Indigenous People of Central America

According to the latest census in 2000 there are around 64'000 (or 1.7% of the population) indigenous people living in Costa Rica, spread over 24 territories. This minority is mostly excluded from economic development, social services and legal protection, and it is the poorest and most marginalized of society. In order to preserve their cultural identity, Indian tribes are fighting against discrimination, acculturation and policies of assimilation. Imminent threats to the indigenous population are the loss of land and natural resources to non-indigenous farmers, mining companies, oil and hydroelectric companies.

There are 8 Indian tribes in Costa Rica, who originally descended from the Mayans and indigenous peoples from the Amazon. The origins are either Mesoamerican or Macrochibcha, originating from northern South America.

Because of their isolation in the impenetrable Costa Rican forests, the natives have kept a lot of authenticity and did mingle only little with mestizos. The Huetares and Chorotegas of Mesoamerican origin are more acculturated, and are considered as a sort of "traditional indigenous peasants".

indian hut, talamancapostcard: talamanca indians


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postcard: talamanca indians ca. 1900Origins of the Indigenous Peoples of Central America

The term "Indian" was commonly given to natives of Latin America due to an error of Christopher Columbus, who thought he had reached the Indies when he landed on Hispaniola (Cuba) in 1492. He therefore called the natives "Indios." Researchers assume that the "American Indians" were the first group of immigrants to have entered the New World some 40'000 years ago, crossing Alaska from Siberia when the Bering Strait was still passable. But given that no traces of human settlements were discovered on the American continent that are older than this date, it seems plausible that the "Amerindians" were the first to conquer the continent.

It assumed that the peoples have crossed the Bering Strait in several waves, the first estimated to have been around 40'000 years ago; later migration waves could have followed until 0 a.D. The first immigrants seem to have less in common with Mongolian roots, while later waves have more (genetic) similarities with people from the area (i.e. with Chinese, Koreans, Mongolians and Evenks from North Asia).



Subsistence and Agriculture

indians fishing in talamancaTraditionally, Indians live from hunting and fishing. At the beginning, their subsistence was based more on a diet of plants, berries, nuts and honey. Then, they began hunting small game, bisons, and – until its extinction some 7000 years ago – wooly mammoths. With the emergence of agriculture they developed complex systems of terrace cultivation and irrigation canals (most prominently, the Inkas). Different kinds of beans, chili, cotton and sunflowers were cultivated. In Central America, corn was the most important agricultural product (hence, Mayans are also known as "People of the Maize"). Many products that are today grown in Europe have been discovered and cultivated by the original Inhabitants of Central America: cocoa, rubber, cotton, tobacco, squash, gourd, potato, peanuts, strawberries, artichokes, tomatoes, quinine.


The indigenous peoples of Central America

bribri schoolkidsIn 2000 it was estimated that there are between 6 and 7 million of natives living in Central America (people with one African Caribbean or mestizo parent were also taken into account). The languages and cultures that are called "Mesoamerican" stretch from Yucatan and Chiapas (Mexico) to Matambú on the Nicoya Peninsula (Costa Rica). The Mesoamerican ethnic groups occupy the highlands and lowlands of Petén in Guatemala and are scattered on the territory of Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

The indigenous peoples of the South-east live in the lowlands of the Caribbean basin in the Cordillera de Talamanca (Costa Rica) and various enclaves of Central Honduras. The native Lenca tribe, inhabiting the western mountains of Honduras and the eastern region of El Salvador, is positioned as a transitional space between the indigenous Mesoamerican cultures and those of Central America, known as "Macrochibcha".


The indigenous languages of Central America

There should be around 206 indigenous languages in Central America. Each community has its own language and most languages are unintelligible to each other. For example, "Maize/Corn" is a term widely used in Central America:

  • centli (in Nahuatl)
  • žuba (in Zapotec)
  • kosak (in Chontal)
  • mok (in Zoque)
  • xal (in Mam)
  • nal (in Yucatan Maya)

The linguistic difference between these words is remarkable, given the close geographic proximity of these indigenous cultures.

Often, residents of neighboring villages cannot communicate with each other and develop a sort of pidgin, a third language enabling them to converse through the barrier of their mother tongues. That is why in some parts of Central America, people sometimes speak several unrelated languages. For example, in the area north of the state of Veracruz which speaks Huasteca, many Indians speak Huastec at home, Nahuatl at the market, and Spanish when they need to communicate with officials or foreigners.


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