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Indigenous Tribes of Costa Rica

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Out of Costa Rica’s population of nearly 4.5 million, the total population of indigenous people in Costa Rica today is approximately 114,000 (2.4% Costa Rica’s population). And of Costa Rica’s 50,900 km2 area of land, 5.9% of the land is labeled as indigenous territories.

Indigenous peoples have lived in Costa Rica for what stretches back to at least 10,000 years before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in Costa Rica on his last trip to the Americas in 1502.  Prior to his arrival, native groups in Costa Rica were descended from or culturally influenced by Mesoamerican tribes from Central and North America and Macrochibcha tribes from northern South America.

At the time of the arrival of the European conquistadores and African slaves, most of the roughly 25 tribes of as many as 500,000 indigenous Costa Ricans lived in simple subsistence economies in hierarchical structures ruled by chief called a “Cacique.”  The first tribes to settle in Costa Rica were hunters and gatherers, but as time passed and experience and knowledge of the land, plants, and animals developed, tribes became more organized, civilized, and sophisticated. Tribes became permanently based over time and stable communities were formed around the land that is now Costa Rica.

When the Spaniards arrived, many tribes moved inland and into the mountains in order to avoid slavery and taxation by the Spaniards.  Pre-Columbian Costa Rican indigenous culture did not leave many artifacts behind and most are simple products like pottery and ornaments.  There is no evidence of highly developed settlements like pyramids or other stone structures found in parts of Central and South America.  Most prominently, Costa Rica’s South Pacific coast has the stone spheres of the Diquis, for which archaeologists have yet to uncover a definitive purpose.

In 1977, the government passed the Indigenous Law, which created a reserves system in Costa Rica.  Due to this law, there were created a total of 24 indigenous territories located throughout the country. Today’s indigenous Costa Ricans belong to eight major ethnic groups, many of whom rely on tourism to survive and believe that tourism is good for their culture, bringing in money in exchange for education and crafts, thus keeping their culture alive, while also keeping out negative influences like narcotics gangs.

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The tribes of Macro-Chibcha ethnic origin

There are five tribes that have been traced back to Macro-Chibcha origin, which is mainly from the northern region of South America, including the Amazon. The Guaymíes, Cabécares, Bribris, Térrabas, and Borucas tribes all emigrated to Costa Rica from the south. Today these tribes are still present in Costa Rica, though in much smaller numbers than in pre-Columbian times.

The Boruca of southern Costa Rica

About 2,660 people are in the Boruca tribe today.  They mainly live in the Puntarenas area of Costa Rica on one of the first reservations established for indigenous peoples of Costa Ricans.  Boruca culture is founded on faith in the wisdom of elders and the Boruca legends have been passed down for centuries.  The identity of the Boruca reflects a deep respect for the stories told, the nature that surrounds them, and the community that they share.

The indigenous Boruca people of Costa Rica are still deeply rooted in their ancestral traditions and have grown popular for their crafts. They are well known for their annual Fiesta de los Diablitos, which is a festival to celebrate their resistance and cultural survival against the conquistadores. During the festival, a performance of the Devil (the Indians) versus the Bull (the Spanish conquistadores) is staged, and home-made chicha (a fermented alcoholic beverage, derived from maize) is drunk during the performance to enhance strength and bravery.

The Borucas make beautiful and detailed wooden masks for the festival and metaphorical reenactment.  Wearing devilish looking masks, they are said to be the only tribe in Costa Rica that scared the Spaniards away and managed to keep their land from being conquered at the time of Columbus. The Boruca people are very proud to have survived the struggles between the native tribes and Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s with their village and sense of identity intact. While many indigenous tribes consider themselves to have been defeated by the Spanish, the Boruca believe that a tribe cannot be defeated if its culture is still alive today.

The Bribri of the southern Atlantic coast

Residing in the regions across the southern part of Costa Rica, from the Atlantic almost to the Pacific, Bribri reservations include Salitre and Cabagra in the Canton of Buenos Aires and Talamanca in the Canton of Limon.  This is a region of the country that is slow to develop and electricity only arrived here in 1986.  The Bribri comprise the voting majority in the Puerto Viejo de Talamanca area and their population is considered to be up to 35,000.

The Bribri have a specific social structure that is organized into clans. Each clan is composed of an extended family and women hold the higher status in their society.  Their children’s clans are determined by whichever clan their mother’s come from and it’s the women in the Bribri society who are the only ones who can inherit land.  They are also the ones who prepare the sacred cacao drink used during ritual ceremonies. The Bribri believe that the cacao tree used to be a woman and God (known as “Sibu”) turned her into a tree.

Men’s roles in Bribri culture are defined by their clan and they often take roles that are performed exclusively by men. The spiritual leader, or “awa,” is very important to the Bribris, and only men are able to fill this role. Still today, the awa will concoct powerful cures out of more than 1,500 plants, believing that there is nothing thatthe forest can not cure.

The Cabécares of Cordillera de Talamanca

Many studies on the subject consider the Bribri and Cabécares as part of the same ethnicity because of their similar views on “Sibu.”  But while parts of the Bribri tribe live the lowland areas of the Cordillera de Talamanca, the Cabecarés are isolated in the mountains of the Cordillera. And although the Cabécar Indians are one of the larger indigenous group in Costa Rica (around 10,000 members), they are thought to be the most isolated and have been less influence by progress than the neighboring Bribri.  Since European (Mestizo) colonization, the Cabécares relocated to a remote area in the Chirripo Mountains, requiring a few hours hike to reach. Therefore, the Cabécar Indians do not have access to basic amenities like clean water, sanitation or state education or health care systems.

