(Picture is a courtesy of Galeria Cano, Panama).

The first vestiges of human presence in the Isthmus were found in the Lake Alajuela, also called Madden Lake, dating back 11,000 years. Agriculture began as early as 3,500 years ago. They were descendants of migrants who had crossed a land bridge from Asia to North America. Some of these first people remained in Panama, while others continued to South America. After the beginning of agriculture and stone tool making, Panama’s native population grew and developed an impressive culture. The early indigenous people are best known for their beautiful gold jewelry, beads, and multicolored pottery, left behind in huacas, or burial mounds. In addition to farming, they hunted and fished for food, and traded goods among villages. Most lived in thatched-roof huts, similar to those in which many of their descendants live today.

The earliest known inhabitants of Panama were the Cuevas and the Coclé tribes, but they were massacred and wiped out by Spanish who arrived in the 16th century.

The Caribs populated Panama from approximately 900 to 1,500 years ago. Although little is known about their hieroglyphics compared to the writings of the Mayan culture, the petroglyphs may have been used to commemorate certain festivities or religious functions, warnings to other tribes not to trespass and to explain the ways of the spirits. The Caribs worshiped various gods and spirits and apparently implored them to give rain, good crops, and animals to hunt. Hunters from various tribes would occasionally travel out of their territory to hunt and possibly plunder villages and graves where much of the other tribe's wealth and religious totems were to be found. The Caribs believed that if they could obtain the items placed in the graves of great warriors or tribal chiefs they would receive their power and strength.

Unlike the massive pyramid complexes found throughout Latin America, the ancient towns and cities of Panama vanished in the jungles, never to be seen by the eyes of the modern world. However, tales of lost cities still survive in the oral histories of Panama’s indigenous communities, and there is hope amongst Panamanian archaeologists that a great discovery lies in waiting. Considering that much of Panama consists of inaccessible mountains and rainforests, perhaps these dreams aren’t so fanciful.

What is known about pre-Columbian Panama is that early inhabitants were part of an extensive trading zone that extended as far south as Peru and as far north as Mexico. Archaeologists have uncovered exquisite gold ornaments and unusual life-size stone statues of human figures as well as distinctive types of pottery and metates (stone platforms that were used for grinding corn).

Precolumbian Panama Chronology
  • Paleo-Indian Period (10000 - 8000 BC): Human occupation of the isthmian area seems to have predated the traditional Paleo-Indian period. However, few evidence exists about this pre-projectile points occupation. During the Paleo- Indian phase groups are socially organized in bands and subsistence is based on hunting and plant collection. Tools included fluted points, similar to the fishtail points from South America. Important sites: Lake Madden.
  • Early Preceramic Period (8000 – 5000 BC): People practiced hunting, plant collection and fishing. Many sites of this period are caves and rock shelters used temporarily. Important sites: Cueva de los Vampiros.
  • Late Preceramic Period (5000 – 2900 BC): Settlements are now located on the coast. These include rock shelters, shell mounds and some open sites. Subsistence system is more varied: hunting, fishing, collection of crabs and shellfish, collection of aquatic and terrestrial plants. Tool-kits are more sophisticated with use of grinding stones and axes. Important sites: Cerro Mangote, Cueva de los Ladrones, Aguadulce Shelter.
  • Early Ceramic Period (2900 – 300 BC): Introduction of maize cultivation by 1500 BC. Sites are mainly small villages. Ceramic appears on the coast of the Western region at Monagrillo. Other important sites are: La Mula, a large, nucleated village, Zapotal, El Limon, Guacamayo and Playa Venado.
  • Late Ceramic Period I (300 BC – AD 750): By 300 BC, diffusion of large, permanent maize-cultivating villages. Still intensive exploitation of hunting and aquatic resources. By AD 500, emerging of ceremonial centers with public architecture. Increasing social differentiation visible in burial types and goods. Examples of mass burials located around interment of single individuals, who are accompanied by luxury items. Bichrome and polychrome pottery with zoomorphic and geometric motifs. Wide array of tools used for stone jewelry and stone carving. Gold appears by AD 500 in co-occurrence with higher display of social status. Important sites: El Hatillo, Sitio Conte, Sitio Sierra, Las Huacas, Panama Viejo, El Caño
  • Late Ceramic Period II (AD 750 – 1510): Cultural patterns developed in the previous period continue. Chiefdom societies correspond now to the ones encountered by the Spaniards at their arrival in the 16 century. The region is ruled by chiefs with large armies and resources obtained through interregional exchange as described by ethnohistoric sources. Personal leadership is displayed through gold ornaments, weaponry and painted items. Diffusion of funerary urns and burials in artificial mounds. The end of the period is signed by the Spanish conquest in 1510 and the beginning of the Colonial era. Important sites: Panama Viejo, El Hatillo, Nata, Miraflores, Guaniquito, Sitio Sierra, El Caño.
Sources:
Cooke, R., 1984, Archaeological Research in Central and Eastern Panama: A Review of Some Problems, in The Archaeology of Lower Central America, edited by Frederick Lange and Doris Z. Stone. School of American Research Book, Unversity of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, pp: 263-302
Locascio, William A, 2010, Communal Tradition and the Nature of Social Inequality among the Prehispanic Households of El Hatillo (HE-4), Panama, (Ph.D. Dissertation) University of Pittsburgh (Accessed on-line, 10/14/2010),

