Grains of History from a Black Sand Beach

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Playa Carbon (Charcoal Beach) near Tamarindo (photographer unknown)

Playa Carbon is a sparkling black-sand beach only fifteen minutes by boat from Tamarindo, Costa Rica. My guide Henry anchored in its cove the other day so we could snorkel and eat ceviche. The only other two-leggeds around in the early morning calm were some lobster fishermen, who appeared to be enjoying great success.

This image of Playa Carbon (above), gleaned from the Internet, doesn’t capture the beauty of the beach’s fine black sand. It glittered like gunpowder. As Henry explained, it is very metallic. In fact, located in the peaceful mountains all around us were mines built by the United States during World War II to extract the same ore—quite possibly magnetite. (Henry didn’t know the English word for the element, and my comprehension of his Spanish was poor, but he might have said magnetita.) The ore was then shipped to American armament factories. “Even the old trains are still up there,” Henry said of the abandoned mines.

Henry pointed out evidence of a much older history on the sea floor of the cove. Clearly visible beneath the water between our boat and the shore was a rock wall, not very high, extending from one side of the cove to the other. “I don’t know for sure,” he said, “but I think that wall was built by the Indians, long ago, to trap fish. For sure, it isn’t natural. Yes, I think it was the Indians. The Chorotega.”

The Chorotega people, I subsequently learned, were indigenous to this area before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores. At the time of the conquest, they were the largest, most powerful aboriginal tribe in what is now northwest Costa Rica, having migrated here generations before from central Mexico. Like other tribes in the region, after European contact they were soon decimated by disease, the slave trade, and other effects of colonization. It is estimated that up to 400,000 native people (total of all tribes) lived here when Columbus arrived in 1502; today, their descendants number about 64,000.

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Examples of Chorotego pottery (photographer unknown)

The Chorotega have a reservation called Matambú, created in 1980. It is populated by around a thousand Chorotega, among others. The people’s material culture lives on primarily through the production of beautiful oven-fired ceremic pottery and sculptures (see right). Some of their pottery is sold daily, I believe, by vendors walking up and down Tamarindo Beach.

To watch a Chorotega artist make a pot using traditional methods in just four minutes, click here.

 

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