Cacicazgos... or Village Life
Between 1000BC and 1000AD these tribal settlements, supported by agricultural production and trade grew into more sophisticated societies, consolidating to become small villages, so that at the time of conquest the village was the basis of indigenous civilization, where all religious, artisanal and commercial activity took place.
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As methods of production developed and diversified, social relations and political organization also changed. Specialized roles became necessary, resulting in a more complex division of labor, and the essentially egalitarian nature of the hunter-gatherer band, and the early tribal settlements gave way to a strictly stratified social and political hierarchy and exploitative labor relations.
At the head of this hierarchy was the figure of the ‘cacique’ or warrior chieftain, a position normally inherited through matrilineal succession and enhanced by claims to supernatural and religious powers.
The cacique governed with a Council of Elders, a kind of indigenous nobility, made up of priests, commercial leaders, warriors, and of course the shaman, who fulfilled various functions as the main intermediary between the supernatural realm and that of everyday reality. This nobility held immense power, distributing and disseminating wealth, power and knowledge, consolidating their privileged positions to exploit their inferiors and gain access to riches and slaves. The lower strata of society, the great majority, were made up of artisans and peasants, and below them, slaves and prisoners of war.
Over the years the villages and their populations grew, beginning to subdivide, giving rise to further village units linked by origin and kinship ties. These groups of villages then united to become networks or confederations known as ‘cacicazgos’ or chieftainships. Each cacicazgo marked out a specific territory and was ruled over by one cacique. These early political associations operated primarily as a basis for commerce and warfare, and were part of a hierarchy of regional power organized according to size of population and territory. Beyond this, cacicazgos could integrate themselves into larger political and military units known as señorios. A señorio was a kind of fiefdom, covering a vast territory and population, ruled over by a lord who held an almost mythical and limitless power, while caciques maintained power over each individual cacicazgo.
The system of cacicazgos and señorios flourished in the 750 years prior to conquest. Influenced by the advanced agricultural and architectural techniques and knowledge of astronomy found in both Inca and Mayan (later Aztec) civilizations, farming made significant advances, natural fertilizers were discovered and sophisticated systems of irrigation were employed; while artesian skills were developed to construct bridges, roads and temples in the principal settlements.
While no monumental ceremonial centers, like those found at Tikal or Chichen-Itza, have been found in Costa Rica - probably due to the country’s much smaller population – recent excavations have revealed that Pre-Columbian civilizations in the region were far more advanced than had previously been believed.