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History of the Archaeology and Anthropology Program

Olga Richard Tony and crew 1975 Aguadulce Rockshelter
Olga Linares (center) with Richard Cooke (right) and Tony Ranere (far right) at the 1975 Aguadulce Rockshelter excavations

Archaeology and anthropology have been important fields of study at STRI for nearly five decades. STRI’s first archaeologist, Dr. Olga Linares, began archaeological excavations in Panama, her country of birth, when she joined the Interrelationship of New World Cultures investigation in 1961, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). She wrote her PhD dissertation at Harvard University (1968) on the cultural and faunal remains of pre-Columbian sites in the Gulf of Chiriquí. In 1969, she started an NSF project whose goal was to trace the origins and long-term social and cultural development of past and present “Guaymi” (today known as Ngäbe), focusing on “adaptive radiations” along both coasts of western Panama (Chiriquí and Bocas del Toro), and in the mountains of the Talamanca Range. In order to explore the complexity of human/environmental interactions, Dr. Linares’s research agenda combined a number of different methods and experts, from ceramic and stone tool analysis to faunal, vegetation, and ethnographic studies, a combination of multidisciplinary techniques that was ahead of its time in the field.

Dolores Piperno with wild teosinte
Dolores Piperno with wild teosinte

In the 1980s, the STRI archaeological team expanded to include Drs. Richard Cooke (1983) and Dr. Dolores Piperno (1988), both of whom had already spent several years in Panama examining different aspects of ancient Panamanian prehistory and environments. Dr. Cooke’s research interests range from faunal studies (subsistence, environmental, and even symbolic) to studies of material culture in order to document how it evolved through time on the Panama Landbridge in response to historical human demography, socioeconomic change, and external contacts, including the Spanish conquest and European settlement. Dr. Piperno’s focus on plant remains opened up new insights into the origin of agriculture in Central and South America, and her research perfected archaeobotanical study methods in tropical environments, particularly phytolith and starch grain recovery and identification. She investigated climate and vegetational history in Panama through lake sediment phytolith study, providing information on Late Pleistocene and Holocene environments. She continues to develop novel research into the phynotypic and genetic development and geographic dispersal of important New Word crops, especially maize, squash, and beans.

Caravali Rockshelter Excavations
Excavations at the Carabalí Rockshelter, Central Panama

From 1981 to 1985, the National Science Foundation awarded a multiyear grant to Drs. Linares, Cooke, and long-time STRI Research Associate Dr. Anthony Ranere to conduct extensive surveys and excavations in the Santa María watershed of central Pacific Panama. This immense project not only resulted in the discovery of many previously undocumented preceramic and ceramic period sites, but initiated a number of associated projects based on the discoveries. Among these was an extensive multi-occupation coastal site, La Mula-Sarigua, a coastal settlement with a complex geomorphological history that was first excavated by Dr. Patricia Hansell. Another series of discoveries resulted in the excavation of various rockshelters housing early evidence of Paleoamerican (13,200 – 11,000 years ago) and early post-glacial (11,000 – 7800 years ago) Archaic human activity, including Vampiros Cave and the Carabali and Corona rockshelters.

CJD Op 4 excavations
Excavations at Cerro Juan Díaz, Central Panama

In the 1990s, STRI welcomed its first cultural anthropologist, Dr. Fernando Santos-Granero (1994), whose ethnographic research focusing on modern and historic societies in the Amazon region opened a new thematic realm of tropical investigations at the Institute. Dr. Linares’s research branched into modern ethnographic studies of subsistence strategies, including improving farming practices, in southern Senegal. Dr. Piperno’s work expanded into a number of different geographic regions, exploring the vegetational histories of ancient landscapes, crop plant origins, and changing agricultural methods through time in Mexico, the Amazon, and east Asia. In Panama, Dr. Cooke and Costa Rican archaeologist Luis Sánchez Herrera began a long-term archaeological project on the large but badly looted site of Cerro Juan Díaz near the north-eastern coast of the Azuero Peninsula. This site, occupied between about 200 BCE and the sixteenth century CE, provided (and continues to provide) immense information on ancient Panamanian material culture, mortuary customs, subsistence, and exchange over a long period of important cultural developments and social complexity intensification. Students from Panama (Máximo Jiménez and Drs. Ilean Isaza and Julia Mayo), Costa Rica (Luis Sánchez Herrera), and Colombia (Claudia Díaz and Dr. Diana Carvajal), wrote Licenciatura (Master’s) theses or doctoral dissertations on specific aspects of the Cerro Juan Díaz research, all of whom have continued on to conduct archaeological investigations in Panama and elsewhere in the world.

