Costa Rica! A tropical paradise with first class tourist industry. Sunny beaches, thick mountain rain forest, abundant flora and fauna in national parks that attract eco-tourists from all over the world. Costa Rica also has a deep and fascinating history. Costa Rica was explored by westerners before the founders of Jamestown were even born. This Church, in Cartago was first built in 1635. And that's just talking about the history after the European contact.
When I was growing up in Costa Rica in the 70’s I noticed that some of the fancy houses, and some of the government buildings had these enormous stone spheres decorating the front lawns. When I asked people what they were, the usual response was a disinterested “Son bolas de los Indios.” On closer inspection it was clear that these weren’t just ordinary balls, they were solid stone, were finely polished and appeared to be perfectly spherical. The bigger ones were taller than a man and weighed thousands of kilos.
But in those days no one was very interested, the local Costa Ricans didn’t consider themselves descendants of the people who made the spheres in the first place. One of the legacies of the caste system imposed by the Spanish Conquerors is that even today to be of indigenous decent is not something most people are proud of. Modern Costa Ricans are proud to be considered relatively European in comparison to other Central American populations. So the spheres were a mere curiosity not really worthy on any serious investigation.
My history books at the time told us that Columbus found a land sparsely populated by about 27,000 simple stone-age Indians, whose technical expertise was limited to making stone axe-heads. They certainly weren’t capable of building these spheres. Over recent years pseudo scientists “discovered” the spheres. They came up with these whacky theories like that they must have been built by space aliens as navigational beacons to Stonehenge and Easter Island. So if the Indians hadn’t built them, and one was not prone to accept supernatural theories about Space Aliens or Lost Tribes of Israel, the logical explanation was that they were formed by some natural geological process.
Nature makes spheres.
Yes, stone balls can be produced by natural forces. River and sea worn boulders can be quite spherical. Or when lava flows it sometimes forms what are called pillows, these can be later covered with sedimentary rock and the result, after erosion, can resemble a sphere protruding from or even falling off a rock face. Similarly when lava flows underwater and is restrained by some obstacle that allows some of the lava to get through, the pressure of the lava behind will cause a bubble to form much like a dollop of toothpaste coming out of a tube. The water will cause the bubble to cool from the outside quickly and blobs can be formed, some of which are very spherical, and can become even more so after some erosion takes place. Another way for spheres to form naturally is from a lava bomb. A volcano might shoot a glob of molten lava into the air, and when it comes down into water it retains its dewdrop shape. With a little erosion, this too can turn into a sphere. And natural stone spheres are not limited to volcanic rocks. The so-called cannon ball lime-stones are examples of spheres forming on some nucleus, perhaps a shell or fragment, in a sedimentary environment, much like a pearl forms inside an oyster.
Man made, polished monumental spheres.
But just looking closely at these spheres anyone can that they are man-made, for one thing, naturally made spheres don’t have picking and polishing marks. In looking closely at different spheres you can see how different artisans used slightly different tools and techniques to make them. These huge spheres were found together, in situ by an archaeologist, Samuel K. Lothrop, who documented them forming part of a geometric pattern. Compare the finish on these two spheres. It is likely that they are contemporaries of each other, yet one shows slightly more aggressive picking action than the other.
Let’s get back to the estimated population of Costa Rica upon contact with Europeans. Where did this 27,000 number come from? Well the Spanish were far more organized than the French or English conquerors; they kept records of all sorts of things. There are huge archives of 16th century documents in Madrid, Seville and València in Spain as well as local archives in Latin America that document all sorts of things, down to details such as how many spoons were in a ship’s kitchen. This 27,000 Indian population number most likely came for a census ordered by a Conquistador by the name of Perafán de Ribera in 1569. He was obliged to make as accurate a count as possible so that the Indians could be proportionately divided among the Spanish residents. He was under pressure to come up with an accurate figure, and it would seem he had no vested interest in veering from the truth one way or the other. Fair enough, Costa Rica was a slightly different shape than it is today which might have skewed the numbers slightly, but his estimate may be considered reasonably accurate.
So let’s accept for the moment an indigenous population of 27,000 after three generations had passed since first contact. But a number in that range at the time of contact seems absurdly low when we consider the vast quantities of beautiful pre-Columbian artifacts that have been unearthed. We know that the European conquerors looted as much gold as they could. In the middle of the 16th century, King Charles 1 of Spain, (Emperor Charles V), specifically instructed his Conquistadors to plunder graveyards in search of gold. Those Conquistadors saw no aesthetic value in the ceramic artifacts, indeed even considered them profane and smashed them pieces. Spanish conquerors were only interested in gold and they took whatever they could. While there was plenty of gold still left to be panned from rivers, it was much easier to take the gold straight from the Indians.
