Historians have classified the indigenous people of Costa Rica as belonging to the Intermediate Area, where the peripheries of the Mesoamerican and Andean native cultures overlapped. More recently, pre-Columbian Costa Rica has also been described as part of the Isthmo-Columbian Area.
The oldest evidence (stone tool making) of human occupation in Costa Rica is associated with the arrival of various groups of hunters/gatherers about 10,000 to 7,000 years Before the Common Era in the Turrialba Valley. The presence of Clovis culture type spearheads and arrows from South America opens the possibility that, in this area, two different cultures coexisted.
Agriculture became evident in the populations that lived in Costa Rica about 5,000 years ago. They mainly grew tubers and roots. For the first and second millennia BCE there were already settled farming communities. These were small and scattered, although the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture as the main livelihood in the territory is still unknown.
The earliest use of pottery appears around 2,000 to 3,000 BCE. Shards of pots, cylindrical vases, platters, gourds and other forms of vases decorated with grooves, prints, and some modelled after animals have been found.
The impact of indigenous peoples on modern Costa Rican culture has been relatively small compared to other nations, since the country lacked a strong native civilization to begin with. Most of the native population was absorbed into the Spanish-speaking colonial society through inter-marriage, except for some small remnants, the most significant of which are the Bribri and Boruca tribes who still inhabit the mountains of the Cordillera de Talamanca, in the southeastern part of Costa Rica, near the frontier with Panama.
Accounts differ as to whether the name la costa rica (Spanish for “rich coast”) was first applied by Christopher Columbus, who sailed to the eastern shores of Costa Rica during his final voyage in 1502, and reported the presence of vast quantities of gold jewelry among the natives, or by the conquistador Gil González Dávila, who landed on the west coast in 1522, met with the natives, and appropriated some of their gold.
During most of the colonial period, Costa Rica was the southernmost province of the Captaincy General of Guatemala, which was nominally part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, but which, in practice, operated as a largely autonomous entity within the Spanish Empire. Costa Rica’s distance from the capital in Guatemala, its legal prohibition under Spanish law to trade with its southern neighbors in Panama, then part of the Viceroyalty of New Granada (i.e. Colombia), and the lack of resources such as gold and silver, made Costa Rica into a poor, isolated, and sparsely inhabited region within the Spanish Empire. Costa Rica was described as “the poorest and most miserable Spanish colony in all America” by a Spanish governor in 1719.
Another important factor behind Costa Rica’s poverty was the lack of a significant indigenous population available for encomienda (forced labor), which meant most of the Costa Rican settlers had to work on their own land, preventing the establishment of large haciendas (plantations). For all these reasons, Costa Rica was, by and large, unappreciated and overlooked by the Spanish Crown and left to develop on its own. The circumstances during this period are believed to have led to many of the idiosyncrasies for which Costa Rica has become known, while concomitantly setting the stage for Costa Rica’s development as a more egalitarian society than the rest of its neighbors. Costa Rica became a “rural democracy” with no oppressed mestizo or indigenous class. It was not long before Spanish settlers turned to the hills, where they found rich volcanic soil and a milder climate than that of the lowlands.
Like the rest of Central America, Costa Rica never fought for independence from Spain. On September 15, 1821, after the final Spanish defeat in the Mexican War of Independence (1810–21), the authorities in Guatemala declared the independence of all of Central America. That date is still celebrated as Independence Day in Costa Rica even though, technically, under the Spanish Constitution of 1812 that had been readopted in 1820, Nicaragua and Costa Rica had become an autonomous province with its capital in León.
Upon independence, Costa Rican authorities faced the issue of officially deciding the future of the country. Two bands formed, the Imperialists, defended by Cartago and Heredia cities which were in favor of joining the Mexican Empire, and the Republicans, represented by the cities of San José and Alajuela who defended full independence. Because of the lack of agreement on these two possible outcomes, the first civil war of Costa Rica occurred. The Battle of Ochomogo, which took place on the Hill of Ochomogo, located in the Central Valley in 1823. The conflict was won by the Republicans and, as a consequence, the city of Cartago lost its status as the capital, which moved to San José.
In 1838, long after the Federal Republic of Central America ceased to function in practice, Costa Rica formally withdrew and proclaimed itself sovereign. The considerable distance and poor communication routes between Guatemala City and the Central Plateau, where most of the Costa Rican population lived then and still lives now, meant the local population had little allegiance to the federal government in Guatemala. From colonial times to now, Costa Rica’s reluctance to become politically tied with the rest of Central America has been a major obstacle to efforts for greater regional integration.
