Crocodile/Human Seat

Central America, Costa Rica, Greater Nicoya. Period VI, AD 1000-1520
Andesite. 18 x 11 x 16 in.
1988.12.11
Gift of William C. and Carol W. Thibadeau

In ancient Central American chiefdoms a person who was elevated on a seat like this one was someone of high status. These societies were organized into groups of several hundred people whose political and spiritual leader was first among equals. In Costa Rican art shamans are often shown sitting on benches with crocodilian head ornaments. Thus, this crocodile-human head seat probably belonged to a spiritual leader. In fact, eighteen similar crocodile head seats were found at the site of Papagayo in northwestern Costa Rica, arranged in two rows for likely use in very important rituals.

The powers of human spiritual intermediaries were closely allied to those of ferocious animals, such as crocodiles. Shamans were believed to transform into animals during trances. Here the seat combines human and crocodile elements: the upright head of a human has ears with large spool-like earrings of a high-status individual, while the long zigzag teeth and round eyes are unmistakably those of a crocodile. The shaman is shown as both human and animal.

When a powerful person sat on the concave upper surface of the seat, his or her legs would straddle the crocodile’s snout as if the person were riding a mighty beast. The human faces of the rider above and the animal below would mirror each other, the human and the animal realms united. Thus, the duality of the shaman, bridging this world and the next, visible reality and the unseen, are celebrated in this powerful double image.