All posts by Greg Batchelder

Escuela Shuabb

  • “Good morning”
  • “What is your name?”
  • “My name is BELLA!”
  • “Your name is Bella. And where do you live Bella?”
  • “I live in SHUABB!”
  • “I love you Bella.”

Bella is six years old. She is one of 15 students, ranging from six years of age to 13, who attend Shuabb elementary. I am a gringo. I am working on my doctorate in anthropology from the University of Alabama. I work at the elementary school every weekday. The students here take classes in their native Bribri language and culture. They also have classes in traditional subjects such as math, science, geography, history, and Spanish. I teach English, supervise an ethnography project in which the older students are creating video blogs, and offer workshops in other subjects ranging from ethnobotany to cosmology.

The community of Shuabb lies within the poorest district in the country of Costa Rica. The school receives minimal assistance from the government and relies on outside donations to keep itself functioning. The school provides breakfast and lunch to the students who attend. The value of this service cannot be overstated, as for many of the students this provides nutrition which would otherwise be lacking. We have chalkboards and chalk, old desks, a nice concrete building that should last for a while, a traditionally made Rancho that needs repair both on the floor, side railing, and roof, computers which have a couple of basic learning games, and electricity.

One day I asked Esteban, the director, if he had a magic wand, what items would he like to have for the school. He replied, fans- sometimes it is so hot that the teachers and the students do not want to work. Three fans would be sufficient – one in the concrete classroom, one in the Rancho, and one in the kitchen area. Computer software on disk – learning games, reading and typing applications, and science and history software. A microscope! Botany collection supplies. New desks. These desires are not extravagant- only basic materials all schools should have.

The medical anthropologist Paul Farmer writes about how inequalities in standards of living and delivery of medical care lead to unequal outcomes regarding infectious diseases. Jonathan Kozol writes about how Savage inequalities in resources and delivery of public education in the United States has a crippling effect on the nation’s poor. My students deserve a level playing field. I cannot accept the status quo in which some children are offered the best of resources and the best opportunities, while other children are left to fight over the scraps that remain, and struggle to gain equal footing in a rapidly changing world. I believe that I am my brother’s keeper, that the rent we pay for living on this earth is the service we do for others. Teachers are fond of calling their students “my kids.” I understand this. And I want the best for my kids. I was raised to never ask for things for myself, and to this day I find it very difficult to ask for any kind of help. But for these kids, I will ask for anything. So, I’m not shy or ashamed to ask for any and all assistance to help provide the students in Shuabb the same educational opportunities that are afforded their more affluent counterparts throughout the world.

Why not me? Why not now? Why not here?

Greg Batchelder, Shuabb Talamanca, Costa Rica. March 2017.

You can help support college bound students from the community at:


Yorkín: Present Day

This is the fourth 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 current political structure in Talamanca involves local juntas comprised of varying numbers of locally elected officers. There seems to be one for everything – the community at large, health services, sports, and other organizations including Stibrawpa. The members are elected every two years. Only clan members may run for office or vote in the local elections. People are usually not elected for consecutive terms. A person may run for local office once he or she reaches 15 years of age. In addition to the local system, there is also a larger system which is enveloped by the national government and Talamanca has representatives in the Costa Rican government. There is also a locally elected representative, aditibri, in Talamanca who oversees relationships with the national government. The community juntas are in charge of taking care of local issues but for serious crimes they refer the matter to the aditibri who in turn refers the matter to the Costa Rican authorities.

Per my ethnographic research, the Bribrí subsistence pattern and diet has not changed much from the time of Gabb. Locals own small fincas in which they raise such crops as banana and plantain, cacao, pejibaye, yucca, and to a lesser degree rice, beans, and maize. wp_20161120_011Chickens and other poultry are the most common form of livestock and can be seen everywhere in Yorkín. Swine are less common and cattle, and goats are even less frequently seen. There are no other livestock either large or small. Inhabitants supplement the food that they can raise for the most part with black beans and short grain white rice, which are both very affordable in the area. As in the time of Gabb, the diet is still very starch heavy, and the influx of sugar and “junk food” has created an obesity problem among some of the inhabitants. Many in Yorkín subsist on what they can produce in their fincas, on their livestock, and on payments they receive from the government. This is one of the reasons ecotourism plays such a big role in the community; some locals estimate it brings in as much as 70 percent of the income.

Almost all Bribrí currently speak Spanish. I’ve been told that there are a few elders in the more remote areas who speak only Bribrí. As little as 150 years ago, however, anybody who spoke Spanish was considered a person to be avoided and ostracized. Since that time, possibly as the result of Spanish teachers in the newly formed elementary schools, Spanish quickly took over as the dominant language. Children were punished if they spoke Bribrí in the classroom and parents were threatened if they spoke Bribrí at home. This has changed and currently teachers in Talamanca must be of Bribrí heritage. Bribrí language is again being taught in the elementary schools, and its use varies among local areas and families. It is unclear whether the Bribrí language will continue to be used robustly among the population. Many people suggest that it is important to learn and use the indigenous language, while others suggest that it is more important to learn a second language such as English.67-17%20bri%20bri%20language%20sign One example of families continuing to use the language is my friend Anna who speaks to her mother, husband, and children in Bribrí, while also conversing in Spanish with others. One of my other friends knows only a smattering of Bribrí and only speaks in Spanish.

The village of Yorkín has a population of between 250-280 persons. It is accessible only by either a two and one half hour walk or a twenty-minute boat ride from the tiny hamlet of Bambu. There are no public utilities in the community. Most of the houses have a solar panel and battery for lights, radios, and charging cell phones. There are also a few generators in the community. Almost all the cooking is done over wood. There is a kindergarten, elementary school, and a high school. Each of these serves approximately thirty students. The Bribrí language is now being taught in the schools, and teachers must be of Bribrí descent. In the past this was not the case; as mentioned above, Spanish teachers would hit the children with sticks when they spoke Bribrí and parents were threatened with sanctions from the church if they spoke Bribrí in the home. With the current generation learning the Bribrí language, there is hope that it will not be one of the languages which are being lost throughout the world at an alarming rate.

In 1992, three individuals convinced the community to try their hand at ecotourism and founded Stibrawpa, the first of the two ecotourism projects in the community. Presently, in Yorkín there are two ecotourism programs, three family-owned pulperías, a two-table restaurant which has just opened, and several fincas. However, the big players in the area are the ecotourism projects; which some residents suggest provide 70 percent of the community’s income. These projects were developed and are managed entirely by local groups. The organizers state that these projects seek to help the community return to their original way of being and living while also finding new opportunities and sources of income for their community. Many of the men work as boat captains, tour guides, and construction workers for the ecotourism projects. The women coordinate group activities and tours, cook meals for visitors, and give demonstrations on the processing of cacao. Young boys and girls are taught how to be guides and perform other duties, during which time they learn about their own cultural history, native plants, cacao production, and their native language. wp_20140802_010Many people involved in ecotourism conclude that it has contributed to improving the quality of life and health within the village. The co-founders of Stibrawpa claim that since beginning the project, there have been fewer respiratory and skin ailments resulting from plantation work and less mental distress, in their words depresión, resulting from men being gone from the village for long periods to work in the plantations.

