Friday, February 13, 2015

Panamá Part 1: The pre-hispanic people

This incense burner with double eagle heads is displayed at the Panamá Viejo museum. Panamá Viejo (Old Panama) was the first successful Spanish settlement in Panamá. It was founded in 1510 but now is in ruins. Two years ago, in March of 2013, Carole and I visited Panamá. We traveled with Caravan Tours, an excellent organization whom we had previously used to tour Southern Mexico and Guatemala. You might have noticed that I am somewhat tardy in posting this adventure. In fact, I have at least 18 months of unpublished photos from adventures of all kinds. No one need worry about me running out of photos to display or stories to tell any time soon. This posting will begin a multi-part series on Panamá, and I decided to begin with its early history. This is a nation whose most important resource is its geography. It forms a natural land bridge between North and South America, and a narrow isthmus separating the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. From the earliest times, it has been a place where people passed through on their way to someplace else, often for the purpose of trade. The people living in Panamá, throughout its history, have both benefited and suffered from this double-edged geographical sword. For a Google map of Panama, click here.


An early engraving shows typical dwellings of indigenous people when the Spanish arrived. The builders sank large posts into the ground to support thatched roofs. In between the posts, they formed the walls using upright poles plastered with mud. The original inhabitants were wandering bands of Paleo-Indians who began passing through the Panamanian isthmus about 10,000 BC. They slept in the open or under extremely simple and very temporary shelters. Between 8000-5000 BC, people began to live in caves and rock shelters on a temporary basis, but otherwise their lives were pretty much like their predecessors. Then, between 5000-2900 BC, the population migrated from the center of the isthmus to rock shelters along the coasts. Food caught in the sea or gathered along the shore became a major part of their daily diet. Grinding stones appeared during this time, suggesting more sophisticated food preparation techniques. Major changes began to occur between 2900-300 BC. The earliest ceramics yet found in Central America date to 2500 BC. They were found at the Monagrillo archaeological site, about 90 miles down the coast from Panamá Viejo. The presence of ceramics indicates the existence of permanent settlements. Only those living in a fixed site will find heavy and easily-broken clay pots useful, or will have the time to make them. Also found at Monagrillo was the earliest evidence of maiz (corn) cultivation, dating to 1500 BC. This marks the beginning of an economy based on agriculture, with the population now living in small, dispersed villages. This was a momentous change.

Archeological dig of a pre-hispanic homesite near Panamá Viejo. The white lines criss-crossing the photo are strings set up by archeologists to section off each area of the dig. In the left-center, you can see the remains of post holes. Panamá Viejo was the original Spanish site of what is now Panamá City on the country's Pacific Coast. The Spanish chose this place in 1514 because it was adjacent to a village of indigenous people who spoke a language called Cueva. This also became the name by which the local inhabitants were known. The Spanish settlement was later moved to a more healthy location, and the coastal jungle soon overwhelmed the ruins of the original site.  In 1995, when archaeologists began to investigate the site of Panamá Viejo, they also discovered the relatively undisturbed ruins of the Cueva village. There is much still to be learned, but we now know that people inhabited this site at least 700 years before the Spanish arrived. Unfortunately for the Cueva people, they were immediately enslaved by the Spanish and died out within 40 years. Despite their sad fate, they did leave the word Panamá, which means "Rich land of butterflies, trees and fish."


Axes and knife blades shaped from stone were the among the tools of everyday life. Tools such as this changed very little between the time of the cave dwellers and the arrival of the Spanish. Although metals such as gold and copper were used for decorative purposes, stone and bone remained the basic materials for making tools. Between 300 BC-750 AD large towns began to appear. By 500 AD, the ancient people  were constructing public buildings for religious and administrative purposes. These were constructed from perishable materials of which almost nothing remains. Stone pyramids and palaces similar to those that characterize the ancient civilizations of Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico have yet to be discovered. On the other hand, Panama's pre-hispanic culture and social structures appear to have been fairly sophisticated. Recent digs have uncovered graves of what appear to be hereditary chieftains, an important step in the development of complex societies. Craftsmen developed highly specialized tools for making luxury items such as gold jewelry. Elaborate burial rituals for elite members of the society sometimes included the sacrifice of slaves or war captives.

Volantes de huso, or spinning whorls, were used in spinning cotton thread. The existence of these items shows that the ancient people spun cotton cloth, a relatively complex task. Indigenous women throughout Mexico and Central America still use this ancient hand-spinning technique for thread to make cotton cloth.

This design shows the spinning process and the tools used, including a volante de huso. A clump of cotton is held by one hand while the spinner uses the other hand to pull it into thread, using a twisting motion with her fingers. The thread is wound around a stick which extends through a hole in the volante. Given the climate, ordinary people required few clothes. The work necessary to spin thread and weave cotton cloth would have made it valuable, and therefore a luxury item intended primarily for the elite class. This is yet another indication of social stratification and economic sophistication. Woven cotton products such as embroidered cloaks were also important trade goods. Panamá was central to the extensive trade routes that ran from Peru to Mexico and up into what is now the Southwestern United States.

