Edited from articles that first appeared in the original Tamarindo News.
Chorotegas: The First Guanacastecans
Guanacaste is often called the Chorotega region, named for the original inhabitants of this region. The Chorotega, whose name means “people surrounded by enemies” were driven by warfare from Mexico to the southern boundary of Central America’s dry Pacific lowland tropical forests, settling in Southern Nicaragua, Liberia and the Nicoya Peninsula. The Chorotega spoke a dialect of Nahuatl, an Uto-Aztecan language from Central Mexico. Many of the place names in our area, including “Guanacaste” (which means ear tree for the seed´s resemblance to a human ear) are Chorotegan. At the time of the conquest, the Chorotega were the largest and most technologically advanced tribe in the entire territory of Costa Rica.
The Chorotega lived in towns, some small and some as large as 20,000 inhabitants, all built around a central plaza. Their houses were rectangular, built of wood, with straw roofs. Towns also included religious temples and the Chorotega maintained a strong and influential caste of priests who presided at religious rituals as well as being competent astronomers and mathematicians. The Chorotega religion included human sacrifice, especially of enemies captured in battle, and they also practiced ritual cannibalism. The Chorotega had books made of deerskin, where they recorded the most important aspects of their way of life. Unfortunately none of these documents has been passed down to us; we know about them from the Spanish chronicles of the conquest.
The Chorotegan pottery is famous in Costa Rica, and is still being made in our canton in the towns of Guaitil and San Vicente. It is fascinating to visit these towns, to learn about how the pottery is made, and about the symbols passed down from their ancestors. Other remnants of the Chorotega empire include the cuisine of Guanacaste. Corn was enormously important in this cultural zone, and affected Chorotegan agriculture, customs, artistic forms and religious beliefs. It was also the basis of their diet, together with beans, squash, cacao, meat and fish. The Chorotega had an active economic life, with intense commerce and markets for the exchange and sale of numerous articles. Cacao beans served as currency, and even were counterfeited by emptying beans of the precious powder and refilling them with dirt.
The Chorotega were ruled by a council of elders, and by elected officials, among them the famous chiefs Nicoya, Curime y Diria. Although they were eventually subjugated by the Spanish, the Chorotega were courageous warriors who fought hard against the invaders. An excellent example of their bravery is the memorable victory against the Spanish, won by a battalion of Chorotegan women commanded by the female warrior Biriteca. Ultimately, it was the 16th century slave trade that decimated the Chorotegas, who were shipped off by the 1000s to work in the gold mines of Panama and Peru.
The “tipo guanacasteco original” is the descendant of the mixed blood of the Chorotega and of the blacks imported as slaves to replace the Chorotegan work force. The Spaniards created large cattle ranches on the great plains of Guanacaste, reminiscent of the haciendas of their homeland. By the 18th century, slavery was abolished, and the Guanacasteco inherited the plains, working as field hands and cowboys for large landowners, or staking their own claims in the vast unoccupied frontier.