Instead of, or in addition to, working in tourism, many individuals in and around Yorkín also own small fincas. In the fincas they grow a variety of crops including; banana, plantain, pejibayes, and cacao. Organic cacao is produced and sold to a cooperative in the town of Bribrí.wp_20161120_010 Talamanca accounts for 52 percent of the plantain, 6 percent of the commercial banana production, and 90 percent of the organic banana production in Costa Rica. Plantain has historically been an important subsistence crop among the Bribrí and has been grown as a commercial export crop since the 1980s. In many Bribrí communities, traditional cultivation of basic grains, organic cacao production, and traditional fallows have been replaced by monoculture plantain production. Legislation regulating the use of pesticides and fertilizers are absent in the indigenous Bribrí territories. Work in plantations has decreased in Yorkín due to the rise of other modes of livelihood.

A new development in Yorkín (brought about because of the need for those involved in tourism to improve communication as well as an increase in income) in the past decade is that community members have begun to use cell phones. These enable individuals to access the internet (when there is a strong enough phone signal) by using data on their phones. Because the younger generation has “grown-up” with the internet, they are much more active on social media and are more frequent visitors to various pop culture web-sights from Costa Rica, Panama, and the rest of Latin America. Most adolescents and some young adults use Whatsapp to connect and socialize with friends. Music videos are also very popular and young people are exposed to the latest clothing fashions and grooming styles.

It is still common for a young man to live for a period in the house of the girl’s parents. It is also common that the houses get passed down through the women. However, this is not always the case. I am currently living in a house that is owned by one of the sons of Augustina and Roberto on their traditional property. Rights to live here were passed down through Augustina, but it seems the son owns the house – not his wife. The ownership of fincas, the small horticultural plots, seem to be passed down from the men and the women. I will discuss the inheritance of clan rights briefly below. It is common today, as it was during the time of Gabb’s travels, that the union only lasts as long as it serves both parties. Either man or woman may leave at any time.

Displays of affection are rare, sometimes you can see high school students holding hands, but public kissing is virtually unknown. This was also observed by Gabb in 1875 (pg.496), who writes “This agreeable custom seems to be entirely unknown. I’ve never seen one person among them kiss another, not even a mother her child.” I asked one of my Bribrí friends about this and he said they do kiss, just not in public. I also have it on good authority that the young people kiss, “They watch hip-hop videos, so they know about kissing.” Many people refer to their significant others as “novia/novio, campañera/campañero, or la señora/el señor”- my friend Noe calls Anna “mi campañera.” I do not think I have ever heard someone refer to their significant other as “my wife/my husband”. In regards to family size, it was common among the older generation to have eight children. Obviously, family size was growing since the late 1800s when the entire population in Talamanca was as low as 1,500 individuals. The latest census (2011) puts the population in the Talamancan indigenous territory at 8,000. Young people in their twenties are having fewer children; many say they only want two or three. Family planning services are available in Bambu at the clinic and in Yorkín when the doctors make their bi-weekly visits. I have been told that condom use is not a popular method. Most women travel to the hospital in Limon to give birth—quite a change from mere generations ago when a woman gave birth alone in a hut and cut the umbilical cord with a bamboo knife.

The Bribrí are separated by matrilineal clans. The clan members are considered “Dueños” (owners) of various plants, birds, insects, geographical features, and other entities that inhabit the Bribrí spiritual and physical worlds. One of my friends is a member of the Kolkiwak clan, who are the Dueños of the bocones, vicious little biting flies that continue to make my skin erupt in blisters which itch horribly. I have suggested that she ask them to quit biting me, but she replies that they have to eat. As mentioned above, persons of the same clan are forbidden to marry. I’ve been told that currently the offspring of a Bribrí woman and a non-Bribrí man inherit the rights of the mother and her clan. However, the offspring of a Bribrí man who marries a non-Bribrí woman lose both their communal rights and their clan. There do seem to be variations in this reasoning however – I know of two young men who are the offspring of a Bribrí woman and a non-Bribrí man who can own fincas, but they are not allowed to run for local political office or vote for said officers, but I was told that they “have a voice.” One day while drinking chicha, one of the elders of the community refused to drink chicha out of the cup that had just been used by one of these two young men.

Residents living on the Talamancan reserve keep up with news on radios and televisions, have electric (often solar) powered lights. They use chainsaws and other power equipment, some have outboard motors for their dugout canoes (also some have cars, motorcycles, and scooters in the communities accessible by roads). Most use cell phones and many desire computers. They send their children (who like brand-name clothing) to school, drink beer, dance to popular music, visit doctors who practice western medicine, and attend Christian churches (Catholic, Evangelical, and Adventist). However, they also know the bird calls in the forest, display an extensive knowledge of local flora and their uses, construct bows and arrows from pejibaye and cane, drink homemade chicha, go to the awa (traditional healer), keep their mothers’ surnames, know which clan they belong to and who they can marry, and believe that Sibö made them the center of the universe and instructed them to care for it. jala-piedraThere is a festival held every year in the town of Amubri in which a group of men use vines to tie a large boulder to a framework of stout branches and carry the boulder from the forest to the town square led by the women. This ritual reflects the instructions of Sibö to the Bribrí to take care of the planet. The boulder symbolizes the earth which is carried by the men, but led by the women who are the keepers of the clan names, family names, and serve an important role in governance.



Talamanca History

This is the third 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.

In 1502 Columbus landed at the area of present day Limón during his third voyage, describing it as the costa rica– “rich coast.” His arrival sparked centuries of turbulent relationships between colonizers and the indigenous inhabitants of Costa Rica at large and the Bribrí in Talamanca specifically. The earliest accounts, such as that made by Juan Vasquez de Coronado, states that in the area the women worked alongside the men, even bearing arms and going to war. Coronado also described the land as being heavily populated and fertile, with an abundance of crops such as cotton, cacao, corn, and native fruits and plants.

In 1693, a war began with the Miskito Indians, whose traditional land was on the Caribbean coast in present day northern Costa Rica and southern Nicaragua. The incursion of the Miskitos was fueled and supported by colonial powers who provided them with armaments. The Miskitos served as guides for the English, French, and Dutch, who were waging war against the Spaniards. The Miskitos then directed their attention to the Bribrí, who they began capturing and making into slaves. In a strange twist of fate, the Bribrí ended up allying with their Spanish oppressors against the Miskitos. The Miskito Indians then adopted a system of monarchy similar to those of the colonial powers, which the Bribrí also later adopted. It is hypothesized that this system was adopted perhaps to be better organized for warfare and resistance. The Miskitos made slaves of and exacted tribute from the Bribrí up until the early 1800s. This century long period of war culminated in 1827 when the Miskitos left and the Bribrí won another war against the Naso.

