- Cool Places: Guayabo - His­tory of a Mys­tery

There was no writ­ten lan­guage, or else we might know what these peo­ple called them­selves.

Howler Magazine - - Contents - By Karl Kahler Tom Schultz

The strange thing about Costa Rica's rich­est ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site is that no­body knows who lived there, where they came from or why they went away.

An un­known civ­i­liza­tion in­hab­ited what is to­day Guayabo Na­tional Mon­u­ment, about two hours east of San José, be­tween 1000 BCE and 1400 CE. These peo­ple van­ished a cen­tury be­fore the ar­rival of the Span­ish, and no­body knows why.

The in­hab­i­tants of this site were prodi­gious builders who left be­hind sev­eral stone mounds, cob­ble­stone roads, pet­ro­glyphs, graves, aque­ducts and wa­ter stor­age tanks that still work. The site was de­clared an “In­ter­na­tional His­toric Civil Engineering Land­mark” in 2009.

Ar­chae­ol­o­gists say this was a caci­cazgo, a chief­dom ruled by a cacique, a chief, and a shaman, a spir­i­tual leader. One or both of these men are thought to have lived in cen­trally lo­cated, cone-shaped wooden homes on top of mounds of stone. The stones are still there but the homes are long gone.

The ap­proach to this power cen­ter was an up­hill cob­ble­stone road with steps that were short in height but broad in front, re­quir­ing an ap­proach­ing per­son to keep look­ing up, as if to a higher power. The base of this road was flanked by iden­ti­cal rec­tan­gu­lar struc­tures dubbed “check­points” that con­trolled ac­cess to the cen­tral vil­lage.

To­day most of these an­cient won­ders have eroded to rub­ble that could be mis­taken for ran­dom boul­ders in a field. But one fea­ture — the old cob­ble­stone road called the Calzada Cara­gra — was re­con­structed in mod­ern times to show what it might have once looked like. The mod­ern restora­tion is just 100 me­ters long, though the an­cient road is be­lieved to have been 4 to 5 kilo­me­ters long.

The cen­tral set­tle­ment is thought to have

been the ad­min­is­tra­tive and spir­i­tual cen­ter of an ar­ray of vil­lages that sup­plied the la­bor to build the mounds, homes, roads and aque­ducts.

“The great mon­u­ments at Guayabo re­flect a cen­tral­iza­tion of po­lit­i­cal and re­li­gious power, sug­gest­ing this was the cap­i­tal of a chief­dom,” reads one of the signs along the trails here.

“Power must have been ex­er­cised as a re­sult of the main leader's sa­cred in­vesti­ture with war­rior sup­port,” the sign says. “Ter­ri­to­rial dom­i­nance must have in­volved set­tle­ments with vary­ing im­por­tance un­der Guayabo rule. Cob­ble­stone roads sug­gest this was a cer­e­mo­nial cen­ter vis­ited by peo­ple from other com­mu­ni­ties and also con­nected to sub­sidiary sites and lesser chief­doms. The dis­tri­bu­tion of sites with ar­chi­tec­tural works shows this chief­dom ruled a 15-kilo­me­ter ra­dius.”

Axes and other agri­cul­tural tools found here sug­gest that the peo­ple were peace­ful farm­ers, though some of these im­ple­ments may have been used in bat­tle as well.

Tombs of im­por­tant peo­ple can be seen through­out the site, as well as pet­ro­glyphs de­pict­ing an­i­mals. There was no writ­ten lan­guage, or else we might know what these peo­ple called them­selves.

If You Go

Guayabo is open to vis­i­tors daily from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. To get there in your own car, take Hwy. 2 east out of San

José and fol­low the brown signs to “Par­que Na­cional Vol­cán Irazú” and “Mon­u­mento Na­cional Guayabo.” There's a turnoff to the right next to a big statue of Je­sus. Guayabo is about 85 kilo­me­ters east of San José, and four-wheel drive is rec­om­mended for the fi­nal stretch of steep and rugged gravel.

Guided tours by bus are also of­fered out of San José and Tur­ri­alba.

The cen­tral mound at Guayabo was ap­par­ently the base of the long-gone wooden struc­ture where the chief lived.

The rec­tan­gu­lar “check­points” at the bot­tom of the Calzada Cara­gra may have been the an­cient equiv­a­lent of guard shacks.

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