Costa Rica’s adventure tour business would have been at its peak about 15,000 years ago. Humans shared what is now the national territory with all types of megafauna.
These included creatures bigger than elephants with gigantic tusks, giant sloths, saber-tooth cats, cave bears, camels and hungry birds with 12-foot wingspans.
These are all gone now. Some scientists suspect global climate change contributed to the extinction. Others blame the human hunter. Much of the evidence that archaeologists and paleontologists need is under water. Modern humans probably lived on the coast 14,000 years ago, and the receding ice age dumped enough water into the seas to raise the level 200 feet.
Costa Rica’s history has a giant hole before the Spanish arrived. Modern excavating techniques began to be used here only in 1970. Many of the artifacts that are in the museums do not have a clear history. This hampers the experts.
What scientists know generally comes from accidental finds. Remains of nine-foot-tall Cuvieronius hyodon, the elephant-like creature, are scattered all over the country but concentrated in the Central Valley. That doesn’t mean the creatures congregated there. The discoveries of teeth and bones came because of the greater amount of modern construction and excavation. One piece of such a critter turned up near Paseo Colón, according to a report at the Museo Nacional.
The fate of the megafauna is important today as experts plan an international meeting to discuss climate change. The changes that began about 10,000 years ago as the glacial period was ending appears to have been beneficial to man because of the extinction of the giant beasts.
There is no doubt that man shared this strange world. Excavation turned up the rib of a mastodon near Seattle, Washington, and the bone had what appeared to be a lance tip imbedded in it. The rib was dated to 13,800 years ago.
A University of Wisconsin researcher concluded from certain spore samples that the number of large animals began to dwindle about 15,000 years ago, perhaps not from human causes. Scientists speculate that as rainfall increased forest began to replace grasslands in Central America displacing the grazing Cuvieronius hyodon.
Excavations in Chile showed that early man ate these animals and close relatives and used the skin for tent material and other purposes. But other scientists note that man probably has been in the New World for at least 40,000 years, so blaming humans for the extinction might be a stretch. Disease also has been put forth for a cause. The ecosystem was so linked that a decline in one form of animal might cause declines in others.
Much of Costa Rica’s archaeology has focused on the stone spheres, gold objects and obvious dwelling places which might be up to 3,000 years old. Archaeologists familiar with the situation say that more investment is needed for research. Even the Guayabo national monument near Turrialba has not been excavated fully. Other sites are being painstakingly excavated but the results are generally reported only in academic journals.
Some 15,000 years ago the human residents of Costa Rica would have needed protection from some of the giant predators. They must have used caves as homes and burned fires. Little has been discovered even though the accepted theory is that humans passed through Costa Rica on their way to populate South America. There have been many more finds there. There have been a few in Panamá.
Richard Cooke of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute said that clearing and burning began in Panamá 13,200 years ago. The Clovis hunters probably hunted mastodons and giant ground sloths, he said.
The Clovis people were those who left distinctive stone lance heads presumed to be used to hunt the megafauna.
Meanwhile, scientists warn against free-lance excavations that could ruin what they need to date and understand a site. The Museo Nacional maintains a data base of the country’s archaeological sites, and is open to contact by citizens who think they may have found something.