Unfortunately the Spanish had no interest in the anthro and zoomorphic representations of these gold handicrafts. One can only imagine how many unique and irreplaceable works of art were melted down into gold ingots and sent to Spain. 400 years of looting and melting down of pre-Columbian gold artifacts had already occurred before an American, Minor C. Keith put in a railway from the east coast to the central valley, and a smaller one running up the Caribbean coast to service his banana plantations. In just the width necessary to lay the track all sorts of pre-Columbian artifacts were unearthed. Luckily Mr. Keith found them interesting and began to collect the best pieces. This one collector, Minor C. Keith collected over 17,000 gold and ceramic artifacts at the beginning of the 20th century, and these were only the best pieces. And there are many more collections, most of them outside of Costa Rica.
How is it possible that only 27,000 people, men women and children, from all the strata of society, Caciques to laborers left enough high quality ceramic, gold and jade artifacts so that even after 400 years of plundering and destruction, there are still hundreds of thousands of pieces in modern collections?
The first significant conquistador of Costa Rica, Juan Vázquez de Coronado, began his conquest in 1642, a generation after Mexico was conquered. While there were fierce battles and many Indians slaughtered, Coronado found relatively little resistance, the reason was that the Spanish began the first stage of their conquest without even knowing it two generations before Coronado set foot in Costa Rica.
Yes, the Conquerors did bring their horses, steel and gunpowder, but their most powerful weapon by far was one they didn’t even know they had. In the four decades between Columbus’ arrival and Coronado’s ‘entradas’ Spanish traders sailed into ports like Limón, and traded with the Indians. The Indians traded with the Spanish and from contact with the traders and their livestock they caught European and African crowd diseases to which they had no resistance. Smallpox, measles, tuberculosis, possibly the black plague, certainly malaria and others diseases decimated indigenous populations. Worse the Indians traded with each other and spread the diseases inland. So by the time Coronado began his conquest, entire populations had been wiped out, reduced by 50% or more on each successive wave of imported diseases.
Today the experts have drastically increased the estimates for Costa Rica’s original Indian population. A figure of 1,000,000 is academically defensible. A conservative estimate of 600,000 is a figure few professional archeologists would reject as too large. Even if we go with the lower number, that’s a big adjustment from 27,000 to 600,000. With a population of 600,000 there would have been enough people so the society could afford specialized craftsmen to make luxury items for the privileged people. And there would been enough privileged people to leave us the quantity of fine ceramic, gold andjade artifacts that we have in museums today. And of course there would have been enough specialized craftsmen and possibly women to produce these monumental spheres without the help of space aliens.
But it’s sobering to realize that in two or three generations the Indian population was reduced by over 95%. It would take 400 years, until the 20th century for Costa Rica to recover to the population that it had in 1492. Most of that population replacement came from Europe, which explains why Costa Ricans consider themselves so European. Those immigrants who came found a vast fertile land, virtually unpopulated, and the few Indians that they met were indeed relatively primitive. Those Indians were remnants of a vast and complicated society whose social, religious, political, legal, economic, ethical and environmental structure had been destroyed and replaced with one where their assigned position was at the bottom.
Some Indians survived, they developed immunities but were enslaved. Some continued to bravely fight the powerful immigrants. Echoing the pattern seen all across America, the Indians were progressively pushed from the best land and retreated into the mountains. That is where most Costa Rican Indians live today, high up in the southern mountain range which today goes by a name the Spanish gave it: the Talamanca.
Columbus' last Voyage.
My history school-book told us that on Columbus' last voyage to the new world he came ashore where present day Limón is today. He marvelled at the quantity of gold that the Indians wore and therefore named the new country "Costa Rica", and claimed it for King Ferdinand of Spain. There are many errors in this version of events. Perhaps this is being picky, but for starters Ferdinand was not technically the King of Spain. Secondly, Costa Rica did not get that name until many years later. Thirdly, Columbus didn't actually drop anchor at Limón. The typical defensive tactic of the Spanish was to anchor at a small island, just off the mainland, as they did in this case just off the island which today is named "Uvita". And lastly, while not impossible, it would have been highly uncharacteristic for Columbus to leave his ship at all; it's unlikely that he ever set foot on Costa Rica. The few Indians he saw would have been those that boarded his ship and those he saw through his spyglass. The European conquerors were accustomed to short, malnourished, toothless, unwashed and small-pox scarred Europeans. Many of them, including Columbus, marvelled at what handsome human specimens the Indians were. In this case they were from the Tariaca tribe, and note that no mention of the Tariaca tribe was made on Perafán de Ribera's census 67 years later.
