The first Costa Ricans were hunter/gatherers. When they first lived in the area is not exactly known, but what is known is that they did not practice agriculture or have domestic animals. They lived by eating animals and collecting fruits, seeds, and wild plants, which was not difficult in this part of the world. They did not settle in any place for long. This kind of information began displays that traced the entire history of Costa Rica. These honest depictions of local customs and life followed a tour of a one-time prison atop an indoor tropical garden that I wrote about previously. At first when I saw displays about pre-Columbian life that seemed very similar to the ones in the just completely redone gold museum Ruth and I had visited that morning, I thought, “Why would an outsider like me care about the history of this country?” but then I found this museum’s approach to its own past different enough from the other museum that I concluded, “I care.”
There has been much recent focus on indigenous research in this country. The whole of Costa Rica is considered to have 3 archaeological regions, and 2.4% of living Ticos, what Costa Ricans call each other, are descendants of the first families. The concept of becoming less paleo, settling in one place, and growing food didn’t occur here until at least 5,000 years ago; and these natives picked a difficult plant to focus on, cassava, a bitter variety of manioc that required grating with sharp stones and then cooking. Their burial practices were unusual too. They waited until soft tissue was gone from the body, used tree bark to secure remaining bones, and put lots of jade, pearls, and metates with the deceased. Metates are volcanic rock carvings that look like small tables and feature animals like jaguars and masked humans.
When the Spanish arrived, there were about 400,000 humans ruled by chieftans in what is now Costa Rica. Warriors, shamans, artisans, and farmers were the significant social groups, and kinship was the crucial factor determining one’s status. Life changed as natives were expected to become more like the Spanish after often violent encounters resulted in European conquest thanks to their military skill and technological advantages. When they became the dominant force in Central America, the Spanish, who had horses, iron, and gunpowder, had just thrown off the Muslim yoke that had controlled their country for 9 centuries. This and their lust for gold affected attitudes and their treatment of native people. Santiago Matamoros is described in this National Museum as a military saint. He is shown in one display with a Moorish man under his horse’s feet. The displays continued to be this straightforward as they demonstrated the social inequities of the colonial period, what it’s like to live in a country without an army, and Costa Rica’s 21st century economy and cultural values.
At the end of the displays, Ruth and I found ourselves outside in another garden. Being atop a hill, we had fine views of the city of San José and the mountains beyond. Like the museum we had just seen, this garden was both unusual and invited lingering. The plants getting gardener Ruth’s attention were a large number of poinsettias. Neither of us had ever seen them growing in a garden instead of beautifying a pot.