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Around the World at the Time of Columbus

Gold, Language of the Gods
Chiriquí or Diquís people<br>Costa Rica<br><i>Figure of a man with a rattle</i>, 700-1500<br>Cast gold
zoom Chiriquí or Diquís people
Costa Rica
Figure of a man with a rattle, 700-1500
Cast gold


This small gold figure of a man holding a rattle comes from the part of Central America now known as Costa Rica. Costa Rica, which means “rich coast” in Spanish, was named for the quantities of gold the early Spanish explorers imagined they would find there.

The people of the region lived in small villages rather than in splendid cities like those built by the Aztecs of Mexico or the Incas of Peru. Clusters of villages were governed by local chiefs, who protected their chiefdoms through ritual ceremonies to control supernatural forces. Gold, pure and gleaming, was thought to be a channel for spiritual energy.

But gold in itself held little value until it was crafted into meaningful shapes. Common subjects appear to have been figures with drums, rattles, or snakes; figures with human bodies and animal heads; and animals such as birds, frogs, monkeys, and alligators. Gold objects worn by a chief symbolized his power with the gods. Other high-ranking people wore gold as a sign of their status in society.

The Spaniards seized much of the gold of the great Aztec and Incan empires and melted it down for Spain’s royal treasury. In Central America, however, gold objects were often buried with chiefs or hidden for the gods, and so escaped the invaders. But the people of Central America, like their neighbors to the north and south, suffered from diseases brought to the continent by Europeans. As populations dwindled and lifestyles changed, the exact meanings of the human and animal forms shaped from gold were lost.

spacer related images 1.  + 2.  + 3.  + bracket spacer
1. The people who created this figure lived in the region of Central America now known as Costa Rica.
2. Animals like frogs, monkeys, and birds appear often in Central American goldwork, perhaps because they (like spirits) can live in places where humans cannot. (Diquís people, Costa Rica, Frog, 800-1500, gold)
3. Much Central American goldwork was buried in the tombs of chiefs, and the Spanish did not find it. (Veraguas people, Panama, Pendant of a monkey holding its tail, 800-1500, gold)


September 2005