In 1881, the Catholic Church finally saw fit to address the shortcomings in its dealings with the indigenous inhabitants of Talamanca. The Church mandated a new program of kinder, gentler relationships with the natives under the new leadership of Father Bernardo Thiel. thielFinally, after 300 years, the Catholic missions begin to take hold. Today, inhabitants of Talamanca for the most part describe themselves as Catholic, whether they practice the religion or not. Most others do not adhere to the Christian faith, but there is a smattering of Evangelicals and Adventists.

In 1858, American John Lyon was appointed governor of Talamanca, ushering in a period of the Costa Rican government collaborating, at least to a small degree, with the local inhabitants in the governance of Talamanca. In 1871, Governor Lyon appointed the first political leader among the Bribrí recognized by the Costa Rican government; his name was Chirimo. During my ethnographic data collection, I often heard the story of Antonio Saldana. In 1880 Saldana was appointed leader of the Bribrí. saldanaHe is often referred to as the Last King of the Bribrí. Saldana agitated for increased rights from the Costa Rican government for his people. Minor Keith introduced commercial bananas to the area and the United Fruit Company moved in at the beginning of the 1900s. Bananas would prove to be an important food source and cash crop for the Bribrí. Saldana spoke out against the incursion of the United Fruit Company into the Talamancan Valley in which Bribrí were forcibly removed from traditional lands. He died in 1929 under mysterious circumstances, and many believe he was killed by interests representing the United Fruit Company. Others suggest it was most likely due to political infighting.

Geologist William Gabb traveled throughout Talamanca in 1873 and later published his accounts in the document entitled On the Indian tribes and languages of Costa Rica. His accounts are sometimes described as racist, often describing the Bribrí as lazy, unintelligent, and undisciplined. However, he later married a Bribrí woman, lived in the area for several years, and the last name Gabb is common in Talamanca. 220px-william_more_gabbThe Bribrí did not begin using last names until the 1950s. This was due to the urging of the Costa Rican government, which began a system of issuing national ID cards. The second half of the 20th century was characterized by an increased reliance on capitalism and an increase of contact with the larger Costa Rican, Panamanian, and global world in general, bringing about rapid culture change.

The Bribrí and their closest relatives, the Cabecar, belong to the Chibchan language group and in the past shared common leaders and a cohesive political entity until geographic features contributed to their isolation, effectively splitting the groups around 300 years ago. Legend has it that the god Sibö created both the Bribrí and the Cabecar, but they were split into two tribes by a great river.

The Bribrí for the most part live in the Talamanca Indigenous Reserve, which was set aside in 1977 by the Costa Rican government. It is located within La Amistad Biosphere Reserve in the southeast corner of the Limón province of Costa Rica. The area is characterized by mountainous rainforest. The Talamancan Range tops out at 3583 meters. The Skuy River forms the southern boundary of the community of Yorkín, flows into Rio Yorkín which forms the border with Panama. The Rio Yorkín flows into the Telire, and on to the Rio Sixaola in the valley of Talamanca. It empties into the Caribbean Sea south of Manzanillo, Costa Rica, in Panama. These river systems are important, not only for transportation of people and supplies, but they also provide an important protein-based food source for inhabitants of the area. According to the 2011 Costa Rican census, there are close to 13,000 indigenous people living on reserves in the country with close to 8,000 living on the Bribrí Talamanca Reserve.1


Talamanca: Early History

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. sibuSibö 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.doris-stone

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. trophy-headAnother 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.rebellion

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.


Talamanca: Early Cultural Influences

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.migration

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.bartolome-de-las-casas

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. sukiaEven 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.talamanca-pop

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.

Papalomoyo: The Mark of the Bribrí

While I was in Peru I noticed a bite on my left forearm that wasn’t getting better. That would’ve been the last week of April. I wasn’t really too concerned about it; it wasn’t getting any better but it wasn’t getting any worse either. When I got back to Yorkín, 12 May, it quickly began to grow and look nasty and when I showed it to a friend she said I could rub the leaves of a tree on it and if it turned green it was papalomoyo. I’m not sure if it turned green or not, but the next day more people said it was definitely papalomoyo. In the two weeks that followed I tried various natural remedies suggested by members of the community. One friend suggested red fingernail polish, another put white latex from a succulent plant on it, and yet another also put a white latex substance from a tree on it. Although each of these treatments were derived from different sources, I figured it had something to do with sealing the wound and possibly smothering the microbes (protozoan parasites) which were eating away at the flesh. However, these people offered no insights into why the treatment would work. I also tried two different plants; pajilla and gavilina, which were suggested by two different friends. To round out the list I also tried putting garlic and later, lime, on the wound. It was also suggested by two people that I capture lightning and thunder in my hand and put it on the wound (which I did do, more than once). I never got around to the camphor cure that was suggested. None of these treatments seemed to have any impact on the steady worsening of the ulcer. Papalomoyo (papalotl= butterfly and moyotl= mosquito) is so common in Yorkín that the locals refer to the scar that is left over as the “mark of the Bribrí” or the “mark of Talamanca”. Several people have commented that now I am a Bribrí. The locals perceive papalomoyo as occurring through natural (as opposed to supernatural) causation. It is recognized that the ulcer is caused by parasites transmitted by the bite of a particular type of mosquito. However, at least one of the treatments, thunder and lightning, was seemingly oriented to the supernatural.WP_20160605_003

Although I had already looked up papalomoyo on Wikipedia, I next endeavored to find a scientific article through the UA library databases on papalomoyo and its treatment. The scientific name for papalomoyo, which it is known as locally here, is leishmaniasis. It is basically protozoan parasites eating away at the flesh, entering the bloodstream, and eventually damaging the spleen and liver. Various types of sand fleas and mosquitos act as the vector including female phlebotomine sandflies and in America and Costa Rica a mosquito known as Lutzomyia or “Aliblanco”. The visible symptoms of leishmaniasis are skin sores which erupt weeks to months after the person is bitten. The parasite enters the bloodstream, creating the need for systemic rather than local treatments to avoid long-term infection. In Costa Rica, incidence averages per one hundred thousand inhabitants according to Canton from 2005-2007 were: Turrialba 124.5; Guácimo 126.3; Matina 222.5; Talamanca (where I live) 1179.4; Osa 124.1; Coto Brus 159.7

From Wikipedia:

Cutaneous leishmaniasis is the most common form, which causes an open sore at the bite sites, which heals in a few months to a year and half, leaving an unpleasant-looking scar. Diffuse cutaneous leishmaniasis produces widespread skin lesions which resemble leprosy, and may not heal on its own.

  • Mucocutaneous leishmaniasis causes both skin and mucosal ulcers with damage primarily of the nose and mouth.
  • Visceral leishmaniasis or kala-azar (‘black fever’) is the most serious form, and is potentially fatal if untreated. Other consequences, which can occur a few months to years after infection, include fever, damage to the spleen and liver, and anemia.

Leishmaniasis is considered one of the classic causes of a markedly enlarged (and therefore palpable) spleen; the organ, which is not normally felt during examination of the abdomen, may even become larger than the liver in severe cases.

