Life in Costa Rica Before Spanish Conquest

Before the arrival of the Spanish at the beginning of the 16th century, indigenous populations lived in the region for at least 10,000 years. Historians reference four main indigenous tribes residing in autonomous tribes, each having their own distinct culture and customs – Caribs, Borucus, Chibchas, and Diquis.

Before the conquest, you would have seen villages of indigenous peoples tend to their crops of cacao and other fruits, weaving cotton and dying fabrics for colorful clothing and making earthen cookware. Skilled artisans would have been found making gold jewelry, molded gold three-dimensional treasures, or artful wood carvings.

Uncovered artifacts show that drawings, paintings, and sculptures were mainly of men, animals, or geometric figures.

While there was no form of currency as we have today, trading was standard using many of the handmade items listed above, plus beads made from shells and domesticated wild hogs.

Entering their villages or compounds, you would see dwellings of lofty conical huts constructed from rough forked poles or cane stalks, covered in dried palm leaves, which were plentiful in this region.

You would have found very few towns except the Chorotegas and Cotos. Before evolving into egalitarian lifestyles and Chiefdoms, indigenous peoples were scattered in the country and located in groups of three or four dwellings. It is believed that this was the way of life for centuries, as no evidence of stone dwellings as have been found in Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras.

During the Spanish conquest, Bishop Thiel estimated the population of Costa Rica to be a little over 27,000, most belonging to the Chorotegas (13,200). However, Spanish conquistadores were known to exaggerate their numbers to enhance the importance of their achievements.

These reports can be confirmed by the fact that very few pure indigenous bloodlines are alive today like other central American countries conquered in the same way.

The ensuing colonization hugely impacted what was written in the history books. The stories that follow in this series will explore the first colonizers, the impacts on indigenous societies, slavery, self-determination, and the indigenous populations of Costa Rica in the 21st century.

Having no written historical documents, we rely on archeological stories to describe the possible day-to-day activities of the pre-Columbian indigenous peoples of Costa Rica. Following are a few discoveries that give a glimpse of their everyday lives.

General Pre-Columbian Cultures

The pre-Columbian era runs from the first arrival of humans until the arrival of Christopher Columbus. Archeological evidence shows first humans arrived in Costa Rica between 7000 – 10000 BC and are thought to have been a small nomadic group of one family with 20 – 30 members. They would have feasted on megafauna like giant armadillos and mastodons at that time.


Around 5000 BC, pre-Columbian cultures of Costa Rica developed sophisticated agricultural systems that allowed for the cultivation of crops such as corn, beans, squash, and sweet potatoes. Ancient peoples used terracing techniques to increase soil productivity. In addition, they developed irrigation systems to ensure crops were plentiful, allowing for a more sedentary lifestyle and a larger population.

Agricultural practices included terracing techniques to maximize the productivity of the soil. (1) This involved cutting into the hillsides and creating terraced platforms that allowed cultivating crops on a much larger scale. This was a much more efficient way to use the land, which was quite boggy as the ice receded, and provided a more reliable food source.

We must remember that the last ice age was beginning to change the landscape of this region, beginning around 8000 BC. Indigenous populations were forced to change their nomadic patterns when the extinction of the megafauna and changing flora began to take hold in the warmer climate.

Gold and Jade

Gold artifacts dating back to 500 AD give evidence of thriving civilizations. (2) Many of the early cultures of Costa Rica used gold to create exquisite jewelry and artwork. Gold was highly valued by ancient peoples and was used to adorn temples and walls and create jewelry and other works of art, mainly in the form of animals. In addition, gold was used to create complex sculptures, masks, and figurines, many of which still exist today.

Pre-Columbian cultures of Costa Rica used jade extensively for tools, weapons, and ornaments. Ancient peoples valued jade for its strength and beauty, and it was used to create intricate sculptures, jewelry, and other works of art. Jade was also used to make weapons and tools, such as knives and axes.