The Cabécar are considered to be a very traditional tribe. Having preserved their culture over time, they presently mainly only speak their own Cabécar language. They prefer to practice their traditional medicine and way of life and they have a rich collection of stories and legends, some of which are written down in both Spanish and the Cabécar language.  The Cabécar are a patrimonial culture in which the Cacique (chief) of the tribe is permitted to marry several wives.

The Guaymí of Southern Costa Rica, along the Panamá border

Located mainly in the South Pacific regions of Corredores, Golfito and Coto Brus, the predominantly agricultural Guaymí emigrated from Panama to Costa Rica in the 1960s to grow bananas, rice, corn, beans and more. The majority of them live in poverty because they live in secluded areas. They primarily grow cacao, rice, beans, corn, bananas, and oil palms.  They also subsist on hunting, fishing, and pig breeding.

Their colorful and handcrafted traditional costume of the Guaymí is still widely worn today and they practice garment manufacturing from natural fibers, colored with natural dyes and tints, mats, and hats made from tree bark.. Their language is Guaymí, but some of the chiefs and officers also speak Spanish. 

The Térraba of Southern Costa Rica

There are presently around 3,300 Térraba people living in the Canton of Buenos Aires, on the Reserve of Boruca-Térraba, many of whom live in poverty due to much of their forest land being cleared over the years.  Their territory is populated by non-indigenous peasants, despite the Indigenous Law of 1977.  

Although this ethnic group has preserved much of its cultural identity, they have not retained their original language outside of the elders of the tribe.  A larger group of Teribe who live in Panama still use the language and the two groups are still in contact.  They primarily subsist on agriculture, growing corn, beans, rice, bananas and citrus fruit.

Tribes of the Mesoamerican ethnic origin

There are three tribes in Costa Rica that are of Mesoamerican descent, having traveled south to Costa Rica from the north. The Huetares, Chorotegas, and Guatusos or Malekus tribes have been traced back to indigenous groups from Mexico and Guatemala, such as the Mayans and Aztecs.

The Maleku of northern Alajuela

The Maleku are an indigenous group of only about 600 people, located in the San Rafael de Guatuso Indigenous Reserve. Before Spanish colonization, their territory extended as far west as Rincon de la Vieja, and included the volcano Arenal to the south and Rio Celeste as sacred sites. Today their reserve is located about an hour north of La Fortuna. Although their land was much larger prior to colonization, they are now working on buying their own land back from the government.

Of the Northern Costa Rica tribes, the Maleku are the smallest and most endangered group, living on less than 2 square miles of land north of Volcano Arenal.  Having lost the majority of their land since the time of the conquistadores, the traditional methods of subsistence of hunting and farming became impossible and they now rely primarily on iguana meat for their diet.  The Maleku people are also working to protect their language, of which there are only about 300 speakers left.

Their economy is based on tourism, and visitors can take part in a plant tour to learn about their traditional medicines found in the wild.  Visitors can also buy their carved masks, painted balsa bowls, ceramics, bow and arrows, and musical instruments.

The Matambú of Chorotega

The Matambú, also known as the Chorotega, are located in the Guanacaste province on the North Western part of Costa Rica. The Chorotegas translates to “The Fleeing People,” describing a group of Maya who fled to Costa Rica in approximately AD 500 from enslavement in Southern Mexico by rival tribes. Parts of their Mayan culture are evident in their language and rituals, including human sacrifice in pre-Columbian times.

The Chortegas were thought to have been the most powerful and technologically advanced tribe prior to the arrival of the Spaniards, during which time they organized a military group and fought against the conquistadores. There is evidence that they were a democracy and elected Caciques to be the leaders in a hierarchical group (the Nicoya Peninsula is even named for a Chorotega chief who ruled the area when the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Costa Rica in 1523).  The Chorotega maintained strong religious rituals and were competent astronomers and mathematicians and cacao beans served as currency.

The Chorotega frequently fought with neighboring peoples and tribal warriors wore padded cotton armor and fought with bows and arrows and wooden swords tipped with small flint knives. Although they were eventually conquered by the Spanish, the Chorotega were reported to be courageous warriors who fought hard against the invaders.  Unlike the Borucans who literally scared away their invaders garbed in only scary devilish looking masks, the Chorotegans fought as an organized military group, wearing only padded cotton armor.  They were armed with bow and arrow and wooden swords to fight against the more sophisticated weapons of the Spaniards.  Despite their valiant efforts, the geography of the peninsula was against their favor and the Chorotegans were trapped and conquered.

The area of the Chorotegans now centers near Guaitil (Santa Cruz) in Guanacaste. The soil is mostly clay, which is still used to make the bricks for their “longhouses.”  Today, the Chorotegans produce beautifully handcrafted pottery and cookware that they sell commercially and to tourists who visit their region.  They are also expert beekeepers and known for their honey.  Chorotegan pottery is famous in Costa Rica and is still being made in the towns of Guaitil and San Vicente. Typically, the women are the artisans and they create beautiful pieces that depict native animals of Costa Rica, like the jaguar and crocodile.

The Huetar of Quitirrisi

The Huetar, or Quitirrisi, are the third remaining northern Costa Rican tribe, with members numbering around 2,000.  The Huetar are located in Ciudad Colon and Puriscal in the Central Valley, living on their reserves, located west of the capital of Costa Rica, San Jose. Very little of the Huetar culture survives, and only a few tribe members speak their ancestral dialect.  Their reserve land is relatively infertile, but they do grow corn and are still known for their tradition of “Fiesta del Maiz” in October. They also practice traditional herbal medicine, using tribal knowledges passed down through generations to use the forest for healing.

The Huetar’s crafts for sale to visitors include hand-woven baskets, straw hats, woven floor mats colored with natural dyes, and some ceramics.  You can find a few roadside stands selling these products; however, their main source of income is generated by workers finding employment in nearby San Jose.