Exhibiting Historical Art: Out of the Vault: Stories of People and Things

Origins - Role of Gold in the Indigenous Americas

Although much of what we know about the indigenous cultures of Pre-Columbian Costa Rica comes from the period of contact with Europeans, beginning in 1492, therefore there remains much to discover. However, it is possible to reconstruct the importance of gold in the Diquís region from archaeological clues and oral tradition.

The origins of metallurgy in the Americas remain unknown. It first appeared in modern-day Peru, around 800-500 B.C., but its spread throughout the remainder of the Americas was slow. Goldworking did not reach the Diquís region until around 800 A.D., which gave the material hundreds of years to imbed itself in Pre-Columbian culture before the arrival of European influence. With an entirely different set of worldviews and values than that of the Europeans, indigenous assessments of the worth of gold had little to do with purchasing power. Reflective, shiny light, such as that produced by gold, was deeply important to indigenous Americans. It was seen as possessing a connection to the spiritual world. Amerindians lived in a world where all of the senses could interconnect. Under the power of a trance, a shaman could connect a smell to a feeling. These trance-like states were seen as a way to reach enlightenment and connect with the cosmological world. As it hits the eye, light stimulates the brain such that it could create trancelike seizures for some individuals. Those who were seen as able to tap into the spiritual realm, convincing the supernatural spirits to act in accordance with the needs of earthly individuals, controlled power on Earth. The ability to do so was marked by the possession of shiny objects.  “As the spirit world glows with light, and its inhabitants similarly are shiny beings, the shaman emulates their supernatural nature by becoming brilliant, by having mastered knowledge and techniques that were also glowing: the whole trance experience becomes enveloped in symbolic shininess and color” (Quilter, 2003, p. 22).

A gold object gained further value based on the technological processes behind shaping the piece. The raw materials came from nearby, rather than distant, mysterious lands as other popular materials did. However, few individuals knew the technologies behind processing and shaping gold. The specialization behind the transformation of gold added to its intrigue and worth. The wearer of a gold piece would be viewed as not only connected to the spirit world, but as having mastered earthly challenges as well. This is not to say that gold was reserved exclusively for the high status individuals. Although the elite would have owned more and higher quality pieces to show their importance, gold could be worn by anyone. Certain pieces, however, such as embossed plaques would be reserved for the especially powerful. While the ownership of gold certainly signified power and status in the Pre-Columbian Americas, it was in a different sense than in the modern world.

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