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The northwest of the country, the Nicoya Peninsula, was the southernmost point of Nahuatl cultural influence when the Spanish conquerors (conquistadores) came in the sixteenth century. The central and southern portions of the country had Chibcha influences. However, the indigenous people have influenced modern Costa Rican culture to a relatively small degree, as most of these died from diseases such as smallpox and mistreatment by the Spaniards.
The oldest evidence of human occupation in Costa Rica is associated with the arrival of groups of hunter-gatherers about 10,000 to 7,000 years BCE, with ancient archaeological evidence (stone tool making) located in the Turrialba Valley, at sites called Guardiria and Florence, with matching quarry and workshop areas with presence of type clovis spearheads and South American inspired arrows. All this suggests the possibility that in this area two different cultures coexisted. The people of this era were nomadic. They gathered in bands of about 20 to 30 members. Their usual prey animals were called megafauna, such as giant armadillos and sloths, mastodons, etc. These became extinct about 8,000 years before our era. The first settlers had to adapt to hunting smaller animals and develop appropriate strategies to adjust to the new conditions.
The colonial period began when Christopher Columbus reached the eastern coast of Costa Rica on his fourth voyage in 1502. Numerous subsequent Spanish expeditions followed, eventually leading to the first Spanish colony, Villa Bruselas in Costa Rica in 1524.
During most of the colonial period, Costa Rica was the southernmost province of the Captaincy General of Guatemala, which was nominally part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain (i.e., Mexico), but which in practice operated as a largely autonomous entity within the Spanish Empire. Costa Rica's distance from the capital in Guatemala, its legal prohibition under Spanish law to trade with its southern neighbors in Panama, then part of the Viceroyalty of New Granada (i.e., Colombia), and the lack of resources such as gold and silver, made Costa Rica into a poor, isolated, and sparsely inhabited region within the Spanish Empire. Costa Rica was described as "the poorest and most miserable Spanish colony in all America" by a Spanish governor in 1719.
Another important factor behind Costa Rica's poverty was the lack of a significant indigenous population available for forced labor, which meant that most of the Costa Rican settlers had to work on their own land, preventing the establishment of large haciendas. For all these reasons Costa Rica was by and large unappreciated and overlooked by the Spanish Crown and left to develop on its own. The small landowners' relative poverty, the lack of a large indigenous labor force, the population's ethnic and linguistic homogeneity, and Costa Rica's isolation from the Spanish colonial centers in Mexico and the Andes all contributed to the development of an autonomous and individualistic agrarian society. Even the Governor had to farm his own crops and tend to his own garden due to the poverty that he lived in. An egalitarian tradition also arose. Costa Rica became a "rural democracy" with no oppressed mestizo or indigenous class. It was not long before Spanish settlers turned to the hills, where they found rich volcanic soil and a milder climate than that of the lowlands.
In the early 19th century, Napoleon's occupation of Spain led to the outbreak of revolts all across Spanish America. In New Spain, all of the fighting by those seeking independence was done in the center of that area from 1810 to 1821, what today is central Mexico. Once the Viceroy was defeated in the capital city –today Mexico City- in 1821, the news of independence was sent to all the territories of New Spain including the Intendencies of the former Captaincy of Guatemala; accepting this as a fact, Costa Rica joined the other Central American Intendencies in a joint declaration of independence from Spain. The public proclamation was done through the Act of Independence in 1821. After the declaration of independence it was the intention of the New Spain parliament to establish a commonwealth whereby the King of Spain, Ferdinand VII, would also be Emperor of New Spain, but in which both countries were to be governed by separate laws and with their own legislative offices. Should the king refuse the position, the law provided for a member of the House of Bourbon to accede to the New Spain throne. Ferdinand VII, however, did not recognize the independence and said that Spain would not allow any other European prince to take the throne of New Spain. By request of Parliament, the president of the regency Agustín de Iturbide was proclaimed emperor of New Spain but the Parliament also decided to re name New Spain to Mexico. The Mexican Empire was the official name given to this monarchical regime from 1821 to 1823. The territory of the Mexican Empire included the continental intendencies and provinces of New Spain proper (including those of the former Captaincy General of Guatemala) (See: History of Central America).
In 1823, a revolution in Mexico ousted Emperor Agustín de Iturbide, and a new Mexican congress voted to allow the Central American Intendencies to decide their own fate. That year, the United Provinces of Central America was formed of the five Central American Intendencies under General Manuel José Arce. The Intendencies took the new name of States.
Following independence, Costa Ricans found themselves with no regular trade routes to get their coffee to European markets. This was compounded by transportation problems - the coffee-growing areas were mainly on the Central Valley and only had access to the port in Puntarenas on the Pacific Coast, and before the Panama Canal was opened, ships from Europe had to sail around Cape Horn in order to get to the Pacific Coast. This was overcome in 1843, when, with the help of William Le Lacheur, a Guernsey merchant and shipowner, a regular trade route was established.
In 1856, William Walker, an American filibuster began incursions into Central America. After landing in Nicaragua, he proclaimed himself president of Nicaragua and re-instated slavery. He intended to expand into Costa Rica and after he entered Costa Rican territory, Costa Rica declared war. Led by Commander in Chief of the Army of Costa Rica, President Juan Rafael Mora Porras, the filibusters were defeated and forced out of the country. Costa Rican forces followed the filibusters into Rivas, Nicaragua, where in a final battle, William Walker and his forces were finally pushed back. Juan Santamaría, a drummer boy from Alajuela who lost his life torching the filibusters' stronghold, was killed in this final battle, and is today remembered as a national hero.
An era of peaceful democracy in Costa Rica began in 1869 with elections considered the first truly free and honest ones in the country's history.
Costa Rica has avoided much of the violence that has plagued much of Central America. Since the late nineteenth century, only two brief periods of violence have marred its democratic development. In 1917-19, Federico Tinoco Granados ruled as a dictator, and, in 1948, José Figueres Ferrer led an armed uprising in the wake of a disputed presidential election. In 1949, José Figueres Ferrer abolished the army; and since then, Costa Rica has been one of the few countries to operate within the democratic system without the assistance of a military."
"With more than 2,000 dead, the 44-day Costa Rican Civil War resulting from this uprising was the bloodiest event in twentieth-century Costa Rican history" , but the victorious junta drafted a constitution guaranteeing free elections with universal suffrage and the abolition of the military. Figueres became a national hero, winning the first election under the new constitution in 1953. Since then, Costa Rica has held 13 presidential elections, the latest in 2010.
Once a largely agricultural country, the twin pillars of Costa Rica's current economy are technology and eco-tourism. Costa Rica's major source of export income is technology based. Microsoft, Motorola, Intel and other technology related firms have established operations in Costa Rica. Local companies create and export software as well as other computer related products. Tourism is growing at an accelerated pace and many believe that income from this tourism may soon become the major contributor to the nation's GDP. Traditional agriculture, particularly coffee and bananas, continues to be an important contributor to Costa Rica's exports.