Coffee was first planted in Costa Rica in the early 19th century, and was first shipped to Europe in 1843, soon becoming Costa Rica’s first major export. Coffee production remained Costa Rica’s principal source of wealth well into the 20th century. Most of the coffee exported was grown around the main centers of population in the Central Plateau and then transported by oxcart to the Pacific port of Puntarenas. Since the main market for the coffee was in Europe, it soon became a high priority to develop a transportation route from the Central Plateau to the Atlantic Ocean. For this purpose, in the 1870s, the Costa Rican government contracted with U.S. businessman Minor C. Keith to build a railroad to the Caribbean port of Limón. Despite enormous difficulties with construction, disease, and financing, the railroad was completed in 1890.
Most Afro-Costa Ricans, who constitute about 3% of the country’s population, descend from Jamaican immigrants who worked in the construction of that railway. U.S. convicts, Italians and Chinese immigrants also participated in the construction project. In exchange for completing the railroad, the Costa Rican government granted Keith large tracts of land and a lease on the train route, which he used to produce bananas and export them to the United States. As a result, bananas came to rival coffee as the principal Costa Rican export, while foreign-owned corporations (including the United Fruit Company) began to hold a major role in the national economy.
Historically, Costa Rica has generally enjoyed greater peace and more consistent political stability compared with many of its fellow Latin American nations. Since the late 19th century, however, Costa Rica has experienced two significant periods of violence. In 1917–19, General Federico Tinoco Granados ruled as a military dictator until he was overthrown and forced into exile. The unpopularity of Tinoco’s regime led, after he was overthrown, to a considerable decline in the size, wealth, and political influence of the Costa Rican military. In 1948, José Figueres Ferrer led an armed uprising in the wake of a disputed presidential election between the previous president Rafael Ángel Calderón Guardia (he served as president between 1940 and 1944) and Otilio Ulate Blanco. With more than 2,000 dead, the resulting 44-day Costa Rican Civil War was the bloodiest event in Costa Rica during the 20th century.
The victorious rebels formed a government junta that abolished the military altogether, and oversaw the drafting of a new constitution by a democratically elected assembly. Having enacted these reforms, the junta transferred power to Ulate on November 8, 1949. After the coup d’état, Figueres became a national hero, winning the country’s first democratic election under the new constitution in 1953. Since then, Costa Rica has held 14 presidential elections, the latest in 2014. With uninterrupted democracy dating back to at least 1948, the country is the region’s most stable.
Coat of Arms
Pre-1821 Spanish Empire Colony – Before 1821, Costa Rica was part of the Spanish Empire and did not have a local coat of arms. The arms of the reigning monarch were used instead. The only city that had a local coat of arms was the city of Cartago, awarded by King Phillip II in 1565. After independence from Spain in 1821, Costa Rica briefly joined the Mexican Empire, so from 1822 to 1823 the Costa Rican arms were those of the Mexican Empire.
In 1840, after Costa Rica’s withdrawal from the federation, a new coat of arms was adopted, the first for Costa Rica as a sovereign and independent state. It consisted of an eight-pointed shining star in a blue field surrounded by a yellow circle with the legend State of Costa Rica.
The basis of the current national coat of arms of Costa Rica was adopted September 29, 1848, during the presidency of Dr Jose Maria Castro Madriz together with the new flag. Both designs are attributed to Pacifica Fernandez, wife of Mr Castro Madriz. These arms were significantly modified by law number 18 of November 27, 1906, which eliminated the military symbols, national flags and horn of plenty contained in the 1848 design.
Coat of arms of Costa Rica from November, 1906 to 1964
In 1964 two stars were added to the original five in order to complete seven, which by then was the number of provinces of the country. In 1848, when the original design was adopted the current provinces of Puntarenas and Limon had not reached that status.
On May 5, 1998, by Executive Decree No. 26853-SP, the coat of arms was given its current form, including the smoking volcanoes. (See featured page photo, top.) Before this date, the three mountains did not show smoke coming out of their tops.
- As officially described, the coat of arms represents:
–three volcanoes (one for each of the three mountain ranges in the country)
–an extensive valley between two oceans (Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea)
–a merchant ship in each one (representing the maritime history of the country)
–in the horizon, a rising sun
- All the above are surrounded by a golden frame with golden beads (to represent coffee). Two palms close the arms joined by a white ribbon with the motto “República de Costa Rica” in gold. An arch of seven stars represent the provinces of the republic. The arms are crowned by a blue ribbon with the motto “America Central”.