What would Costa Rica be like if the Spaniards had not conquered?

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    Donal Shannon,

    If the Spaniards had not conquered and colonized Central America in the 16th Century, Nicaragua would have conquered Costa Rica and Panama. To be more specific, the Nicarao, the dominant indigenous people of Nicaragua would have expanded through, and settled, the Meseta Central, or Central Valley, of Costa Rica, and the Pacific coast and plains of both Costa Rica and Panama. The Mesoamerican, or “Mexican”, inhabitants of the Pacific side of Nicaragua, as well as the Chorotega Indians of Guanacaste and the Nicoya Peninsula would have gradually pushed the Huetares and the other indigenous people of Chibchan, or Colombian, culture to the rainy Caribbean side of the isthmus and into the swampy Darien lowlands the form a natural barrier between South and Central America.

    The arrival of Spaniards in Central America abruptly terminated the gradual conquest of the isthmus that had been going on for a thousand years or more. At some distant time before the birth of Christ, Central America was probably entirely populated by people of Chibchan, or Colombian, culture. This civilization reached its zenith in the Andean highlands of Colombia, in places such as Bogota and Medellin. In Costa Rica there were apparently no urban settlements: family units lived dispersed and distant from one another. Free of any overarching political authority, every family patriarch was the sovereign of his little clan. While they grew maize to make corn beer, or chicha, their diet was based on yuca, or manioc, and the peach palm, or pejibaye, which provides both it’s fruit and the delicious palmito, or heart of palm. Once planted, these crops grow with little or no maintenance and provide a year-round harvest. Thus, these Macro-Chibchan Indians were not tied down to the constraints of permanent settlements in one location and were free to lead a semi-nomadic existence, migrating to different regions seasonally when specific plant and animal resources were available.

    Gradually, over a millennium, Mesoamerican, or “Mexican“ Indians, cultural cousins of the Aztecs of Central Mexico, the Maya of southern Mexico, and Zapotecs and Mixtecs of the Mexican state of Oaxaca, conquered and occupied what is now Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, northern Honduras, western Nicaragua, and northwestern Costa Rica. The Colombian-culture Indians were eventually driven to the Caribbean side of Central America and into what is now most of Costa Rica and the entirety of Panama. The Mesoamerican Indians lived in small urban settlements, built around temples and raised mounds which are predecessors of pyramids, where they developed complex social, economic, and political systems. Their principal crops were the triad of corn, beans, and squash. Vast fields of these and other seed crops surrounded their pueblos. The agricultural system required them to live in fixed settlements where they could protect and care for their crops, which were planted and harvested at the beginning and end of each rainy season, at the same time every year. Their sedentary settlement patterns and centralized political structure enabled the Mesoamericans to raise large armies of hundreds or thousands and conduct military campaigns during the dry season. Indians like the Huetares of central Costa Rica, living in extended family units, kilometers apart from one another, were simply incapable of resisting the onslaught of the Mexican-culture Indians.

    There were, of course, factors that constrained the Mexican expansion into Central America and limited its progress to a halting, but steady, crawl. War could only be waged during the dry season when the farmers could be transformed into “summer soldiers.” Conquests could not be carried out at the expense of agriculture and men of Nicaragua, Nicoya, and Guanacaste were probably never professional fighters at all, but farmers first and warriors second. The distances over which campaigns could be conducted were limited by the narrowness of the trails that ran along the Pacific littoral and the number of rivers that could only be crossed during the dry season. If the Mexican invaders were required to carry their own food and other necessities, then the number of fighters would have likely been matched or doubled by the number of porters and slaves that carried the corn to make tortillas, the metates to grind the corn, the clay pots to cook the beans and squash in, and other supplies. The long lines of these men on narrow trails, marching, in all likelihood, two abreast, would have limited the distances that the invaders could advance in a day. Their limited supplies would have also curtailed the duration of any intrusion by the Mesoamericans into Chibchan territory.

    As I wrote in the beginning of this article, if the Spanish had not burst upon the scene, the indigenous people of Nicaragua, Nicoya, and Guanacaste, the leading edge of Mexican expansion into Central America, would have conquered Costa Rica, and, eventually, the entire isthmus. The native cuisine of Costa Rica and Panama would have been the corn tortilla, the bean and squash, instead of the manioc bread, palmito, and pejibaye that are still important crops throughout the Caribbean littoral and the lowlands of northern South America. Small urban communities and centralized political and economic systems would have replaced the dispersed settlements of extended families and patriarchal rule that characterized Costa Rica and Panama when the Spaniards arrived on the scene. Costa Rica would have evolved into a much different country than it was at the dawn of the conquest and is today.

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