Tag Archives: DNA

The Origin of Sibö

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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







The Bribri and the way of Siwa

Sometimes while searching frantically through the University libraries’ databases for peer-reviewed journal articles you find that pot of gold under the rainbow. I had a moment like that this morning; I had been searching for peer-reviewed articles which contain information concerning the recent history of the Bribri. This information has been extremely difficult to find. I have been patching together information I have found in websites and books, but I’ve been unhappy with either the sources of my material or the information contained therein. This morning my hard work paid off and I found an article written by Polly J. Posas entitled “Shocks and Bribri agriculture past and present.” In this article, which mostly focuses on Bribri agriculture, Posas includes data gleaned from editorials written at the University of Costa Rica and a couple of books written in Spanish which I have not been able to gain access to. This was exactly the information I was looking for and I delved into her article with renewed fervor.Talamanca

Posas begins by explaining that the amerindians located in the area of the Isthmus of Panama contain some of the oldest DNA groups in the Americas (Perego et al. 2012), suggesting that the modern-day populations are related to some of the first people to populate the Americas. The Bribri belong to this group. The Bribri and a related tribe, the Cabecar, both belong to the Chibchan language group and used to share common leaders and a cohesive political entity until geographic features contributed to their isolation, effectively splitting the groups around 300 years ago. This reminds me of a story I was told by Mole during my time in Yorkin. Mole described how their God Sibu created both the Bribri and the Cabecar, but they were split into two tribes by a great river. The Bribri and the Cabecar for the most part live on their two respective indigenous reserves which together comprise the Talamanca Indigenous Reserve, which was set aside in 1977 by the Costa Rican government. According to the 2011 Costa Rican census, there are close to 13,000 indigenous people living on reserves in the country with close to 8000 living on the Bribri Talamanca reserve. The Talamanca Indigenous Reserve is located within La Amistad Biosphere Reserve in the south east corner of the Limón province of Costa Rica.

The first written accounts of the Bribri come to us by way of the Spanish explorers. Fernandez, writing in 1908, mentions an account by Juan Vasquez de Coronado in which the explorer states that the women work alongside the men, even bearing arms and going to war. Coronado describes the land as being heavily populated and fertile, with an abundance of crops such as cotton, cacao, corn, and native fruits and plants. In fact, according to pollen analysis, corn has been produced in the area since at least 500 BC (Barrantes et al. 1990). This fact is reflected in the Bribri creation myth which states that the God Sibu created the Bribri and the Cabecar out of two kernels of corn.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Bribri experienced severe disruption and upheaval when the United Fruit Company moved into the area. The company forcibly removed the Bribri from the Talamanca Valley and created large banana plantations in their place. The Bribri were forced to move up into the hills and mountains. Here the Bribri continued their subsistence agriculture but were hampered by the poor soil of the region combined with having to deal with steep slopes and torrential rainfall. Some Bribri moved back into the valley from the 1940s to the 1960s and worked as laborers for the United Fruit Company. Others who had stayed in the mountains often traveled to the valleys to work in the plantations, being away from their homes for months at a time. In 1978, the Bribri’s cacao orchards were decimated by monilia pod rot, which they now control through natural processes such as providing adequate space between trees. Soon after, petroleum prospecting came to their area and the Bribri were again disrupted by heavy machinery, dynamite blasts, and an introduction of a cash economy. The Bribri people were in conflict with the methods of extracting resources as part of the capitalistic economy. Their way of life, given to them by Sibu, revolved around taking care of their natural environment which was seen as being connected to their physical bodies and to Sibu. As Lisandro Diaz Diaz was quoted in Borge and Castillo 1997 “In order to protect the earth and all the marvelous things it contains, Sibu left the knowledge, our science called Siwa, which is expressed through stories, legends, and traditional practices. The Siwa contain spiritual teachings that have governed our relationship with nature… Sibu left us, the Bribri and the Cabecar, as guardians and protectors of the natural diversity. For thousands of years we have cared for our Mother Earth and for the next thousands of years we will continue caring with the same zeal as our elders… A profound interrelation between the society and nature has existed, thanks to this principle, we can still encounter the great natural diversity of Talamanca.”

It is in this context that I currently find the inhabitants of Yorkin. It is their strong connection to the natural environment which has urged them forward in creating through ecotourism a strategy to make their way in the modern world without relying on wage labor or non-sustaining, extractive economies based on plantain or banana monoculture. It is my sincere hope that I may in some way play a small role in aiding them in this process. I also hope to document their practice and share what they have learned and accomplished with other indigenous groups who are finding themselves in the same situation.