It’s virtually impossible that Columbus saw any spheres, and it’s unlikely that his men did either. Most of the spheres are concentrated in the South Western area of Costa Rica called the Diquís. Smaller spheres have been found all over Costa Rica. But the larger spheres weigh many tons, and transporting them over long distances would have been an incredible feat of engineering, particularly for people who had neither the wheel nor beasts of burden. At least two large spheres were documented in context from a grave in the Nicoya peninsula, and there are others in Nicoya but out of context. These Nicoya Indians were a completely different tribe, and the spheres may it have been gifts from the Indians from the Diquí region. Whatever the reason, they were transported over a distance of more than three hundred kilometers. Whether pre-Columbian Indians had developed sails is an issue of much debate among archeologists. But we do know they were adept seamen and participated in a robust coastal trade system up and down both coasts. They certainly had canoes and rafts which is probably how they transported the sphere from Diquís to Nicoya. Imagine dealing with the waves and wind on a raft while trying to control a massive sphere rolling about that weighed several tons!
United Fruit Company. (La Unai.)
The spheres lay forgotten for 400 years until, in the 1940’s, the United Fruit Company began convert vast areas of tropical jungle on the south west coast into homogenous banana plantations. Many spheres were found here at what today is called “Finca 6”. When clearing the land and digging ditches the steam shovels found their work hampered by these strange stone spheres. Some were destroyed, others buried, and some, like these, were simply shoved aside. Luckily amateur an archaeologist was the daughter of a Banana company executive. Doris Stone recognized the enormous archaeological and cultural value of these spheres and enlisted the help of a professional archaeologist, the legendary Samuel K. Lothrop. He managed to study some of the spheres in situ, before the steam shovels moved them out of their archeological context.
Although the Costa Rican Indians did not build temples or other buildings out of stone, they did make many other stone objects with unprecedented precision. There are stone carvings that are unique to the Costa Rica such as the intricately carved four legged metates. The metals that the pre-Columbians used, such as gold and copper were far too soft to use for carving stone. Alberto Sibaja, a Costa Rican authority on pre-Columbian issues runs a workshop where he makes reproductions of pre-Columbian stone items. He says that even with modern day power tools, he’s been unable to emulate some of the stone carvings. As in other parts of America, rumors persist that Shamans concocted a special mixture of herbs and roots that was used to melt stone.
Most of the carved stone artifacts from Costa Rica are made from andesite, or andesitic tuffite both igneous rocks formed above ground. While there are a few examples of spheres made from limestone, most of them are made from an igneous rock formed below ground, Gabbro. The high Talamanca mountain range is largely composed of Granites and Granodiorites. Parallel to, and south of the Talamancas is a lower range, the intermediate range, which runs through the Diquís region. It is in this range where we find the gabbro as it was probably derived from the same magma chamber and shows a topographicaly lower level of the geologic structure because it has been eroded to a greater depth.
It is virtually certain that the source rock for the majority of the spheres came from outcrops of this deposit, while source of the limestone was nearer the coast. It’s unlikely that the makers of the spheres had sophisticated quarrying techniques. They most likely took advantage natural fissures, or ‘joints’, in outcrops to pry loose raw material that was appropriate for sphere production. When selecting limestone it must have been particularly difficult to find blocks that were large enough and were structurally sound. This is true with any limestone, but especially true with the shell-rich type of limestone that is found in Costa Rica. The limestone that is used in Maya pyramids for instance is very finely grained, so large blocks can be cut that are sound. But the chunks of shells permeating Costa Rican limestone make it unsuitable for construction. All limestone is softer and more porous than Gabbro, as well as more reactive to carbon dioxide. The result is that the few limestone spheres are usually more worn down by natural weathering than their Gabbro counterparts.
Anthropologists and Archaeologists often, at least professionally, avoid characterizing or speculation on motives. But that’s half the fun isn’t it? We must be careful to avoid projecting our own pre-conceptions or values, but it’s surely fair to use terms like aesthetics or aesthetic intent. What exactly spheres represented is highly speculative. And they probably represented at least slightly different things to different populations at different times. It’s like speculating that the tree of life meant one thing only to the Maya. But surely, whatever it does represent, it was not exactly the same thing for all Maya from those who lived 2,000 years ago to those who live today.