Leishmaniasis occurs in 88 tropical and subtropical countries. The settings in which leishmaniasis is found range from rainforests in Central and South America to deserts in western Asia and the Middle East. It affects as many as 12 million people worldwide, with 1.5–2.0 million new cases each year. The visceral form of leishmaniasis has an estimated incidence of 500,000 new cases. As of 2010, it caused about 52,000 deaths, down from 87,000 in 1990.

Marguerite Higgins, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, died in early 1966 from leishmaniasis contracted while on an assignment the previous year.

Magazine photographer Joel Sartore was diagnosed with the disease after a skin lesion failed to heal following a photo shoot in the Bolivian wilderness. Following intensive IV treatment similar to chemotherapy, his infection resolved.

While filming the latest series of Extreme Dreams in Peru, UK television presenter Ben Fogle caught the disease. He was left bedridden for three weeks on his return home. Fogle was treated at London’s Hospital for Tropical Diseases. 

Treatment usually consists of the administration of some kind of antiparasitic compound, including antimonials, which are considered the first line of treatment for all forms of leishmaniasis. These are usually effective in patients with one or multiple lesions but should be administered with care. Toxicity includes headaches, fainting, muscle and joint pain, EKG changes, and seizures. However, one study investigated the clinical response to treatment of cutaneous leishmaniasis with glucantime and found that fifteen patients (34.9%) were clinically unresponsive to glucantime 6 weeks after initiation of treatment while the remaining 28 patients (65.1%) responded to treatment. This is a pretty significant level of unresponsiveness to the glucantime treatment (lucky me) and suggests the need for research into new treatment regimens, perhaps combining antimonials with topical-plant based medicines (2011). Glucantime Efficacy in The Treatment of Zoonotic Cutaneous Leishmaniasis. Pourmohammadi, Motazedian, Handjani, Hatam, Habibi, and Sarkari (2011). Southeast Asian Journal Tropical Medicine Public Health 42(3):502-8

The next morning, I was helping my friend roof his new addition at his house with zuita palm when he mentioned that a doctor was going to be at the clinic in Yorkín that day and that I should go to have my papalomoyo looked at.WP_20160617_002 I figured maybe it was time to go to visit the doctor even though I was apprehensive about the cost, the ulcer being pretty ugly at this point. I walked down to the clinic and asked the doctor if he would see me. There was some discussion about whether he could or not with the woman who was doing the bookkeeping; the issue being me not having insurance in Costa Rica. After some haggling it was finally decided that they would see me and my name was put on the list. I finally got into the clinic at around two in the afternoon and first saw the nurse who weighed me, measured me, and took my blood pressure. After another half hour I got into see the doctor. He stated that it was actually two bites (this was confirmed by my nurse after looking at photos I had taken- again, lucky me); two infection sites that later converged into one ulcer. WP_20160611_001He prescribed injections of glucantime, 5mL at a time injected into the butt cheek once a day. He suggested not using any more natural remedies and seemed somewhat disdainful of the local treatments. He also diagnosed a fungal infection in the same arm and prescribed a topical ointment for it. He told me I could pick up my medications at the clinic in Bambu and that after my treatment was over they would bill me; at which time I could choose whether or not to pay as he admitted they are not very efficient in collecting money because usually all their services are for free. We’ll see about that.

A couple of days later I was able to get a boat ride down the river to Bambu. The man at the pharmacy window spoke a little English and actually told me to take two injections a day- one in each butt cheek and that it wasn’t really effective to inject any into the site of the wound as people in the community suggest- because the parasite is systemic, entering the bloodstream. He also alluded to the fact that it would be very painful. At first he didn’t want to give me the medication to take with me but said I would have to come to Bambu every day to receive my injections. I told them this was in no way possible, as I do not have a boat and there is no way I could spend five hours a day walking the round-trip from Yorkín to Bambu with the additional time waiting at the clinic. I also told him there is a registered nurse in the community who could administer the injections. After a lengthy discussion he finally agreed to give me my first round of injections to take with me but he would not give me anymore. Next I had to go see the nurse to receive the syringes and needles. I left the clinic with a large box of syringes, needles and medication; ate tamales prepared by local women most Fridays in Bambu, packed two for the road, bought some groceries (including Snickers) at the pulpería, and started the two hour walk home.

When I got back to Yorkín I asked a friend if he would be willing to give me my first round of injections that evening. He admitted that he had been drinking chicha and suggested I call either of two people who were both certified to give injections, one being a registered nurse. I of course chose the female of the two who was also the registered nurse (I was later told that Bribrí normally choose the oldest person, so I once again broke cultural norms). A couple phone calls later and she was asked if she could deliver the injections. I texted her and asked when I should come to her house. She replied “No, Greg, at your house.” Ok. The reason for this would become clear later. She showed up that evening around 4:30 and expertly prepared the two syringes; set them aside, and cleaned out the wound. I asked her if I should stand up and lean over the desk so she could have access to my two butt cheeks. “No Greg, on your bed. You will not want to move for a while.” “Really?” “Yes, it is very painful.” Great. Now, I already have a tremendous fear of needles and this statement put my stress factor over the top. So I grabbed my laptop and started playing the Dark Star medley from the Grateful Dead show at the Capitol Theater in 1970 hoping it would relax me. WP_20160620_003I pulled down my pants a little bit, my nurse asked me if I was ready, and told me to take a deep breath. The needle went in smoothly and she began injecting the 5mL into my upper left butt cheek. Surprisingly, it really wasn’t very painful. She had a gentle and deft touch. After a minute or two of relaxing she asked if I was ready for the second injection. She then told me to take another deep breath and injected the needle- this time when she began pushing the serum into my butt there was tremendous throbbing pain, it was all I could do to not flinch. It seemed forever before the needle was empty and she removed it gently from my butt cheek. She pulled my pants up and made a quick exit, saying that she would return at the same time tomorrow. It was probably two hours before I had the wherewithal to get up and walk to the kitchen for dinner which I ate standing up.

The next day everybody was interested in my injections and offered various opinions on treatments. It seems as if everybody has a different idea on treatment but there is limited consensus on dietary taboos which include beans, pork, beef, fat, sugar, and eggs. I consulted the literature on this and there is no information regarding these types of foods as contra-indicators for papalomoyo or its treatment; the literature did state however that a high-protein diet was important. I also asked the doctor about this and he said the diet had no bearing whatsoever on treatment efficacy (however, both my nurse and a different doctor would later suggest limiting fats and dairy). In reflection, it seems that the dietary taboos are all things which they already do not eat much of, except sugar, suggesting to me that their ideas on dietary restrictions stem from already existing food taboos. In the literature I also read that papalomoyo often heals on its own; to me this explains the various treatment ideas and the lack of consensus. People would put on the wound some kind of substance or adhere to a certain diet and the papalomoyo would eventually heal, the treatment could have had much, little, or no effect- as the papalomoyo can simply heal on its own. I also heard stories from people who said they received injections while using another type of treatment, either diet or plant-based. Invariably these people suggested that it was the natural remedy and not the injections that caused the wound to heal.