Yadixa del Valle and Máximo Jiménez analyze fish from Pedro González Island

By the early 2000s, archaeological research at STRI moved to the Pearl Island Archipelago, as archaeologists Dr. Cooke, Dr. Juan Guillermo Martín, and others conducted surveys and excavations on ten islands. Many areas were in imminent danger of destruction due to large-scale development projects. On the island of Pedro González, the project found evidence of human occupation dating back some 6000 years, remains of a dwarfed deer, and the first evidence in all Central America for the human exploitation of dolphins. Meanwhile on mainland Panama, other STRI-associated researchers continued excavating rockshelters, including multi-component Vampiros Caves 1 and 2 (13,500 to 1500 years ago; Drs. Georges Pearson and Diana Carvajal). Pearson located additional Paleoamerican sites and two pre-human paleontological sites in the Azuero Peninsula (the latter dated to between 45,000 and 47,000 years ago) where mastodons and giant ground sloths were enmired. Survey and excavation continued along the little-known central Caribbean watershed (Dr. John Griggs).

Richard Cooke Mula-Sarigua 2015
Richard Cooke with the Princeton Field Course at the La Mula-Sarigua site, Central Panama

By the 2000s, STRI Research Associate Dr. Thomas Wake had begun the Sitio Drago Archaeological Project in Bocas del Toro, examining a 17-hectare late pre-Columbian settlement on Isla Colón that had once been an important trade center. Faunal remains include sea turtles and manatees as well as abundant and diverse fish. Research on this extensive site and what it can tell us about ancient Panamanian society during the time of Spanish contact is still ongoing. Meanwhile on the other (Pacific) side of the isthmus, Dr. Ilean Isaza and botanist Dr. Alicia Ibañez began to survey the large island of Coiba in the Gulf of Montijío (Veraguas), identifying a number of archaeological sites that had trade connections with the mainland. Isaza conducted excavations on a small island (Jiacarita) at the southern tip of Coiba, recovering abundant fish remains that comprise the most open-sea suite species in STRI’s long involvement with coastal archaeozoology, such as small tuna and many species of jacks and mackerels.

Rebecca Mendelsohn and Nicole Smith-Guzmán assess a cave along the southern Azuero coast

Also in the 2010s, STRI research moved toward consolidating and re-examining the extensive human skeletal collection at the Naos Archaeology Laboratory. Bioarchaeologist Dr. Nicole Smith-Guzmán began working at STRI as a postdoctoral fellow in 2016, establishing a system of analyzing and inventorying skeletons in the collection, improving accessibility of this important collection to future researchers, and simultaneously undertaking multiple region-wide studies of biocultural aspects of ancient Isthmian life. In 2022, Smith-Guzmán became STRI’s first curator and is expanding her collections care work to all of STRI’s archaeological collections while continuing to pursue research into ancient Isthmian lived experience.

Ancon/CTPA Archaeology Lab
Ancon/CTPA Archaeology Lab, 2023. Photo by Steve Paton.

In 2017, Dr. Ashley Sharpe joined the other archaeologists at STRI, and has begun working with Dr. Smith-Guzmán to examine the Panama human and animal isotopes in order to understand past diet and mobility patterns. Furthermore, Sharpe’s research concerning the human impact on ancient animals in densely-settled communities of the Maya region has expanded STRI’s current archaeological research into other areas of Central America, including Guatemala, Belize, and the northern Honduran coast.

STRI’s anthropologists and archaeologists continue to conduct research both in Panama and elsewhere in the American tropics. They study all aspects of humans and their complex relationship with an ever-changing environment.