John Hoopes, an assistant professor of anthropology at Kansas University, made a pretty big archaeological find in Costa Rica a couple of years ago. The sites he discovered are so rich with artifacts that they kept 16 KU students busy last spring and are guaranteed to keep archaeologists busy for some time to come.
Hoopes said the discovery could result in a better understanding of the ecological impact of ancient cultures, as well as increased tourism for Costa Rica and a better understanding among natives in the region of how their predecessors lived.
Hoopes and 16 KU students excavated charcoal, bones and pottery at two sites near Golfito Bay in southern Costa Rica from Feb. 1 until the end of April.
The field trip was organized as part of a $43,435 National Science Foundation grant Hoopes received to establish an archaeological field research and language study program. KU's Office of Study Abroad helped establish the program.
ONE SITE contains fragments of the Aguas Buenas culture, believed to date from 1,400 to 1,800 years ago. The second site contains remains of the Chiriqui phase culture, which was in existence in 1502 when Christopher Columbus first visited Costa Rica and named it.
The sites the group excavated are not gold-laden burial sites.
Rather, they are the ancient equivalents of a modern landfill, containing the bones of fish and animals that people discarded after finishing their meals.
While not rich with precious metals, the sites are rich with information. Hoopes said that if some species of fish or animal appears to become rarer or even disappear over time, the sites could illustrate that even ancient indigenous cultures can have a profound impact on their environment.
"The general view of indigenous peoples is that they are stewards of the environment, that they care for their resources and therefore don't destroy them," Hoopes said. However, he said, "Humans don't always understand the effects that their activities have on the natural world."
HOOPES SAID the findings perhaps can help people living in the region now to think about sustainable ways of using their resources. He said the archaeological sites also could affect the local economy in another way.
"This year, tourism replaced coffee as Costa Rica's No. 2 source of income," Hoopes noted, "and Golfito is one of the places that people are going to."
Many of the bones the group found are being analyzed at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama.
Julie Caine, one of the KU students who went on the field trip, is writing a paper on the hunting habits of people in the region. In addition to looking at ancient hunting practices as indicated by the bone findings, her report will touch on hunting practices of people living in the region now.
"It'll be interesting to see if there's a correlation between the two," Caine said.
She said the ancient cultures were "subsistence" cultures, meaning they hunted animals and fish to survive.
"Most subsistence cultures look at an arrangement culturally where they don't exhaust their resources because they have to ensure that they're going to be able to eat the next year," Caine said. "They'll say you can't kill the young of this or that animal."
She said the modern hunters she interviewed live in "a much different environment. They aren't hunting to eat. They're hunting mostly for sport."
Still, she said, even the hunters she interviewed appeared to observe some self-imposed restraints. For about the last seven years, the Costa Rican government has imposed restraints by making it illegal to hunt in the tropical rainforests in the Golfito Bay area.
CAMILLE QUINN, another KU student who went on the trip, spent her summer writing a senior honors thesis on ancient tools found in the region. She said the tools say something about the diets of the ancient cultures.
``They were living off of a variety of different things,'' she said.
``Most likely they were eating a lot of shellfish and had small hand stones to crack shells open."
Although many simple stone tools were found intact, she said many other tools likely have long since disappeared.
"The palm trees in the area are really strong, hard wood, so most likely they were using some of the stone tools to make wooden tools," Quinn said.
The young archaeologists found they had to make accommodations to the tropical climate as they did their work. They eventually learned to wake up around 5:30 a.m. so they could sail an early high tide from their sleeping quarters to the dig site. But before developing that early-morning routine, they would have to wait for a later tide and sometimes would not start work until 11 a.m. just when the day started to get hot.
"By the time we got out there, we were working for an hour, taking a break and sitting around because it was so hellish from 12 until 2," Quinn said.
Hoopes said he would like to return to Golfito Bay in the summer of 1993, perhaps with a smaller group of students, to document the many potential archaeological sites in the region. Eventually, he said, more KU students could participate in future archaeological digs, and Golfito Bay might even develop into a major research center.
"There's quite a lot of work that can be done in the area," Hoopes said. "We've really just seen the tip of the iceberg."