The next day my nurse returned to my house and suggested that she only administer one injection of 5mL for the day; I was more than happy to go along with her idea. I once again found the injection quite painful and was quite sore afterwards. The soreness last throughout the night and through the next day; my butt cheeks were still sore when I received the next injection.

On 6/14/2016 she made a paste of the glucantime and sulphur to put topically on the ulcer. I put the paste on after receiving my 7th injection (again, very painful). I have also been experiencing severe headache, muscle and joint pain; all side effects of the glucantime.


Yesterday’s treatment was brutal. I had been feeling feverish for about three days and the day before yesterday a really bad infection sprung up at the wound site. That night my nurse cleaned out the wound really well before I got my injection. She used a cotton swab with the cotton removed from one end and sterile gauze wrapped around it, meticulously picking at the dead and rotting flesh. WP_20160619_007Yesterday the infection was just as bad if not worse, and she spent a long time digging out the infection and rotting flesh. She then cut the tip off of a plantain and squeezed the juice from the peel into the wound; it burned like hell. She said the juice contains an antibiotic compound. She is proving to be much more than solely a nurse; she is really a curandera; attending to my illness experience holistically. After her work on the wound site I received my 10th injection in the butt, which is now very sensitive and sore- so each injection just gets more and more painful. It is Sunday, and I plan on seeing the doctor when he comes to Yorkín on Tuesday. If the infection is still bad, I assume I’ll have to go to Bambu to get antibiotics.


Well, last night I received my 12th injection. My curandera again cleaned out the wound and dribbled some of the antimonial medicine into it. WP_20160619_009She said it is looking better. Still looks horrible to me. Yesterday I pretty much spent the entire day sleeping or just laying around; I have had a nauseated stomach and do not feel like eating; still have somewhat of a fever. This morning, even though my stomach still wasn’t feeling well, I forced myself to walk down to Ida’s and have some breakfast.

Today (Tuesday, 6/21/16), I spent much of the morning waiting at the clinic with mostly women to see the doctor on his bi-weekly visit to Yorkín. It was a pleasant surprise that the doctor was able to speak English and he gave me a thorough checkup. I had lost 8 pounds since I first started receiving the injections two weeks ago, and this was concerning to him. In addition to more antimonial injections (20), he prescribed Tylenol for the pain, electrolytes for dehydration, and something for my stomach. He, echoing my nurse’s advice, suggested to keep the consumption of fats and dairy products to a minimum.

On Friday I caught a ride in a canoe down to Bambu and walked to the clinic where I received my medications (even though I was told last time that I couldn’t take them home). After consuming two tamales and purchasing two to take with me from the ladies who prepare them most Fridays in Bambu, I walked the two hours home. As the week went on, the injections got more painful as my behind was becoming more and more sensitive. On Sunday, my nurse had a bit of trouble getting the needle into my flesh, possibly the result of a bad needle – this was the 20th.


The last three injections have proved to be incredibly painful. I spent yesterday pretty much just laying around and not doing anything. I cannot even sit for very long to write, and it is even painful to lay in the hammock for very long reading, and the nausea continues. Last night my nurse said it looked as if the parasites at the wound site were dead. We talked a little bit about ending the injections. Earlier that day, one of the men in the community told me about how after his 20th injection he chose to quit getting any more, only to have the papalomoyo return and him having to receive 40 more injections before it was finally healed. I did not want to experience this type of scenario – when the injections are done, I want them to be done. We decided, because I need to leave the community to go to Panama for three days to renew my visa, that we would continue the injections through Sunday night (we actually decided to stop after Friday), and while I was away Monday through Friday I would apply the medication topically onto the ulcer twice a day. “This is the law Greg.” Okay, I would do anything she asked of me at this point, and seeing an end to, or even a brief respite from, the injections filled me with relief. Not only has she been cleaning my wound and expertly administering the injections every evening, she has also attended to my emotional health and other physical needs. Every night she brings me some sort of food – fresh-baked bread, cacao jelly, fried fish, coconuts. She also gave me a book used by the Adventists in the community, and often we discuss religious concepts. She came back to Yorkín after earning her nursing degree and working in San Jose to take care of her mother and revitalize the family finca. She takes care of three young boys on her own and performs all the farming duties; harvesting and hauling bananas and cacao, chopping brush, taking care of chickens, hauling wood for cooking, etc., etc. She came to my house every day to clean the wound, talk, lift my spirits, and give me my injections- she asked for nothing in return. As for my treatment, I do not know what I would have done without her.

It is now several days later; I am in Panama for three days. I came with stuff to clean my ulcer every day and antimonial medicine with syringes and needles to apply topically- and strict instructions to take care of it twice a day, “la ley Greg.” OK. It is now Thursday, the 7th– my last injection was Friday- finally, I am not nauseous and my butt is not sore. It was a fitting last injection. I had gone to a friend’s house for lunch and afterwards visited some other friends who were taking the day off and playing Dominoes. I sat down to play- soon the chicha (bLok in Bribrí, pronounced brlo) came out. After some drinks we began playing guitar, accompanied by more chicha. After what seemed like a short interval to me (chicha has a way of making the time fly) another friend showed up and said “Greg, are you getting your injection?” “Si” “Well you are late.” Oh fuck, I gathered my belongings and made a hasty retreat to my casita. I have no idea how I navigated the path with my bags and a guitar slung over my shoulder (chicha has a way of clouding the memory) and when I got to my place the nurse was waiting on the path for me. These next couple points I can neither deny nor confirm- due to the chicha; however, my curandera asked me upon my arrival “Don Gregorio, are you drunk?” “No” “Don Gregorio, la verdad.” “Si, estoy boracho.” I was not supposed to be drinking alcohol on my medication, oh well. I vaguely remember the injection hurting like crazy (this was number 26) and I was told that after the needle was removed I yelled loud enough to alert the entire community. The next day I was thrilled when she said there would be no more injections for now and we would re-evaluate after I got back from Panama.WP_20160707_001 Now, the ulcer looks better and I am somewhat hopeful that the injections are behind me. Tomorrow I make the long trip back to Yorkín and will see what she says- hopefully all that will be left is to see what kind of cool scar it will leave me with- “The mark of the Bribrí”.

