquistadors which led to the “Rebellion of Talamanca” and the destruction of the conquistador village of Santiago de Talamanca.
With the arrival of the conquistadors, this stratified complex society was virtually destroyed. “Shock and loss of cultural identity befell the conquered and defeated. The proud pre-Columbian lineages disintegrated into a humdrum population striving to maintain the bare essentials of life itself” (Stone 1977:217). This destruction was a common theme in the New World after the arrival of Europeans. As mentioned above, the combined effects of new diseases and war with the new arrivals combined to, by some estimates, reduce the native populations by as much as 95 percent in the first century after the conquistadors landed, and it can be suggested that this same pattern played out in Talamanca. This ethnocide has proven to have lasting effects on New World indigenous populations. There are current examples of these peoples reclaiming cultural pride and heritage, as in Yorkín, but only the future will tell how they will navigate change in the 21st century.