Pre-Columbian Culture

Two Academy anthropologists traveled to the mountains of Costa Rica to document an ancient culture.

For cultural anthropologists, it is both rare and exciting to find cultural traditions that have remained relatively unchanged for hundreds of years. So Academy scientists June Anderson and Jennifer Michael were thrilled when they found that the Boruca people of southern Costa Rica have maintained many of the same textile traditions as their pre-Columbian ancestors.

Anderson and Michael traveled to Costa Rica on an exploratory expedition, in order to determine whether or not they could conduct a long-term project in the area. They worked with a distinguished Costa Rican ethnobotanist, who helped them to locate the small Boruca population and identify the various plants used in Borucan textiles. Their initial work reveals that while the Boruca now wear modern clothing, most of their textile customs date back to pre-Columbian times. To create their textiles, they still grow their own native cotton and use traditional drop spindles and backstrap looms. They also dye their cotton with natural plant extracts, instead of the synthetic dyes that have made their way into most cultures.

Tourism has given the Boruca a new reason to preserve their cultural traditions, and Anderson and Michael have noticed that they are beginning to adapt some of their traditional crafts for Costa Rica's growing tourist trade. For instance, they have started to make elaborate, painted versions of the balsa wood masks that they carve for their annual Festival of the Little Devils. The masks and other crafts provide a rare chance for the Boruca to bring cash into their economy.

Boruca woman carving a calabash gourd.
Photo: Jennifer Michael
Traditional homes thatched with local palms and grasses.
Photo: Jennifer Michael


Marina Lazaro Morales weaves a bag at her backstrap loom. Photo: Jennifer Michael
Carved and painted balsa wood mask made for the tourist trade. Photo: Jennifer Michael
Children on the Boruca Indigenous Reserve.
Photo: Jennifer Michael