History of the Archaeology of the Osa Peninsula
Laura J. Brodie
The Osa Peninsula is known for its biological diversity and importance in biological studies, but it also has a deep history of human occupation that we are only now starting to understand. Few large-scale archaeological investigations have taken place on the peninsula. Most visits by archaeologists were quick explorations to find sites or stop their destruction and move on to another project. Only within the last couple of years has a long-term investigation started on the site of Cantarero, near the small town of Gallardo. This research, conducted by the National Museum of Costa Rica, is slowly adding details regarding the prehistoric populations on the peninsula and the way their societies were organized.
In 1959 German archaeologist Wolfgang Haberland was the first to visit and publish his findings from the Osa Peninsula. His goals were to create a chronology, or timeline, for the ceramics that he encountered and retrieved as samples. Most samples matched types of ceramics from western Panama and southeastern Costa Rica, an area currently called the Greater Chiriquí by archaeologists.
Haberland spent almost a week searching for sites. On horseback and with the help of locals, he located a handful of sites. Most of the ceramics he excavated or bought on the peninsula are now part of a European museum collection. Although Haberland’s methods of artifact collection are drastically different than those used today, he was the first to demonstrate and publish on the prehistoric occupation of the Osa Peninsula.
Subsequent visits by archaeologists didn’t occur until the late 1980s when representatives from the National Museum of Costa Rica were called upon to stop the destruction of specific sites. Costa Rican law designates all archaeological sites and artifacts as national property, protecting them from looting and destruction. This quick visit registered another few sites on the peninsula, including the site of Cantarero.
Time passed until—finally—in in the early 1990s small survey projects were undertaken by archaeologists from the University of Costa Rica and Kansas University. Out of all of these small studies and visits a total of 24 sites were registered with the National Museum.
The general consensus from ceramic samples was that prehistoric populations only occupied the peninsula in the period prior to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, the Chiriquí Period (A.D. 800-1500). There was only a site or two that hinted to occupation in the prior Aguas Buenas Period (300 B.C.- A.D. 800 A.D) that would suggest people were on the peninsula up to more than 2,000 years ago.
The most exciting developments regarding the prehistoric occupation of the peninsula have only occurred within the last two years. Called to stop the illegal destruction of Cantarero by gold miners, the National Museum undertook a small rescue investigation. Surprisingly, ceramic analysis indicated that what was originally thought to be a Chiriquí Period site was occupied earlier during the Aguas Buenas period.
Cantarero is one of only five Aguas Buenas sites with mounds in the Greater Chiriquí. The other sites include Bolas and Mosca (near Buenos Aires), El Cholo (south of Perez Zeledon) and Barriles (near Volcán, Panama). These sites are thought to be centers with emerging leaders due to the construction of mounds and, at some sites, the presence of stonework that included statues and spheres. It is possible that leadership roles created at these sites led to the development of the “chiefly” positions posited for the Chiriquí and Contact periods.
The Museum continues periodic investigations at Cantarero, gathering evidence to better understand the kinds of day-to-day or ceremonial activities that occurred and a specific timeframe for occupation. One small Aguas Buenas site has been registered near Cantarero and it is unknown how many additional sites exist. Much more information can be gathered from the site, but, as always, funding is difficult to come by.
With the local community protecting Cantarero, hopes are that it can become another draw for tourists. Preservation of the area combines interests in the conservation of both biological and cultural resources. Contributing to our understanding of Costa Rica’s prehistory, Cantarero is as special as any of the biological species studied on the peninsula.
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