Food preparation

This ancient mano and metate were found at the Cueva village site. The mano is the cylindrical object used as a roller to crush maiz, seeds, and other plant products. The metate is the broad, stone pan used as the grinding surface. Metates have been found at various sites that contain traces of ancient maize. This has helped confirm the existence of a settled, agrarian society at a fairly early date. Despite the antiquity of their origins, both metates and volantes are still widely used today.

Shells from a midden at the Cueva site. Middens are trash dumps and, as such, are one of the prime sources of information about ancient times. They contain food waste and other discarded items that enable archaeologists to obtain information about daily life. This includes the kinds and quantities of food consumed, food preparation methods, tools used, etc. In addition to maiz, the diet of the Cueva villagers included a wide variety of fish, mollusks, and other seafood. To a lesser extent, they hunted birds, deer, peccaries (wild pigs) and other forest animals.

The unusual decorations on this pot include three rows of bumps on opposite sides. The purpose of the bumps is not clear, but they may have had a practical as well as a decorative function.  In addition to the bumps, the pot shows the remains of what may be orange paint. A pot like this might have contained food or perhaps water for drinking or washing.
The abstract designs on this beautifully shaped pot help identify the era of its manufacture. The polychrome pot is decorated with geometric designs typical of the Late Ceramic Period II (750-1510 AD). This was the final stage of pre-hispanic Panamá. During this era, the most powerful chiefs employed large armies to wage war with one another, seeking to gain economic dominance and to capture slaves. The burial practices of the previous era continued and became even more elaborate. At Panamá Viejo, archaeologists have uncovered the tomb of a woman who died in the 13th Century AD. She was laid to rest  on a bed of skulls, with nine additional skulls surrounding her.

Music and dancing

A bone flute was one of the typical instruments. This one has a mouthpiece carved as a seated man holding an object on his lap. In addition to social occasions, music was also important for religious observances, preparations for war, and for large gatherings to celebrate public events like the accession of a new chief. Ancient music is a surprisingly difficult subject for archaeologists. The instruments recovered from a grave may have been affected by seepage which can change the sound of the music produced. In addition, how these instruments were held and played are matters of speculation, even though they might appear similar to a modern instrument. Statues or other representations of ancient musicians can also be misleading. A small, beautifully wrought, gold statue from 800 AD was found at the Veraguas site in south central Panamá. One archaeologist lamented that "what is not known is whether the little man is actually playing a flute, or a trumpet, smoking a cigar, or chewing sugarcane."

This small stone whistle is another common instrument. It was carved in the shape of a bird. Other wind instruments included conch shells. These were used as trumpets during musical events, but also for signaling troop movements during warfare and to announce the approach of important visitors or enemies. In addition to wind instruments, others included rattles, devices for creating rasping sounds, and drums of various sizes and made from turtle shells and hollow logs.

While visiting Panamá Viejo, we were entertained by some masked dancers. The practice of dancing with masks has roots extending far back into pre-hispanic times. The masks represent various real and mythical animals that are associated with particular gods. The occasions for dancing in ancient times might be seasonal, such as the time of planting or harvesting, or they might be attempts to propitiate gods to obtain rain or prevent disasters. Other reasons might include the start of a war, or its successful conclusion, as well as the accession of a new chief, or the birth of his successor.

This fearsome mask might have frightened even the creature from the "Alien" movies. While wearing a mask, the dancer does not simply imitate the god or mythical creature represented by the mask. According to Jeffrey Quilter, author of Gold and Power in Ancient Costa Rica, Panamá, and Colombia, "...masked dancers do not simply "become" or transform into the personages whose costumes they wear. The relationship is much more complex and subtle. By wearing the mask, the dancer becomes "in agreement with" the deity or dueño, becoming his brother or his equal, and as a member of the deity 's family, is in a position to mediate between the community and the ancestral or supernatural world."

Art and culture

This small gold object represents a frog or a toad. It was created sometime between 300-550 AD as an offering for a religious ceremony. The ancient Panamanians obtained their gold by panning in streams or digging shallow trenches in ravines. Important elite figures wore beautiful gold jewelry to designate their rank. As trade expanded and intensified, gold jewelry from Panama became famous among the Maya, Aztecs, and other Mesoamerican societies.

An zoomorphic incense burner is shaped with the face of a crocodile. The term zoomorphic refers to objects shaped like animals. It is believed that the representation of fierce, armored animals like crocodiles indicates the dominance of a warrior ethos. For archaeologists, ceramic objects are some of their most important finds. The shapes of the vessels and their styles of decoration help identify the culture that produced them and the time period in which the piece was created. When other objects are found in close proximity to an identified ceramic piece, their chronological and cultural identification can also be established. This is why the practice of "pot-hunting" is so destructive to our understanding of the past. Objects are often removed from their original context by thieves and sold to collectors interested only in their innate beauty. The removal process is usually careless and always undocumented. This may destroy our ability understand the cultural and historical significance not only of the object itself, but of everything around it. Pot-hunting can cause an irretrievable loss of a piece of human history.

This completes Part 1 of my Panamá series. I hope you have enjoyed it. If so, and you would like to leave a comment, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

1 comment:

If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim