The Zoomorphic Tripod Vessels of La Selva

September 18, 1502 was a special day for Christopher Columbus on his fourth and final voyage of discovery, for on that date he ordered his men row to him to the shore of another part of the land mass that he thought was the East Indies.  The egotistical Admiral simply refused to believe that he had not found an ocean going route to China and India for the purpose of acquiring silks and spices.  What he did find, though, that late summer day was part of the narrow land bridge between the two continents that would come to be known as the Americas.  The territory where he disembarked lies amidst the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and would later become the independent nation of Costa Rica.  But 500 to 1,000 years before the landing of Columbus, the natives living in this steamy wilderness made the unusual and beautiful zoomorphic tripod vessels of La Selva.

The indigenous dwellers of that region have probably lived along the ocean coastlines and in the tropical rainforests of Costa Rica for maybe 10,000 years.  They most likely began making earthenware pottery at least 3,000 years ago with simple utilitarian designed bowls and pots. Initially the ceramics would have been made of soft organic tempered pastes but as time moved on the natives learned better methods for making pottery and over the next few thousand years developed sand and quartz based tempering mediums that were much more durable.  Throughout this evolutionary time, these people became more settled along the alluvial plains of the many rivers and streams in the region and began growing corn, beans, squash and cotton for local consumption and for trade to others.  They also grew the cacao plant, whose seeds or beans were used to make a chocolate (cocoa) drink as well as being used as a currency.  Based upon current archaeological studies, it is believed that the art and culture of the natives of Costa Rica were heavily influenced by intrusions from the Olmec and Mayan entities of Mexico and Guatemala and by various aborigines living in Columbia, Ecuador and Peru in South America.  By about AD 500 Costa Rican natives were living in the east-central part of the land that is known as the Atlantic Watershed which is a tropical rainforest that was called La Selva - a Spanish term meaning “the jungle”.  There they developed a cultural society that today is named Curridabat though we really do not know just what they called themselves or even what language they spoke.   It is thought that these natives were ruled by a hereditary royal court and controlled by appointed priests and shamans.  They were also apparently a militaristic culture who practiced human sacrifice and cannibalism with slaves captured in various battles and wars.  They, also, probably believed in self-mutilation, which was common in prehistoric Mexico and Central America, by piercing their tongues, ears and genitals with sharp stone knives and sting ray spines.  All these actions, which we would consider barbaric and savage, were evidently used for the appeasement of their various blood thirsty gods and to ask for favorable growing seasons from these deities.  It was not a gentle society to which we modern folk would want to belong.  Even though this was a tropical jungle province, there would have been cleared agricultural fields and open village land as well as roads throughout the countryside.  When the Spaniard Gil Gonzales Davila explored the region in AD 1522, he made note of the wide and easily traveled highways throughout the jungle with large fields of corn and other crops on either side of these avenues.   Davila also confiscated gold from the natives and actually came up with the name Costa Rica, for the region, which translates as “rich coast”.   And 500-1,000 years before that time, when the Curridabat natives inhabited the area, these thoroughfares and corn fields were probably already in existence.  That, of course, does not mean that the jungle had been obliterated for it was certainly there, as it is now, although today on a much reduced basis.  The Indians planted the cornfields near their rainforest villages and there they made gold ornaments and ceramic pottery.  The malleable gold was found in placer deposits in the river beds and the people used that shiny metal to make many types of ornamental jewelry items with most being zoomorphic (having animal forms)  in design.  They also made jade beads and the unique artifacts called axe-god pendants. According to early Spanish accounts, the natives cherished jade more than their gold because the green color symbolized renewal of the land and plentiful food crops.  And they made pottery - lots of pottery.  It has been estimated that when Columbus came ashore over five centuries ago, the population of that somewhat small Costa Rican land would have been at least two hundred thousand inhabitants.  So there would have had to have been millions of pottery vessels made and used by this mass of people.   Of course, earthenware pottery is fragile and easily broken, so the vast majority of the original quantities are not available today except in tiny shattered pieces.  But some few intact vessels do still exist.

The Curridabat cultural citizens obviously made a great abundance of pottery, most of which were simple bowls and jars that were used for cooking and eating.  But they also made many ceremonial vessels that were most likely constructed as censers or incense burners and offertory jars to their deities.  Among the most striking receptacles that were made by these people are the three leg types that have been given several names including Africa tripods, spider-leg vessels, chocolate pots and zoomorphic tripods.  But they all have certain commonalities- those being three legs with zoomorphic and/or anthropomorphic (human shapes combined with animal or god-like beings) embellishments enclosing a vase or cup-like container.  Most have hollow legs inside which are stone or clay balls that rattle when the vessels are shaken or moved.   Since this was a sultry rainforest, there would have been many jungle animals living reasonably close to the villages including toucans, macaws, sloths, jaguars, armadillos, coatis, ocelots, caimans, iguanas, monkeys, boa constrictors and vampire bats.  The aboriginals most likely killed some or all these animals for food and also probably worshiped them as representatives of their divine beings.  Most of the tripod vessels made by the Curridabat natives had animal-like features appliqued to the legs.  Some of the embellishments are easily recognized fauna such as monkeys or crocodilians or macaws but many have totally unknown animal features or are very stylized common creatures or wildlife combinations in almost demonic forms.  The vulture likeness, generally called the beak-bird god, which was associated with the fertility cults throughout ancient Meso-America, was frequently modeled onto the legs.  These La Selva tripods are often tall and graceful with the long sinuous tapered legs and gourd shaped bowls enclosed within the trio of supports but some have short and stubby legs enclosing shallow bowls.  Both the limbs and the receptacles are generally well polished in the normal brown colors of the open fire baked clay but some had orange-brown to red-brown paint slips applied over the earthenware before firing.   The various zoomorphic images are usually at or near the juncture of the limbs and the bowl and some have animal forms actually modeled against the outside surface of the container.  The bowls normally have outwardly flaring rims and some have various incised and modeled raised ring decorations encircling the exterior circumference of the urns.  The Curridabat natives must have made almost innumerable quantities of these probably sacred vessels to be used in their mytho-religious ceremonies but a thousand plus years of environmental soil expansions and contractions have not been kind to these containers.  Of the ones that have been found, most were discovered well demolished or at least partially broken with very few found in solid or unbroken condition. Of the examples that have been reconstructed or were found solid, a person has only has to look at and enjoy these prehistoric ceremonial art objects and be amazed at the beautiful symmetry and odd but delightful faunal allure of the zoomorphic tripod vessels of La Selva.




Benson, Elizabeth, Editor                                                   1981


Clifford, Paul, Editor                                                                        1985



Dockstader, Frederick J.                                                      1964



Kubler, George                                                                     1975


Lothrop, Samuel K.                                                                           1926


Snarskis, Michael J.                                                             1978


Stone, Doris Z.                                                                      1977