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Shamans of Greater Nicoya (Central America)

Evidence of Shamanism in Pre-Hispanic Central America


The origins of shamanism in the New World are believed to be very ancient and appear to have entered the Americas with hunter-gatherer bands that crossed Beringia or followed the sea coast during the Paleoindian period.

Shamanism was also a widespread practice in Mesoamerica as well as in Central and South America.

Ometepe island, Nicaragua

In 1958, German archaeologist Wolfgang Haberland excavated a tomb near the town of Moyogalpa, in the island of Ometepe, in the lake Nicaragua. In this site of the Greater Nicoya region, he found elaborate ceramic incense burners, an egg-shaped green stone, a bone tube, and a pottery ring associated with a well preserved skeleton, dating between 300 BC and AD 800. Haberland thought that these objects could have been part of a shaman's tool-kit, since some of the artifacts were very similar to modern implements used by local Chibcha shamans.

Until the arrival of the Nicarao in the Nicoya area and in the Ometepe island, the local population was composed by Chibcha-speaking groups, one of the most widespread linguistic family in lower Central America and northern South America. The religious practices of this group, which still lives in the tropical forests of Central America, have a strong shamanistic component.

Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica

In the southern portion of the Greater Nicoya region, a group of female figurines found in burial contexts has been interpreted as portraying shamans. These figurines present characteristics such as body painting and tattoos and are often depicted half human/half animal, suggesting a shamanistic change during a trance, a transformative state between human beings and powerful beasts such as jaguars.

Other elements indicate the importance of shamanistic practices in the Nicoya regions. Effigies of animal such as bats have been found carved in jade pendants and effigy vessels in the Nicoya area of Costa Rica, in contexts related to shamanistic practices. Contemporary aboriginal populations stress the importance of bats as shaman’s alter-egos and associate their nocturnal hunting and adaptation to darkness to shaman’s powers. Also considered shamanistic tools are musical instruments, such as drums, whistles and ocarinas. These instruments, found in several burials in Nicoya, are frequently used in ethnographic examples of shaman’s rituals that involve shamanistic trance, as well as healing practices.

It is likely that in early Nicoya society shamanism played an important role in the well-being of the community, just as it does for modern Central American groups. Interestingly, the identification of female figurines with shaman's attributes led some researchers suggest that in some cases this important social and religious position could have been covered by particularly powerful women. This hypothesis is supported by ethnographic cases of matrilineal (descent group ascribed through the mother line) social organization among contemporary Costa Rican tribes.


For more information, see Shamans and Archaeology, the Guide to Ancient Mesoamerica and Ometepe Island.

Day Stevenson J., and Alice Chiles Tillett, 1996, The Nicoya Shaman. In Paths to Central American Prehistory edited by Frederick W. Lange, University Press of Colorado, pp.221-235.

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