This is the first 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 indigenous populations of Latin America share biological and cultural commonalities due to shared genetics and the influence of major population hubs, such as the Mesoamerican cultural centers and the Andean and Amazonian cultures in South America. As with these population centers, the biological and cultural effects of the devastating contact with Europeans and centuries of European colonialization on the Bribrí of Talamanca and other dispersed indigenous groups of Latin America cannot be understated. In addition to commonalities, the individual cultural groups in Latin America also exhibit particularities owing to their unique geographical locations and histories.
I will start in eastern Siberia with the origins of the haplogroup A2, of which the Bribrí belong. Haplogroup A2 originated 50,000 to 30,000 years ago in eastern Siberia and has its highest frequencies among the indigenous groups of North and South America. The current age estimate for haplogroup A2 in the American continent is from 15,000–19,000 years ago; the Bribrí were among the first colonizers in Latin America. The initial number of colonizers was small, indicated by the fact that New World indigenous biochemistry is very homogeneous. Nine out of ten indigenous inhabitants have an “O” blood type and have fewer human leukocyte antigens (HLAs) than European populations, making them susceptible to new diseases. This would prove to be catastrophic to the New World inhabitants.
First contact with Europeans in the 1500s in the Western Hemisphere brought about immense cultural and environmental changes. There has been much debate concerning the pre-colonial population of the Americas, but the current scientific argument is leaning towards an extensively populated hemisphere that many researchers suggest experienced as much as a 95 percent population loss in the first 130 years after contact. New archaeological data are providing evidence of large cultural centers in the Amazon where none were thought to previously exist. First-hand accounts of the conquistadors are also being re-examined. Many of these provide details of densely populated areas which when revisited, sometimes only a few years later, were uninhabited. Where did all these people go? It is suggested that European diseases such as smallpox, measles, the flu, and malaria had devastating effects on the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas who had no biological resistance to these new pathogens.
In 1542 Bartolome de Las Casas wrote about how densely populated the Americas were and estimated that his countrymen had killed 40 million inhabitants in the first fifty years after Columbus’ arrival. In Mexico, Borah and Cook estimated that the population of the Azteca realm fell from 25.2 million in 1518 to 700,000 in 1623, a 97 percent drop. Not only were native populations catastrophically reduced by disease, the resulting years of slavery, indentured servitude, and environmental devastation resulting from the practices of the colonial powers has had a lasting and detrimental effect on indigenous populations. As discussed in more detail below, there is also evidence in Talamanca, home of the Bribrí, of a major population center abandoned immediately after the conquistadors’ arrival. The Bribrí then initiated subsequent periods of uprisings and outright war resulting from displacement and slavery at the hands of the conquistadors, the Catholic Church, and much later, the United Fruit Company.
Pre-Columbian Costa Rica has been characterized as the meeting place of influences arriving from the Andes and Mesoamerica. This view of the region as a frontier zone is evident in the Talamancan area of Costa Rica, where, at the time of Spanish contact, indigenous groups were found near cultures with distinctively South American traits. Prior to the arrival of the conquistadors, southern Costa Rica was part of a larger cultural world that shared ideological beliefs, subsistence practices, and technological skills (including gold metallurgy) with regions to the north and south.
One of the major contributions of the people of Mesoamerica, which included the Olmec, Azteca, and Maya, was the development of agricultural crops. Maize was created from a seed plant, teosinte, to which it bears no resemblance (a feat unmatched in the Old World), but the inhabitants also cultivated tomatoes, squash, and beans, among others. With the expansive cultivation of these crops Mesoamerican societies had succeeded in securing their food supply. This enabled them to explore writing, astronomy, and mathematics, which included the concept and use of “zero.” They developed the governmental infrastructures required for the organization of labor and redistribution of goods and services.
Maize made its way south all the way to the Andes and passed through Talamanca and other communities on the way. Maize was never adopted as a major food source in Talamanca, possibly owing to the extensive rainfall in the area, but became an important crop used to make the fermented drink chicha. This was (and still is) consumed along with cacao (originally imported from the south) in rituals. It is interesting to note that, in the Maya creation myth, Popul Vuh created humans from maize, a cosmology shared by the Bribrí whose god Sibö also created the indigenous peoples of the world from maize seeds, illustrating more evidence of cultural commonalities with Mesoamerica. Even with the difficulties of extensive agriculture in the rainforest (due to poor soil and torrential rainfall), the people of Talamanca were secure enough to produce and support an elite class of rulers and shamans. Archaeological remains at the Rivas Site suggest a large residential and ritual complex with a hierarchal structure.
From the Andes, influence came from the Wari, Chimor, Moche, and Inka (the Quechua spelling), as well as the peoples of Amazonia. The major food crop in the Andes was and is the potato. The many varieties of potato never caught on in lower elevations of the rainforest, including Talamanca, due to the high temperatures and persistent rainfall. However, coca, cacao, and tobacco played important roles in shamanistic and other ritual activities. Cacao is still cultivated extensively in Talamanca and other areas of Costa Rica, and tobacco is an oft used narcotic in shamanic activities. As in Mesoamerica, the civilizations in the Andes also supported an elite class that studied astronomy, mathematics, and invented quipus (knotted strings also found in Talamanca), which supposedly were used for record keeping. Along with trade, which brought crops to Talamanca and other dispersed indigenous areas, ideas about government and astronomy/mathematics undoubtedly came along as well.
Talamanca consists of mountainous rainforest, and the possible influences from the Amazon cannot be overlooked. Current research suggests that far from being a sparsely inhabited backwater, the Amazon was a flourishing area with large population centers up to the time of the conquistadors’ arrival. Michael Heckenberger states archaeological evidence as well as initial accounts of the conquistadors, suggesting extensive villages along the river-ways of the Amazon Basin, which were subsequently decimated immediately afterwards due to the introduction of European diseases. This pattern also appears to exist in Talamanca with the abandonment of the Rivas Site at the time of European contact. Also in common with the peoples of the Amazon and other rainforest areas, a horticultural practice that is still used in Talamanca consists of a method of clearing the undergrowth in a garden plot with hand tools and leaving the waste to rot, creating more space and better soil for tree and root crops. Research suggests that destructive slash and burn methods, common in the Amazon, were only adopted after the introduction of steel tools, and is a method still not used in Talamanca.
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.