The spheres remind many people of the moon, and it’s possible that they were made as representations of the moon. One could speculate that they are part of some Goddess worship culture. We know that the Indians practiced matrilineal heritage, but that’s about it. Some of the spheres have anthropomorphic figure carved into them and at least one, this one in the museum, has raised speculation that the carving on it represents the galaxy. This is all speculation, what we can say with relative certainty is that these spheres were important to the Indians who made them. It is also safe to say that many people were involved in making them, no one person would have the strength or breadths of techniques to accomplish making one by his self. Or herself, we have no way of knowing if women worked on the spheres. Different spheres show different techniques, some more effective than others. Those spheres that have been documented in situ were almost always in public areas, indicating they were for public consumption. (There is that one exception of the Nicoyan sphere found in a grave, and the smaller spheres have been found all over, but here we are referring to the large “monumental” spheres.)
These two spheres, some of the few that were documented in situ, were found were found one at each side at the top of a wide stone ramp that led up to the top of a large mound. The mound itself almost certainly was mostly covered by a circular building that may have been a home or a public gathering place, but the point here is that the spheres were not in the middle of the mound but outside flanking the top of the ramp. They were not found in the middle of a mound which would indicate that they were kept indoors; they were in a prominent exterior place what we would interpret today as public art. We can’t be sure if they were public art, religious symbols, status or territorial markers, or something else, but we can safely surmise that they were produced by a group of people, for public consumption.
Another interesting thing about these two spheres is that they are a pair of the few spheres that were made of limestone, and they appear to be severely weathered. On this sphere for instance one could speculate that most of the sphere was buried but part of it was subjected to heavy rain. They are nicely rounded on one half while the other is mis-shapen. The Costa Rican archaeologist Ifigenia Quintanilla explained to me that the part one would assume was the worn part was actually found underneath, not exposed on the top. They were originally placed with spherical part showing and the rough part buried.In other words, the sphere was made that way in deliberately. Why? Why not make a perfect yet smaller sphere? We’ve already seen that the shell-rich limestone presents particular challenges. With these two spheres seems the people who made them pursued the aesthetic of large roundness over perfect sphericity. They could have made a smaller perfectly round sphere, but for some reason they chose to maximize the size of the sphere by sacrificing it’s wholeness.
The images you see here don’t do justice to the power of these spheres. You have to experience them in person to feel a certain primal vibration that they have. You have to visit with one, face to face to appreciate their solemn power. Often I have watched people with the spheres. They approach them and instead of touching them as they might do to a sculpture, they almost invariably place their whole hand on them. These spheres are as unique as they are silent, powerful and mysterious.
Children are enchanted by them; they play around them and climb on them. These boys in Osa peninsula have the most unique and priceless garden play set in front of their simple wooden house. They were playing happily on them until their mother called them inside when I asked permission to photograph them.
The spheres are unique. No-where else in the world has an ancient cultures made such large and polished stone spheres. There are only about 300 monumental spheres in existence. None could possibly be younger than 500 years old, and some may be well over 1,300 years old. Yet these unique, irreplaceable and priceless monuments are neglected and ignored.
The largest sphere found to date is known as “El Silencio”. It sits on a hillside about 900 meters away from this small quarry on the south side of the river Terraba, near the town of Palmar Norte. I don’t know since when have people taken limestone from this quarry, I show it to you just so you can see the type of rock found naturally in this areas. Perhaps the Indians did extract limestone from this quarry to make some of the limestone spheres, but “El Silencio” is not made from this local rock, it is made from the harder and heavier gabbro.
Here is El Sliencio, over 7 feet in diameter and weighing over 32,000 lbs. The rock it’s made of is not form around here. It probably came from an outcrop about 15 miles from here, over steep hills and valleys and up the side of the mountain. It has been badly damaged by weather and the repeated burning of the field where it has been for as much more than a millenium. The hot weather and flames heat the stone, and when the rain clouds burst in the afternoon, the water cools the surface suddenly and causes exfoliation. Layers peel off, indeed it has been speculated that exfoliation, perhaps with hot coals followed by cold water, might have been one of the techniques that was used to make the spheres.
In some ways it is sad to see this magnificent El Silencio in such a state of neglect. On the other hand even after every one of us is long gone, El Silencio, will still be here, quietly listening to the same sounds of the birds, insects wind and rain that it has witnessed for over a thousand years.