Cemetery in Copal de Nicoya Reveals Secrets of First Millennium Residents

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Much remains to be learned aboutpre-Columbian cultures on the Nicoya Peninsula; their cultural and historic wealth still guards undiscovered secrets. At least that is the conclusion of a study done by Wilson Valerio, an archaeologist with the National Museum of Costa Rica in the community of Copal de Nicoya.

The study focuses on a three-month excavation done by Valerio, with the help of area residents, at the La Pochota farm on a hill that is 30 meters high and spans 1,300 square meters. The study was carried out in 2012, during which it was determined that a civilization that inhabited the area around the Gulf of Nicoya sometime around 1000 A.D. used the hill to carry out rituals and as a cemetery.

“They specifically chose this place to carry out a series of rituals, during which they cremated bodies,and as part of the sacrifice theyhad the ritual of trophy heads,” explained Valerio.

It seems that they carried out the so-called ritual of trophy heads, which consisted of placing the heads of enemy leaders who were killed in combat on the graves of war heroes. That was the burial offering, instead of jewelry or ceramic objects.

“Possibly they were heads that they obtained in battles against other groups, because we found burial sites where, instead of a ceramic or stone, there were other individuals’ heads that were placed around important figures in the grave,” said Valerio.

According to the study, the civilization made shared circular graves with a diameter of 12 meters. They did not use rock structures; their cement was dark-colored soil surrounded by reddish-brown earth. The embalmed corpses were placed one on top of the other and in the middle of the circle they deposited scattered bone remains.

Based on these findings in the Nicoya Peninsula, the National Museum in San Jose has compiled a sampling of many objects found in the excavations, mainly ceramics, and also a database to inform visitors about the study.

For Valerio, these findings provide evidence for how little is known about this region from the archaeological point of view. For example, it is still unknown to which ethnic group these people belonged, but that is reason for further research:

“This is an area that is hardly known to archaeology and with this study we were able to rescue archaeological assets from the site and important material [that was] in danger of being destroyed. With this study’s information and scientific contributions, there is a lot left to study in the area from an archaeological point of view,” commented Valerio.