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Tracing the Origins, Dispersal, and Survival of Native Americans in the Panama Isthmus

Maria Fernandez Deer
Maria Fernandez sorting Panamanian deer (Photo: Sean Mattson)

STRI’s archaeology research began nearly 50 years ago when Olga Linares joined the staff. Olga brought with her a multidisciplinary approach with a strong emphasis on interactions between prehistoric Native Americans and the natural environment. Beginning her studies in the western Caribbean where the Ngäbe had lived for thousands of years, Olga emphasized the importance of comparing the past and present lifeways of this ancient cultural group who are the majority survivors in today’s Panama, where six other Native American groups still live speaking their ancient languages. Archaeologists once believed that Panama was essentially a transit zone for Native Americans voyaging between the cities of Mesoamerica, the Maya world, and the Andes. Human population genetics and historical linguistics changed this scenario. Once the last Ice Age was over and the huge animals had gone, hunters and gatherers gave way to farmers who cut and, where possible, burnt the forests. Many animal species became human prey or commensals. Fishing became important when sea levels stabilized about 6000 years ago. STRI has continued Olga’s vision, and interdisciplinarity has burgeoned, adding new scientists with new methodologies and interests.

Cooke and Gonzalez Panama Stone Tools
Richard Cooke and Jonathan Gonzalez, analyzing stone tools

When did isthmian pre-Columbian Native Americans begin to fish and how important was fishing to nutritional health?

Tourist brochures tell us the name “Panama” means “abundance of fish.” Rightly so: Spanish chronicles extol the ease of netting large quantities of fish in Panama’s’ vast tidal estuaries. Small shoaling fish were preferred. Many were caught in tidal traps of stone-and-cane. They were dried and salted and sent inland, enhancing nutrition. Along the virtually tide-less Caribbean and in the reef-fringed tidal Pearl Islands, fishing occurred in bays, near reefs and in clear water columns beginning 6200 years ago. For 45 years STRI archaeologist Richard Cooke built up a fish skeleton reference collection. Now curated by Ngäbe research assistant, Máximo Jiménez, it is gradually improving coverage for the Caribbean in order to keep in line with STRI’s incorporation of the Maya world into its archaeology and anthropology program directed by zooarchaeologist and isotope specialist, Ashley Sharpe. Cooke and Jiménez have each described new sea catfish species based on bones recovered in Panamanian pre-Columbian archaeological sites.

Did pre-Columbian Native Americans hunt in isthmian tropical forests?

In the western Caribbean, some villagers hunted near tropical forests. But they were farmers who had to tend their fields. At one hamlet (Cerro Brujo) they preferred palatable rodents such as nocturnal pacas (tepescuintles) and diurnal agoutis, which raided their gardens. At Boca del Drago village a short distance away, STRI research associate Tom Wake recorded some deep forest mammals, but found that hunting the huge aquatic manatee and very large sea turtles were profitable ways of improving the meat supply. In the extensive wooded savannas over much of Panama’s Pacific watershed, the greatest hunting effort went into the white-tailed deer. This gregarious species was hunted from 8000 years ago and became important for communal feasts. Its bones and antlers were whittled into many kinds of tools and ormaments   A very different kind of deer was hunted intensively and extirpated on Pedro González Island in the Pearl Islands (Pacific) beginning about 6000 years ago. The genetic identity of this dwarf deer has stimulated much discussion, and its true identify will only be established by DNA studies preferably of its surviving neighbor on San José, under threat from nocturnal poaching.

What was valuable to ancient Panamanians?

Spondylus ornaments CJD
Spondylus shell ornaments from a burial at Cerro Juan Diaz (Photo: Richard Cooke)

Cultures all over the globe show off expensive clothes, exuberant hats, showy jewelry, fine dogs and flashy cars. Richard Burton gave Elizabeth Taylor a large pearl that once belonged to the Spanish royal family, who acquired it from the Panama Pearl Islands. English surgeon-pirate Lionel Wafer encountered a Native American Guna potentate accompanied by several women wearing gold necklaces. The foot soldiers of today’s armies wear drab uniforms in battle for camouflage, but in pre-Columbian conflicts, chieftains announced their rank and valor to their enemies with shiny gold plaques on their chests. They were embossed with creatures from the myths and legends of their descent groups. The oldest personal ornaments in Panama (6000 years ago) are perforated teeth from huge sharks. Many millennia later, hundreds of shark teeth went into long necklaces or studded war clubs. The rich and powerful were placed in graves replete with enormous quantities of exquisitely crafted golden objects, precious stones and colored cotton mantles.  Dogs were bred for their teeth, sewn onto cotton shirts. Following Olga Linares’ pioneering research, Richard Cooke has made the symbolism of neotropical animals and fish an integral part of his STRI research.