Petroglyph discovered on the Finca in 2010.

Finca Cántaros has considerable interest for archeologists, primarily because it’s 3200-year old lake–Laguna Zoncho–was the center of almost continuous occupation by pre-Colombian indigenous peoples up until the Spanish conquest. Laguna Zoncho is located within the Diquís subregion of the archaeological area known as Greater or Gran Chiriquí which comprises Southern Pacific Costa Rica and Western Panama. The Diquís represent the least known of the country’s three archaeological zones.

The presence of charcoal, maize pollen and artifact fragments in the core samples of lake sediments taken by paleoecologists, as well as artifacts excavated by archaeologists from the area near the lake, indicate near continuous human occupation of the lake basin for over 3000 years. The core sample evidence shows that forest clearing and burning by prehistoric agriculturists were most apparent between about 1240 BC to AD 1540.

Dr. Sally Horn and fellow researchers taking core samples of lake sediments from the bottom of Laguna Zoncho.

After this period of about 2780 years, the Laguna Zoncho area was largely abandoned, and the forest regenerated. Warfare among indigenous tribes, illness brought by Spanish explorers, fear of slavery, or effects of ash from an explosion of Volcán Barú in Panama roughly 500 years ago may all have played a part in departure of most of the indigenous people from Laguna Zoncho. Only small-scale maize cultivation characterized the watershed from AD 1490 until the Italian settlement of San Vito in 1952.

Large metate (grinding stone)

When the Italians arrived in San Vito in the mid-1900s, they encountered a forest that was fairly empty, with a few recent and recovering agricultural clearings. Much of the landscape was covered in mature forest that looked “pristine” or “virgin” after as many as five centuries of regrowth. The colonists and other local settlers of that period were likely unaware that the landscape they were about to dramatically transform into large open tracts for agriculture (mostly coffee) and cattle grazing had once held much larger indigenous populations that had greatly changed landscapes in an earlier cycle of human use.

Map showing Gran Chiriqui archeological area.


Map showing "Sitio Zoncho" (Zoncho archeological site) and other nearby sites.


Sources: Sally P. Horn and Rachel M. Clement, Pre-Columbian land-use history in Costa Rica: a 3000-year record of forest clearance, agriculture and fires from Laguna Zoncho [The Holocene 11,4 (2001) pp. 419-426]; etc. Maps courtesy of Maureen Sanchez, University of Costa Rica.