You can miss them easily enough even when searching, and anyone who has walked up a stream bed or along some of the many valleys in Panama may have seen but not recognized the petroglyphs -- huge rocks and boulders on which the Indians left part of their indelibly written history 1,000 years ago. The first petroglyph in Panama was discovered in 1898, and by 1953 only three were known.

The ancient Carib Indians are credited with engraving their hieroglyphics. Highly skilled in the arts and crafts, the Caribs chipped out their messages on only certain boulders -- those that faced water, either a stream, river, or pond. It is assumed that some of the writing to the rain god.

One theory is that the Carib hieroglyphics were made for certain festivals and ceremonies, and that humans were sacrificed on the rocks to bring good luck to the tribe. The largest one is of a 5-foot alligator.
  One theory is that the Carib hieroglyphics were made for certain festivals and ceremonies, and that humans were sacrificed on the rocks to bring good luck to the tribe. The largest one is of a 5-foot alligator. According to belief, even today, an Indian never dies, but goes to a happier, more plentiful life, therefore, their wealth consisting of gold ornaments, colorful feathers and pottery was buried with them.To protect the graves and to keep away pillaging warriors from other tribes, some of the petroglyphs appear to have been engraved with warnings saying that trespassers would be dealt with severely and possibly face death.

Around 500 years B.C., indigenous people established three cultural regions that were maintained until Spaniard contact. those regions: eastern, central, and western, were not isolated since commercial and cultural relations existed between themselves, Central America and Mexico, as testified to by a gold piece from Panama discovered in the sacred underground reservoir in Chichen Itza, Mexico.

 

 The Indian culture that created the unearthed objects was flourishing at the time of the Spaniard Conquest in the early sixteenth century. These artifacts, which were found in burial sites, include objects of gold and other metals, jewelry of semiprecious stones, bone and ivory (whale-tooth) carvings, textiles and pottery.
These artifacts are vessels with human heads, or in the shape of fish, frogs, birds, monkeys, coatis, and other mammals. The painted motifs include striking geometric and abstract patterns, human and semi-human beings and many animal forms (birds, crabs, serpents, felines).
WESTERN REGION:
It was between the 5th and 4th century B.C. that dwellers from central Costa Rica arrived in the Panamanian Cordillera where they expanded on the coasts of both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
The developed communities based on cultivating corn and beans whose center probably was in BARRILES, the sole ceremonial hub for the region.

