What we Know we Don’t Know: an Osa Burden

What we Know we Don’t Know:  an Osa Burden

Paul Collar

Paul is a geologist and engineer and publishes this newspaper.  You may reach him at paul@osagroup.org

Pre-Columbian refers to the time before Christopher Columbus “discovered” America.  What happened in the Americas before 1492 is unclear since few native civilizations had “written” languages that allow us to meaningfully interpret today.  Archeologists are able to reconstruct parts of this past from digs of fortuitously preserved snapshots in time.  Yet many societies did not have much in the way of buildings and artifacts that could survive, and of those that did, most have been looted ever since.  So, the period of time spanning at least twelve thousand years that we call the Pre-Columbian history of the Americas is largely conjectural.  This is particularly so for Costa Rica, where the twenty two cultures thought to have lived here at the time of European contact were not long and strong on civilizational centers that lent themselves to archeological preservation.

The pre-Columbian population of the Americas was much greater than previously thought.  Ninety percent of the native population is now thought to have been wiped out by pandemics spread upon contact with the arriving Europeans.   Diseases like smallpox, tuberculosis, diphtheria, bubonic plague, cholera, influenza, and many others were not present in the New World, so the people living here had no natural immunity and were decimated as a result.  The pandemics spread like wildfire from coastal points of contact into the hinterland, and vastly more Amerindians died from this accidental biological weapon than from Spanish and Portuguese lances, cannons, blunderbusses and slavery combined, multiplied by ten.

Census estimates in 1560 point to an indigenous Costa Rican population of around 20,000.  Yet, that tally was almost certainly an underestimate even at the time and was approximated seventy years after contact and subsequent to the pandemics.   A pre-Colombian Costa Rican population of 200,000 is likely, therefore, a low-end estimate of Costa Rica’s population at the time.  The 15th Century Mayan population a few hundred miles north is estimated to have been six million and in decline at the time of the conquest, so the pre-Columbian population of Costa Rica could well have approached a half million, i.e. one tenth of today’s population.

In the Osa Peninsula we know from what we have learned at Cantarero that a civilization lived here that we think were of South American origin and linked to the Chibcha language group, an ethnic mother civilization that begat among others what today we know as the Bribri, Boruca, Diquis, Cabécar, Huétar and Ngöbe civilizations, as well as the Caribs and Miskito that dominated the Atlantic coast of what is today Costa Rica.  It was the forebears of one or more of those civilizations that likely inhabited Cantarero during the Aguas Buenas period, which archeologists define as 300 BCE to 800 ACE.  What happened to those people we do not know.  The period of time from 800 – 1500 is known as the Chiriquí period and was when the Diquis stone balls were made in the Sierpe and greater Térraba and was the time period when gold figurines from Osa’s placer gold were produced in lost-wax casting, a metallurgical method in use for at least the prior millennium in the Old World, but developed independently in the Americas, perhaps even in Costa Rica itself.  We do not know if the Osa’s gold was was handcrafted elsewhere or whether the Chiriquí era Osa people made those exquisite artifacts on the peninsula itself.   It is almost certain that all of the gold sported on royal chests of the era came from the Osa.  Our gold was a prodigious and easy gold and almost certainly a centerpiece of indigenous trade.

Gil González Dávila sailed from Gracias a Dios (Panama City) into Golfito Bay in 1522 to find subsistence-level semi-nomadic people that lived mostly off shellfish and marine fisheries and hunting, with no indications of wealth.  He did not wait around to catch dengue from the surrounding mangrove swamps and bypassed the Osa altogether and sailed north to land again near Rio Barranca inside the Nicoya Gulf, near what is today Caldera, to found Villa Brucelas, which evolved in time into the Puntarenas we know today.  There he found the Huétar Indians did have gold jewelry.  Accounts from his journal suggest the presence of a warring people along the coastlines of what is today the Osa Peninsula, but there was no contact.  As irony would have it, González bypassed the biggest gold field in Costa Rica to be captivated by the gold that Garabito’s great aunts—then maidens in waiting—had around their necks, gold acquired in trade, almost certainly with the Osa.

By the time the Osa was “re-discovered” in the mid-19th Century, there were no Amerindians living here.  It was a primal land uninhabited by human beings and wide open for pioneering and piecemeal colonization well after Costa Rican Independence from Spain.  What became of the warring people that González’s crew reported is lost to history, though the pandemics unleashed upon contact in 1502 at Cariari is likely to figure prominently into that piece of lost history.

Many of today’s Osa visitors are intrigued and comforted at the presence of the Alto Laguna Indigenous Guaymí Reservation that today adjoins Corcovado National Park.  Yet the Ngöbe, as they call themselves, are not native to the peninsula but settled in one of five regional reservations by executive decree just 27 years ago.  The Ngöbe are therefore more than a century more recent immigrants to the Osa than the region’s oldest families.  Doña Lidiette Franceschi, for instance, dates her forbear’s Osa arrival from what was then a province of Colombia—today Panama—to the 1890s.

Yet the Ngöbe homeland is Greater Chiriquí in western Panama, thirty miles or so away from today’s Puerto Jiménez, so the Ngöbe’s recent migration to the Osa and the other four regional reservations is little more than geographic semantics.  It is likely that today’s Alto Laguna population shares a genetic memory with the Cantarero people’s nearly thousand-year Osa reign, perhaps even as its First People.

It is convenient in a globalizing world to view such things as of little more than academic interest.  Yet the complexion of Osa’s inhabitants is its own reminder that society and culture are indelibly linked with pre-Columbian history and to the sizeable populations of at least 22 ethnicities that called Costa Rica home in the XVth Century.

Intrepid archeologists cannot study sites razed or washed away in floods or otherwise lost to the ravages of time.  However, the increasing range of scientific tools allows for greater inferences to be made from shrinking populations of data.  Though indigenous languages—none of which has its own written alphabet—are being lost with each ensuing decade, linguistic analysis has long been an important tool; in fact linguistic archeology is its own arcane field of study.  With the completed genetic sequencing of the human genome in 2003, things that are unpreserved in the written record and not gleaned from the archeological one are pliable to genetic investigations that will bring decades of fruit to the table of pre-Columbian historical investigation.  And as these indirect means of investigation improve, so too do analytical dating methods using radio-carbon and other short-lived isotopes, as well as other chemical and geochemical methods of environmental reconstruction.  Even sites looted many times over offer promises of discovery made possible by technological advancements.

The Osa’s post-Columbian history is itself less than 150 years old, and with preserved written records scarce and human memories fading, even relatively recent history is fragmentary.  But Pre-Columbian history of the Osa is a black hole about which little is understood, and what we know we know is very little.  Yet thanks to the efforts of scientists from a wide swath of disciplines, we get better glimpses into what it may have been like back then and the things we know we don’t know.

Never mind all those things we don’t know we don’t know . . .


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