Numerous distinct ethnic groups make up the populations. They speak different languages and live in small, dispersed settlements. Chiefdoms, varying in size, are responsible for the distribution of food, oversee trade, and conduct warfare. Spiritual needs are attended to by religious specialists considered to be the repositories of knowledge and possessors of supernatural powers. The production of luxury goods and objects bearing religious images are intimately linked to political and spiritual power. Gold objects continue to display technical and aesthetic sophistication and symbolic complexity.
Europeans arrive, sailing from Spain. Their first contact with native Americans takes place on the islands in the Caribbean Sea. Few Spanish settlements are established in Central America. The area is part of the Captaincy-General of Guatemala.
Guayabo de Turrialba in Costa Rica’s Altantic Watershed, occupied since at least 500 B.C., is the largest and most complex site in the central region. Many of the circular, earth-filled mounds of varying size have retaining walls of stone cobbles. The mounds support houses built of logs, cane, and thatch. Human and animal effigies, most commonly depicting felines and lizards or crocodiles, are carved in low relief on irregular boulders.
Panamanian polychrome ceramics continue in favor, with increased abstraction in design. There is less variety in vessel forms than on earlier works and designs are sparer. Black becomes a dominant color in line drawing.
In the Diquís region of southern Costa Rica, a fairly wide range of ceramic styles is made. Tall tripods are typical, surfaced with reddish brown slip, and decorated with appliqué fillets, pellets, and incisions. Hollow legs are often in the form of crocodiles or fish. Some polychrome wares, executed in black and red on cream slip, recall Panamanian motifs.
Burial of the dead in the Atlantic Watershed is commonly in stone cist tombs. Located under or around houses or in special cemeteries, the oval or rectangular tombs have cobble or flagstone walls with floors and lids of stone. Grave goods are fewer and of lesser quality than in earlier periods.
The granite stone spheres, some huge, continue to be placed as markers around village cemeteries that are located on hilltops. The stone spheres were part of ritual settings in the Diquís region from the beginning of the first millennium A.D.
The Taíno people of the Greater Antilles live in permanent villages composed of round thatched houses for ordinary inhabitants and rectangular ones for the caciques (chieftains). They cultivate corn (or maize), peanuts, and tobacco. The Taíno worship many deities, called zemí, and carve statues to portray them.
A new ceramic type in the Greater Nicoya is a glossy black or red ware that features only modeled decoration. It has few antecedents in the region.
The Osa Peninsula in the Diquís is a major gold source. Communities own stretches of the gold-bearing rivers where gold is panned. At Coctu, located in the upper drainage of the Diquís River, probably near the Coto-Brus River, one of the chiefs is himself a goldsmith. He manufactures animal pendants and breastplates of gold.
Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) makes his first landfall on October 12 after a thirty-three-day crossing of the Atlantic on a small island in the Bahamian archipelago. This island may be Guanahaní, which Columbus renames San Salvador.
On his return, Columbus reports to the king and queen of Spain of newfound lands of immeasurable riches, especially gold.
Permanent Spanish colonies are established on the Greater Antillean islands of Cuba and Hispaniola. Diego Velásquez (1465–1524), the governor of Cuba, sends expeditions to explore the coasts of what are now Venezuela, Colombia, and other Caribbean islands.
On his fourth voyage across the Atlantic, Columbus sails along the Caribbean coast of the Isthmus of Panama. He reports seeing local people wearing “mirrors” of gold and “eagles” of guanín, a gold-copper alloy called tumbaga.
The native population declines dramatically due to disease, military conflict, and brutal working conditions.
King Charles V of Spain (r. 1516–56) grants permission to export 4,000 African slaves to the Antilles.
The town of Panama (meaning “many fish”) is founded at the site of an Indian fishing village on the Pacific coast. It becomes the seat of secular and ecclesiastical authority in the region and the springboard for the conquest of Peru. Pedro Arías de Ávila (1440–1531) is named governor of Panama.
An expedition led by Gil González Dávila (dates unknown) sets out from Panama to settle the area to the north. Reaping large quantities of gold, he names the land Costa Rica (rich coast).
Following the conquest of the wealthy empires of the Aztecs and Inkas, fortune hunters and colonists turn their attention to the riches of Mexico and Peru. Only small numbers of Spaniards settle in Central America. Many die within a few years of starvation, disease, or at the hands of hostile natives and pirates.
French and British pirates entrench themselves on the island of Tortuga and on other small islands near Hispaniola. Permanent settlements, including plantations, develop.
Juan Vázquez de Coronado (1525–1565) is named governor of Costa Rica. The first permanent Spanish settlement in the area, called Cartago, is established in the Central Highlands.
The town of Panama is an important commercial center. Bullion from the Andean countries to the south is shipped to Panama; from there it is carried across the Isthmus by pack animals to Caribbean ports for shipment to Spain.
Local peoples, in order to escape the barbaric treatment of the colonists and devastating European diseases, take refuge in remote areas.
Sir Francis Drake (ca. 1540–1596) tries unsuccessfully to send a force across the Isthmus to sack the town of Panama.
“Central America and the Caribbean, 1400–1600 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=08®ion=canc (October 2004)