October 2014: Metate

/ Collections - Spotlight on the Collection

Ceremonial Bird Effigy Grinding Stone (Metate). Nicoya culture (Period IV – Period V) , Costa Rica, AD 300 – 700. Carved volcanic stone. 15 × 27 1/2 × 9 3/4 inches.  Museum purchase, 1971.41.
Ceremonial Bird Effigy Grinding Stone (Metate). Nicoya culture (Period IV – Period V) , Costa Rica, AD 300 – 700. Carved volcanic stone. 15 × 27 1/2 × 9 3/4 inches.
Museum purchase, 1971.41.
Ceremonial Bird Effigy Grinding Stone (Metate), Nicoya Culture, 300-700 AD

Nature is an integral part of life for Costa Ricans past and present. Located in a region that is both seismic and volcanic, between two oceans, and with vast rainforests and mountains, the area has unparalleled biodiversity. Long before scientists could explain natural phenomena like the cycles of the moon, earthquakes, or volcanoes, these events shaped ancient religions and mythologies. Geographic features evoked different layers of the afterlife; for example, mountains and trees pointed to the heavens, and caves to the netherworld.

Ancient Mesoamericans used metates to grind corn. Though an everyday, domestic act, grinding corn also symbolized transformation and the cyclical nature of life. The breaking down of the grain transformed it into food and drink that they consumed in daily life. Corn also recalled ancestors who domesticated maize, and the belief that the first humans were created from corn.

Decorative elements on metates point to nature’s important role to ancient Costa Ricans. Metates from the Guanacaste-Nicoya Zone typically have three legs and animal imagery, including various species of birds, crocodiles, jaguars, and monkeys. Mesoamerican mythologies associated birds with vegetation, crops, wilderness, and nature as a whole.

On this metate’s legs, abstracted parrots face downwards, pointing towards the underworld. Certain metates were reserved for ritual, ceremonial, or funerary functions; the birds’ placement likely affirms that this metate was intended for use in the afterlife.

Join the conversation!

How does geography and the environment impact your daily life? How do you care for your surroundings? What interests you in nature?

Check out these links, and join the conversation below!

“Pura Vida: Costa Rica’s Culture of Conservation,” Terrascope Radio, May 15, 2012

“An Economist for Nature Calculates the Need for More Protection,” New York Times, August 8, 2011