Archeologists have found evidence from around 500 BC that suggests societies with a hierarchy of rulers and political systems. Ancient peoples established powerful chiefdoms and kingdoms led by chieftains (caciques) with structured governance systems. This allowed for the organization of large land areas, the enforcement of laws, and the creation of complex trade networks.

Around 500 AD, structured class systems began to appear, including political and religious offices. Cultural exchange was possible with other regional people in South and Central America. Once the Columbian era started in the mid-1500s, only a few chiefs remained in power.

Pre-Columbian cultures of Costa Rica built elaborate stone monuments and sculptures. These structures were often used to mark sacred sites or to commemorate important events. Many of these monuments still exist today, providing a glimpse into the past. For example, ancient 15-ton stone spheres have been found in various places, primarily in the Diquis Valley, and they remain a mystery.

Evidence shows that between 800 – 1550 AD, pre-Columbian indigenous peoples established a complex trading network with other cultures. (3) Ancient peoples exchanged goods such as obsidian, jade, and gold with other cultures, spreading goods and ideas throughout the region. One trade route is believed to have been from Central Pacific to the Central Valley, and the routes could have been by the land, river, and along the coasts.

Ancient cultures of Costa Rica developed an oral storytelling tradition. Ancient peoples passed on their life stories, myths, and beliefs through oral storytelling, songs, and poems, allowing for preserving their history. This tradition continues today through groups such as the Rich Coast Project, which is focused on cultural preservation. In addition, students are recording their culture before it fades away.


Ancient peoples believed in the power of the gods and the spirits of their ancestors, and they sought to communicate with them through rituals and ceremonies. Shamans are critical to assisting in spiritual transmutation – going from the physical world to the spirit world. This communication between worlds is essential.


All was not work and survival in pre-Columbian times of Costa Rica. A vibrant culture of music and dance existed. Ancient peoples used drums and other instruments to create harmony. They performed elaborate dances to celebrate important events and to honor their gods. Instruments from those times include the chirimia (oboe) and quijongo (a single-string bow played on a gourd). The Guanacaste region in the Nicoya Peninsula is home to the best-known folk music and dance traditions.

Main Indigenous Tribes

Costa Rica was not connected to Mayan or Aztec cultures, and no large empires existed. Before cultivating crops, indigenous peoples were nomadic and scattered around the different regions in small groups.  

Mesoamerican tribes mainly influenced the culture of Costa Rica in Central and northern South America, and most come from Columbia. The region’s geography determined that the territory be split into two cultural areas – Mesoamerican in north Costa Rica and Andean to the south.

The Emergence of Egalitarian Societies

Indigenous peoples of the region became knowledgeable about farming as they recognized the annual weather cycles and ways to domesticate plants. Around 5000 BC, agriculture became standard practice and supplemented their hunting and gathering skills.

As these practices evolved, so did egalitarian societies between 2000 BC and 300 BC. As agricultural practices continued improving, the cultures realized they could feed many people, not just themselves. As a result, indigenous tribes began creating settlements instead of living a more nomadic lifestyle.

Throughout that same time, small villages began to develop around fields. They made ceramic bowls and utensils. There is also evidence of tools made from bone and stone to help with agricultural tasks.

The oldest village of this type is Guanacaste, which sits in the northwest region of Costa Rica. Others have been found in the Turrialba Valley of Central Costa Rica and many other parts of the country.

As these communities grew, they would go from relationships between individuals and organizations and descendants of common ancestry to one that formed higher classes of society. More leaders would appear as shamans, physicians, and witch doctors.

Later came the need for territorial control as farmlands grew. Eventually, a shift occurred between 300 BC and 300 AD among villager-egalitarian communities. While they began as tribal, clan-centric, with rare hierarchal organizations, changes took them to a villager-chief organization. They now had chiefs and elders, religious leaders, and specialists. With this change came conflict.

By the 9th century, villages grew and became more complex, which resulted in the late pre-Columbian chiefdoms that lasted until the Columbian era.

A guide to a more detailed history can be found here

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