• Environment and Geography

    The Nicoya people lived on the Pacific coast and the Nicoya Peninsula, in what is now northwest Costa Rica. The rocky coastline here has just two bays but is rich in marine animals. The zone also offers wild fruit such as papaya and other resources such as wood and honey.

  • Economy and Technology

    The Nicoya’s economy was based on marine resources. Several middens contain the shells of murex, a mollusk used to dye cotton purple. These people also grew maize, cacao, tobacco, and even coca. Technologically, they produced less stone grinding implements and more hunting instruments such as silex points. Stone axes and polished chisels used for woodworking have also been found. A large quantity of prismatic flakes of obsidian indicate that they traded with Mesoamerican groups. Other evidence suggests that the Nicoya people worked with gold.

  • Art

    The Nicoya ceramic style is polychromatic and features the use of incisions and white and/or yellow painted geometric motifs over polished red slip. The most frequent forms are vase-shaped vessels with high, hollow bases, animal-shaped, globular or mammal-shaped vessels, and three-legged plates. Stylized painted jaguar motifs are also featured, as are pipes with a two-headed lizard. Serpents are another animal found frequently in Nicoyan art, especially in relation to fertility cults. The pantheon of Mexican deities is represented in images in red, blue, orange, sepia rose, black and grey paint. Pastillaje was another decorative technique they used. The stone statues the Nicoyans made feature naked men sitting with legs bent, elbows resting on the knees, holding an object near the mouth. The Nicoyan’s monumental sculptures are called “alter ego” because they are supposed to carry part of the individual they represent. These have a human-like form with a mammal or reptile on its back or head. Three-legged grinding stones with a hanging panel that joins the front leg have also been found, with half-human-half-animal figures. The underside of their grinding stones bear decorations that are meant to be visible when the stone is placed against the wall.

  • Social Organization

    Little is known about Nicoya society, but it is thought to have been organized into chiefdoms, with certain individuals in charge of different productive activities.

  • Religion and Funerary Practices

    Different kinds of Nicoyan tombs have been found, most located on slopes and hillsides. Some consist of coffins made of stone slabs, with the sides worked in different ways. Others are slightly sunken and are marked by circular stones. The most common graves found to date are multiple secondary graves, although primary graves with a single individual have also been found. In regard to religious practices, northern influences gave the Nicoya many of their customs, deities and the practice of human sacrifice.

  • Settlement Pattern

    Only a few dwellings have been ascribed to Nicoyan culture, and these have an elliptical or rectangular shaped floor plan and are built on adobe blocks. These dwellings are grouped together in villages or small settlements in which wooden ceremonial structures have also been found, built around a central plaza.

  • History

    The Nicoya culture had its origins in previous cultures that inhabited the same zone, such as the Nicoya-Guanacaste, which mingled with Mexican ethnic groups that migrated after the theocratic empires fell and their land was taken over by military rulers. South American influences can also been seen, mainly in the Nicoyan’s copper work. Around 1500, the Nicoya people came into contact with the first Spanish conquistadors.

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