End note: My curandera says it is looking healed; I only need to apply the antimonial topically for 3 days- then use cacao butter (which she made) to help prevent scarring. WP_20160711_003

Revash and the Laguna de los Condores: My Final Visit to Chachapoyas Archaeological Sites

On May 7th I visited the Chachapoyas archaeological site of Revash and visited the small but amazing museum in Leymebamba, Peru. mapa-turismo-explorer-chachapoyas-peru_thRevash’s mausoleums are architectonical rests located in the Amazonas region of Peru. circuitonororientalThe mausoleums of Revash, located outside of the small community (100 persons?) of San Bartolo were studied by the archaeologists Henry and Paule Reichlen. The three groupings are located in a straight line along the narrow hall that was shaped by the cavity excavated in the rocky wall of the imposing canyon. WP_20160507_030They remain almost intact except for the mummies located inside, which were destroyed by rodents and pillaged long ago. The mausoleums resemble small housings and miniature “villages,” similar to the cliff-houses of Colorado. Judging by the osseous remains still present in the tombs, Revash’s mausoleums were not used for individual burials. The walls of the mausoleums include art made from incisions. They are constituted by “T” shaped representations, crosses, and rectangles. Revash’s funeral houses have moldings around the tops of the walls, which are painted with figures, such as felines, South American camelids, people, and two-color circles. WP_20160507_019The symbols are similar in form and execution to those used on the coast in the architecture of the Virú. Their symbolic content is still unknown although the cruciform motives are identical to those of the side walls on the church in La Jalca, which, according to the local tradition, were raised by the mythical Juan Oso, or “small bear”. The mausoleums of Revash do not represent Inca cultural influences, but they do surface relatively late in Peruvian archeological history. In 1950, Paule and Henry Reichlen estimated that they might date to the 14th century and that they were connected with the funeral architecture known as chullpa, which was common in Peru during the Tiahuanaco-Huari period (around 1000 years ago).

After the tour, our small group of four (Revash receives about 10 visitors a day, with the new construction of an airport in Chachapoyas, I expect these numbers to skyrocket in the future) had a wonderful lunch in the community center, cooked by a group of the town’s women. WP_20160507_035It was good to see the money from the ticket sales to visit the site and the lunch go directly to the community.WP_20160507_034

After our lunch in San Bartolo. We visited the museum in Leymebamba. What a small but amazing place! They had textiles, pottery, quipus (knot strings), musical instruments, an assortment of bones, and what really blew my mind- 219 mummies in a climate-controlled room! Some of the mummies were in textile bags with faces sewn on, some were children and babies, and there was one dog- all were in a fetal position. WP_20160507_062 (2)


Mummy encased in textile bag
Mummy encased in textile bag

The Chachapoyas used containers made of wooden slats to transport the remains to the burial sites. On the skulls and bones there was evidence of trepanning (surgical holes in the skulls, vertebrae with TB scarring, osteomyelitis, and healed fractures.

Funerary Bundles
Funerary Bundles

Most of the human remains and artifacts were from excavations conducted by Sonia Guillen, Adriana van Hagen, Peter Lurche, and Monica Panaifo during the late 1990’s in the Laguna de los Condores near Leymebamba. These remains represent the Late Chachapoya Period, dating to the late 1400’s, right around the time of the Inka (BTW- The museum used the Quechua spelling- “Inka”) incursion into the Chachapoyas territory. The researchers recovered 2,300 artifacts and the 219 mummies already mentioned. The

San Bartolo
San Bartolo

remains were stored in the museum which was opened to the public in the year 2000.


This was an amazing day and a fitting end to my exploration of Chachapoyas. I am already forming my research goals for returning to this area. Thank you Peru!WP_20160507_060


Chachapoyas Warriors of the Clouds: A Visit to Two Burial Sites

The Chachapoyas, also called the Warriors of the Clouds, were Andean people living in the cloud forests of the Amazonas Region of present-day Peru. The Inkas conquered their civilization shortly before the arrival of the Spanish in Peru in the 16th century. Their incorporation into the Inka Empire was fraught with constant resistance to the Inka troops. The name Chachapoya is the name that was given to this culture by the Inka; the name that these people may have used to refer to themselves is not known. The meaning of the word Chachapoya may have been derived from sach’a-p-qullas, the equivalent “people who live in the woods” (sach’a = tree, p = of the, qulla = nation; in which Aymara is spoken). Some believe the word is a variant of the Quechua construction sach’a phuya (tree cloud).The Chachapoyas were devastated by the 18th century but remain as a strain within general indigenous ethnicity in modern Peru.WP_20160505_037

The Chachapoyas’ territory was located in the northern regions of the Andes. It encompassed the triangular region formed by the confluence of the rivers Marañón and Utcubamba in the zone of Bagua, up to the basin of the Abiseo River, where the ruins of Pajáten are located. This territory also included land to the south up to the Chuntayaku River, exceeding the limits of the current Amazonas Region towards the south. But the center of the Chachapoyas culture was the basin of the Utcubamba River. Due to the great size of the Marañón River and the surrounding mountainous terrain, the region was relatively isolated from the coast and other areas of Peru, although there is archaeological evidence of some interaction between the Chachapoyas and other cultures.WP_20160505_009

According to the analysis of Chachapoyas artifacts made by the Antisuyo expeditions of the Amazon Archaeology Institute, the Chachapoyas did not exhibit Amazon cultural tradition but one more closely resembling an Andean one. The anthropomorphous sarcophagi in the area resemble imitations of funeral bundles provided with wooden masks typical of the Horizonte Medio, a dominant culture on the coast and highlands, also known as the Tiahuanaco–Huari or Wari culture. The “mausoleums” may be modified forms of the chullpa or pucullo, elements of funeral architecture observed throughout the Andes, especially in the Tiahuanaco and Huari cultures.

WP_20160505_062Population expansion into the Amazonian Andes seems to have been driven by the desire to expand agrarian land, as evidenced by extensive terracing throughout the region. The agricultural environments of both the Andes and the coastal region, characterized by its extensive desert areas and limited soil suitable for farming, became insufficient for sustaining a population like the ancestral Peruvians, which had grown for 3000 years.

The conquest of the Chachapoyas by the Inkas took place, according to Garcilaso, during the government of Tupac Inka Yupanqui in the second half of the 15th century. He recounts that the warlike actions began in Pias, a community on a mountain on the edge of Chachapoyas territory likely to the southwest of Gran Pajáten. According to de la Vega, the Chachapoyas anticipated an Inka incursion and began preparations to withstand it at least two years earlier. The chronicle of Cieza also documents Chachapoya resistance. During the time of Huayna Capac’s regime, the Chachapoyas rebelled: “They had killed the Inka’s governors and captains and soldiers and many others were imprisoned, they had the intention to make them their slaves.” In response, Huayna Capac sent messengers to negotiate peace. But again, the Chachapoyas “punished the messengers and threatened them with death”. Huayna Capac then ordered an attack. He crossed the Marañón River over a bridge of wooden rafts. From here, Inka troops proceeded to Cajamarquilla with the intention of destroying “one of the principal towns” of the Chachapoyas. From Cajamarquilla, a delegation of women came to meet them, led by a matron who was a former concubine of Tupac Inka Yupanqui. They asked for mercy and forgiveness, which the Inka granted them. In memory of this event, the place where the negotiation had taken place was declared sacred. To assure the pacification of the Chachapoyas, the Inkas installed garrisons in the region. They also arranged the transfer of groups of villagers under the system of mitmac, or forced resettlement. The Inka presence in the territory of Chachapoyas left structures at Cochabamba in the outskirts of Utcubamba in the current Leimebamba District as well as other sites.WP_20160505_063

The architectural model of the Chachapoyas is characterized by circular stone constructions as well as raised platforms constructed on slopes. Their walls were sometimes decorated with symbolic figures. Some structures such as the monumental fortress of Kuelap and the ruins of Cerro Olán are prime examples of this architectural style. Chachapoyan constructions may date to the 9th or 10th century; this architectural tradition still thrived at the time of the arrival of the Spanish until the latter part of the 16th century. The Inkas introduced their own style after conquering the Chachapoyas, such as the ruins of Cochabamba in the district of Leimebamba. The presence of two funeral patterns is also typical of the Chachapoyas culture. One is represented by sarcophagi, placed vertically and located in caves that were excavated at the highest point of precipices. The other funeral pattern was groups of mausoleums constructed like tiny houses located in caves worked into cliffs.