 Barriles was located on the fertile slopes of the Barú volcano, which today is in the province of Chiriquí, encompassing and inhabited zone, a cemetery and a ceremonial hillock. It was discovered and studied by U.S. archaeologist Mathew W. Stirling in the 1950's. Stirling, who was the only one to see it in its original form (it was altered later when statues were removed and sent to museums) described a ceremonial hillock culminating in a stony rectangular plaza decorated with mysterious petroglyphs and a line of statues starting east of the hillock.
   Barriles civilization is famous for its stone statues and beautiful and curious "metates", flat stones on which corn was ground. The statues usually represent a man holding a head-trophy. Sometimes, a second man carries an axe on his shoulder. This peculiar kind of sculpture suggests a warriors' culture with slaves and caciques (chiefs).
 The gigantic metates of Barriles were used in ceremonial rites associating corn with fertility. The monocolor pottery made during that period is called "Bugaba", and has a red or dark orange tone but is varied in designs, often repeating those found in Barriles statues.
According to Panamanian archaeologist Olga Linares, Barú volcano erupted in the 5th century A.D., provoking the disappearance of that strange civilization, and with it, the stone statues and Bugaba pottery. After a period of uncertain definition for the archaeologists, the region was occupied by two cultures known as the San Lorenzo and Classic Chiriquí phases. Those periods are characterized by a great variety of earthenware: the thin and elaborate type called "Bisquist": a three-color one with red and black designs over a cream background; another called "fish tripod" because it has three legs and features a fish, and lastly the "negative" painted technique. The ceramic was covered by wax designs and painted. The wax was later removed leaving the design in "negative".
CENTRAL REGION:
The central region encompassed the western part of the province of Panamá to the province of Veraguas. Around the 6th century A.D., native American groups were organized in rank-societies with an economy based on intensive agriculture, fishing, hunting, and commercial exchange. They were societies of warriors fighting to control the best lands and commercial routes.

The region produced an original pottery from 300 B.C. to 1,500 A.D. The archaeologists believe that the pottery's zoomorphic designs represent the most ferocious or armored species, for example, alligator, jaguar, crab, and armadillo-emphasizing organs used in combat or defense such as claws, beaks, and fangs. It was through those designs and metaphors that the characteristics of aggressiveness and defense a warrior would need were expressed.

SITIO CONTE is a ceremonial center and cemetery used by many groups on special occasions such as the end of a battle and it is located between Penonomé and Natá. It is there that U.S. archaeologist Samuel Lothrop, from Harvard University, developed professional archaeology in Panamá in the 1930's. The ceremonial character of Sitio Conte is revealed in the lines of the 6-feet rough stone columns, associated with "altars" made of flat stones at the top of it. One line of columns is oriented from east to west, and the other is detoured diagonally to the first, describing a curve. The altars are located facing each other, from north to south of the columns. Sitio Conte contrasts with the other ceremonial centers found in the rest of central America.

Thousands of spectacular painted pottery items were exhumed in Sitio Conte, establishing the continuity of the Central Provinces ceramic styles. The "Conte" and "Macaracas" styles developed between 500 and 1,100 A.D., and were characterized by polychrome designs (black, brick red, and purple on white color), symmetry and unusual use of figures similar to our "Y" an "C".

The late ceramic styles before the Spaniard contact, "Parita" and "El Hatillo" (1,100-1,500 A.D.) are characterized by the abstraction and geometrization of zoomorphic figures and loss of the purple color.

EASTERN REGION:
The eastern region, encompassing the province of Panamá as far as the gulf of Urabá now in Colombia, is the least known as there were few archaeological studies made on location. Therefore, most of its history is based on the Spanish chroniclers' observations. The Spaniards described a society of chiefdoms, dispersed housing where the chief's dwelling, larger and more decorated was a cultural and ceremonial center in which were found the "Cacique" (chief) embalmed ancestors and treasures accumulated for generations.

Archaeology identified two types of ceramics in that area: the first one called "Choppy Chocolate" (1,500 A.D.) with no paint but decorated with animals in bas-relief, while the other one (685-895 A.D.) surprisingly different from the former, was found in a pre-Columbian cemetery located near Río Bayano. Rare objects were discovered such as rocking-legged trays, round pottery vessels with neck representing birds and a large human face mask.
 Gold objects were valued as status symbols and like elaborate ceramics, played an important role in trade with other groups.Moreover, gold objects as well as painted pottery were used to proclaim identity. Their owners used them and were buried with them.
Goldsmiths worked two types of gold: the first one, "Tumbaga", was alloyed with copper and used for elaborate jewelry, more valued for its form than for its weight in gold, and the other employed 22k. gold for pestered and embossed disks, crowns, helmets, and bracelets.
Pre-Columbian Art and its aesthetic forms have a meaning and express a belief, for example, local jewelry constantly features mythical animals, such as frogs, felines, crocodiles, and birds of prey. Animal designs in duplicate concur with the belief that human have an alter ego, a second self represented by a clear side and a dark side, human one and animal one, while batmen and crocodile men are the representation of cultural heroes.
(From "Getting to know PANAMA", Michéle Labrut, Focus Publications, 1997).