Chachapoyan handmade ceramics did not reach the technological level of the Mochica or Nazca cultures. Their small pitchers are frequently decorated by cordoned motifs. As for textile art, clothes were generally colored in red. A monumental textile from the precincts of Pajáten had been painted with figures of birds. The Chachapoyas also used to paint their walls, as in San Antonio, in the province of Luya, reveals. These walls represent stages of a ritual dance of couples holding hands.WP_20160505_010

Although there is archaeological evidence that people began settling this geographical area as early as 200 AD or before, the Chachapoyas culture is thought to have developed around 750-800 AD. The major urban centers, such as Kuélap and Gran Pajáten, may have developed as defensive measures against the Huari, a Middle Horizon culture that covered much of the coast and highlands. In the fifteenth century, the Inka Empire expanded to incorporate the Chachapoyas region. Although fortifications such as the citadel at Kuélap may have been an adequate defense against the invading Inka, it is possible that by this time the Chachapoyas settlements had become decentralized and fragmented after the threat of Huari invasion had dissipated. The Chachapoyas were conquered by Inka ruler Tupac Inka Yupanqui around 1475 AD. The defeat of the Chachapoyas was fairly swift; however, smaller rebellions continued for many years. Using the mitmac system of ethnic dispersion, the Inka attempted to quell these rebellions by forcing large numbers of Chachapoya people to resettle in remote locations of the empire. When civil war broke out within the Inka Empire, the Chachapoyas were located on middle ground between the northern capital at Quito, ruled by the Inka Atahualpa, and the southern capital at Cuzco, ruled by Atahualpa’s brother Huáscar. Many of the Chachapoyas were conscripted into Huáscar’s army, and heavy casualties ensued. After Atahualpa’s eventual victory, many more of the Chachapoyas were executed or deported due to their former allegiance with Huáscar. It was due to the harsh treatment of the Chachapoyas during the years of subjugation that many of the Chachapoyas initially chose to side with the Spanish conquistadors when they arrived in Peru. Guaman, a local ruler from Cochabamba, pledged his allegiance to the conquistador Francisco Pizarro after the capture of Atahualpa in Cajamarca. The Spanish moved in and occupied Cochabamba, extorting from the local inhabitant whatever riches they could find.

WP_20160505_003During Inka Manco Cápac’s rebellion against the Spanish, his emissaries enlisted the help of a group of Chachapoyas. However, Guaman’s supporters remained loyal to the Spanish. By 1547, a large faction of Spanish soldiers arrived in the city of Chachapoyas, effectively ending the Chachapoyas’ independence. Residents were relocated to Spanish-style towns, often with members of several different ayllu occupying the same settlement. Disease, poverty, and attrition led to severe decreases in population; by some accounts the population of the Chachapoyas region decreased by 90% over the course of 200 years after the arrival of the Spanish.

With this historical background in mind, I visited two burial sites in the Chachapoyas area. The first stop was Caverna de Quiocta. This cave has a petroglyph on a wall near the entrance. Inside there are various piles of skulls and bones.

Caverna de Quiocta
Caverna de Quiocta

Further back, there are many stalagmites and stalactites. Among some of the bones there are also some remains of pottery. The people who existed within the Chachapoya cultural sphere believed in an afterlife, so goods were buried along with the remains.

Caverna de Quiocta
Caverna de Quiocta

The next stop was Carajía or Karijia, in the Utcubamba Valley where there are eleven Chachapoyan mummies in sarcophagi in three groups on the cliffside. These were constructed by the chilloos people who were a subgroup of the chachapoya. The largest group contains seven (originally eight) sarcophagi which stand up to 2.5 meters tall. There is also a group of three which have holes in them from looters, and another which sits alone and is smaller. The sarcophagi are constructed of clay, sticks and grasses, the larger group having exaggerated jawlines. An earthquake toppled one of the original eight in 1928.


They have been radiocarbon dated to the 15th century, coincident with the Inka conquest of the Chachapoyas in the 1470s. The sarcophagi are of a type particular to the Chachapoyas called purunmachus. The construction is painted white and overlaid with details of the body and adornment in yellow ochre and two red pigments, such as the feathered tunics and male genitalia visible on the Carajía purunmachus. Often the solid clay head will boast a second, smaller head atop it. Two of which also have human skulls on top of them. The purunmachus of Carajía are unique because of this. It is thought that the skulls were war trophies.

I fell in love with the Chachapoyas countryside and people and can’t wait to return to Peru; hopefully beginning a new research project in the future.WP_20160505_045

Note: Be sure to check out my earlier post on the Chachapoyas fortress of Kuelap

Ayahuasca Visions: Ceremonies Two and Three

This is my third post on my experience with the medicinal brew ayahuasca in San Roque, Peru. In my two previous posts (Ayahuasca Visions: The First Experience, and Ayahuasca: “La Medicina”) I provided background information on ayahuasca and described my first experience in an ayahuasca ceremony. In this post I will relate my second and third experiences in the ayahuasca ceremonies and include information on the Quechua and Shipibo cultures who discovered ayahuasca and still practice ayahuasca shamanism.

WP_20160425_015My second ayahuasca ceremony was a celebration of my life. First I had visions of all my family and friends, past and present. These visions filled me with joy and I extended blessings and felt gratitude to each and every one. If a sad or otherwise negative thought started to creep in, it was immediately replaced with joy and gratitude. Next, I re-experienced moments of rapture in my life; everything from football plays, to moments in nature, to my son’s birth, to being accepted to graduate school. My whole life may have passed before my eyes. During this ceremony I felt as if I had more control of my body and it was easier to come down off of the medicine. Once again, both shamans were there, Antonio and Virginia, and there were also two other novices. Like the first time, I had diarrhea afterwards, but this time I did not vomit.

My third ceremony took place in the morning. Virginia was not there and it was me, Antonio, and the other two novices. This ceremony was a sensory trip. The music and icaros were especially vivid and I felt as though I could see and feel the sounds. At one point Antonio stood above me with a seed shaker and large bird feather and the sounds and motions were amazing. WP_20160427_008There was a butterfly which kept flying around me and landing on me and the movement of air from its wings felt like an enormous eagle was just above me. At one point I had a thought that the explosion of language which modern humans experienced was the result of trying to describe what one experienced in altered states of consciousness. After the ceremony I sat by the river singing songs, including my non-English language ayahuasca song. I laid down in the river for quite some time and it was a very powerful feeling. Then I walked up to the kitchen where Carmelita had a wonderful meal awaiting- I didn’t fell hungry, but it was a pleasure eating.

WP_20160427_006I am still amazed at the power of these two plants, neither one of which works its magic on its own. How did the Quechua and Shipibo figure out how to mix these two plants together? It is one of the great profound accomplishments of humankind.

Antonio and Carmelita

The Shipibo are an indigenous people along the Ucayali River in the Amazon rainforest in Peru. Many of their traditions are still practiced, such as ayahuasca shamanism. Shamanistic visions have inspired artistic tradition and decorative designs found in their clothing, pottery, tools and textiles. Some of the urbanized people live around Pucallpa in the Yarina Cocha, an extensive indigenous zone. Most others live in scattered villages over a large area of jungle forest extending from Brazil to Ecuador. Shipibo women make beadwork and textiles, but are probably best known for their pottery, decorated with maze-like red and black geometric patterns. While these ceramics were traditionally made for use in the home, an expanding tourist market has provided many households with extra income through the sale of pots and other craft items. They also prepare chapo, a sweet plantain beverage. Their homeland has been affected by drought and flooding, having a detrimental effect on agriculture. The Shipibo are noted for a rich and complex cosmology, which is tied directly to the art and artifacts they produce. The Shipibo are threatened by severe pressure from outside influences such as Christian missionaries, oil speculation, logging, narco-trafficking, and conservation.

Shipibo friends
Shipibo friends

Quechua is the collective term for several indigenous ethnic groups in South America who speak the Quechua language. The speakers of Quechua, who total some 4.4 million people in Peru, have an only slight sense of common identity. The various Quechua dialects are in some cases so different that no mutual understanding is possible. Quechua was not only spoken by the Inkas (which is the Quechua spelling of Inca), but also by long-term enemies of the Inca Empire. These include the Huanca (Wanka is a Quechua dialect spoken today in the Huancayo area) and the Chanka (the Chanca dialect of Ayacucho) of Peru, and the Kañari (Cañar) in Ecuador. Quechua was spoken by some of these people, for example, the Wanka, before the Inkas of Cusco, while other people, especially in Bolivia but also in Ecuador, adopted Quechua only in Inka times or afterward. Quechua became Peru’s second official language in 1969 under the military regime of Juan Velasco Alvarado. Despite their ethnic diversity and linguistic distinctions, the various Quechua ethnic groups have numerous cultural characteristics in common.

Beginning with the colonial era and intensifying after the South American states had gained their independence, large landowners appropriated all or most of the land and forced the native population into bondage. Harsh conditions of exploitation repeatedly led to revolts by the indigenous farmers, which were forcibly suppressed. The largest of these revolts occurred 1780-1781 under the leadership of José Gabriel Kunturkanki. Some indigenous farmers re-occupied their ancestors’ lands and expelled the hacienados during the takeover of governments by reform-minded juntas in the middle of the 20th century, such as in 1952 in Bolivia (Víctor Paz Estenssoro) and 1968 in Peru (Juan Velasco Alvarado). The agrarian reforms included the expropriation of large landowners. Quechuas continue to be victims of political conflicts and ethnic persecution. In the Peruvian civil war of the 1980s between the government and Sendero Luminoso about three quarters of the estimated 70,000 death toll were Quechuas. The forced sterilization policy under Alberto Fujimori affected almost exclusively Quechua and Aymara women, a total exceeding 200,000.WP_20160428_024

Quechua ethnic groups share traditional religions with other Andean peoples, particularly belief in Mother Earth (Pachamama), who grants fertility and to whom burnt offerings and libations are regularly made. Also important are the mountain spirits (apu) as well as lesser local deities (wak’a), who are still venerated especially in southern Peru. The Quechua and Shipibo both make and use ayahuasca and it plays an integral role in their healing practices.


The Kuelap Ruins: A Chachapoyas Fortress and Religious Center in Peru

On May 4th, 2016, I was able to visit the ruins of Kuelap, Peru. WP_20160504_010The fortress of Kuelap or Cuélap is associated with the Chachapoyas culture, and consists of a walled city, with massive exterior stone walls surrounding more than four hundred buildings. Radiocarbon dating samples show that construction of the structures started in the 6th century AD and the complex was occupied until the Early Colonial period (1532-1570). It was rediscovered in 1843.The complex, situated on a ridge overlooking the Utcubamba Valley in northern Peru, is roughly 600 meters in length and 110 meters in width. It could have been built to defend against the Huari or other hostile peoples. However, evidence of these hostile groups at the site is minimal. Judging from its sheer size, Kuelap’s construction required considerable effort, rivaling or surpassing in size other archaeological structures in the Americas.WP_20160504_004

There are multiple levels or platforms within the complex. Because of its extension, these flat elevations support about 400 constructions, most of them cylindrical. Of them, only bases remain. In some cases, there are decorated walls with friezes of symbolic content that seem to evoke eyes and birds that take the form of a letter “V” in a chain. On my visit I had an indigenous Chachapoyas guide who said the site supported 3,000 people and was the home of ruling elites and shamans. The “V” pattern reliefs with 3 levels symbolized the levels of the world- below, ground, and above. These were also represented by the animals serpent, puma, and condor respectively. He also said the elites lived on the upper-most level and the other people lived below. There is also a double diamond pattern which represented duality.WP_20160504_023

The shamans lived in round houses on the upper level. These houses contained many obsidian artifacts as well as many llama bones, suggesting sacrificial activity; there were no human bones found in these areas. There is a stone structure on the site which is aligned with the cardinal directions. There is a pictograph face on one of the shaman’s houses.

WP_20160504_048There is not a scholarly consensus regarding the function of Kuelap, it is thought of as a fortress because of its location and the high walls which support its primary level. Adolf Bandelier and especially Louis Langlois tried to demonstrate that Kuelap might have been a fortified place destined to serve as a refuge for the population in emergency situations. The high walls that cover the outer surfaces of the platform, and the tightness of the access to the citadel in its final stretch, also suggest that the monument of Kuelap could have been constructed as a defensive sanctuary, or at least that it provided a refuge that protected against intruders. It likely also had religious or sacred functions. It is suggested that Kuelap could have been a pre-Inka sanctuary, and that a powerful aristocracy lived in it, whose primary mission was to administer food production and provide religious leadership.WP_20160504_037

My Chachapoyas guide said that the Chachapoyas people allied themselves with the Spanish conquistadores because the Inka had begun trying to make slaves and indentured servants of the Chachapoyas, moving them away from their homelands to work on projects for the empire. He said the Chachapoyas area including Kuelap was the last area conquered by the Inka and it took 100 years for the Inka to build roads into the area.

Soon the conquistadores began enslaving the residents and forcing then to work in the silver mines. Disease from the old world also took its toll, with some researchers estimating as much as 90% of the population dying from smallpox, flu, and other illnesses previously unknown in the Americas. However, the elites of the Chachapoyas culture intermarried with the conquistadores and their bloodlines became mixed with those from Spain.

Note: I use the spelling “Inka” because Wade Davis suggests it is more accurate.