Panama Before Bastides, Columbus, and Balboa

Prior to the Conquest of Central America, Mexico, and Peru, Great Civilizations in the Americas had developed high cultural values.  The Aztec, Toltec and Maya civilizations to the West and North of Panama influenced cultural development in Panama itself.  The Aztecs from Mexico sent traders to the Isthmus and some of them settled in Almirante Bay when Montezuma fell.  To the East and South the great civilizations of Chimu, Nasca, Tiahuanaco, Chavin or Inca also exercised great influence in spite of the impassable jungle between the Isthmus and the Andes Coast.

But the Isthmus of Panama, while the only link between the Americas, was a difficult and seldom used clearing house.  The jungles then as now to the East and South were impassable.  The district known as the Chocó between Panama and the Colombia-Ecuador border is the least known and most primitive on earth today.  The Pacific coast line and the ocean area between the bay of San Miguel, where Balboa first stepped into the Pacific, and Point Santa Elena in Ecuador is at present the least known portion of ocean and coast line.  The savage inhabitants of the bordering fever-stricken inland have never paid tribute to any civilized race before or since the conquest.

The Atlantic Coast Line East of the Canal past Port Nombre De Dios is inhabited by the well known tribe of San Blas Indians who are primitive, but who have a great deal of self respect.  No outsiders are permitted to remain overnight in their domain.  They hold their land in common, preserve their tribes inviolate from outside influence, and while paying tribute in the form of a tribal tax, do not recognize outside government authority.  They trade frequently at Colon and it is hoped that they be permitted to continue their peaceful pursuits undisturbed.

The Isthmus produced civilizations of outstanding achievements, not ranking however with the Aztec, Maya or Inca.  However, there is evidence that their religious perspective was of a higher order as they did not have the human sacrifices common in Mexico.   These civilizations are known as the Chiriqui and Coclé from the present provinces in which they were centered -- the Coclé being adjacent to the present canal, and the Chiriqui to the West.  Many of the tribal chiefs of these civilizations still have towns and rivers on the Isthmus named for them such as Chamé, from where we obtained sand for the Pacific Locks, Chiru, Penonomé, Ola, Nata, Paris, Parita, etc.  The story of the foraging expeditions through the region of the present Canal and into the territory of these various chiefs by the early Spaniards, some led by Pizarro himself, is one of extermination and cruelty incited by the lust of gold.

The Chiriqui and Coclé tribes were advanced workers in metals and pottery and the Spanish foraging expeditions yielded considerable booty in gold.  The first recorded archaeological account was in 1522.  Oviedo in charge of the original Spanish settlement of Santa Maria was informed that it was customary to bury members of the tribe of one of the caciques with gold.  He opened two graves and found maize and a war club but no gold.

In 1840 natives opened some graves in the Sierras behind Canas Gordas in Chiriqui and found 52 lbs. of gold ornaments.  This treasure reached the nearby town of David.

During the construction of the old Panama Railroad a number of gold objects were found on the left bank of the Rio Grande about 7 miles from Panama and close to the present Miraflores Locks.

In 1858 the famous cemetery was opened in Chiriqui of Bugaba.  In 1858-1859 equally important cemeteries at Bugabita and Boquete were located.  Great wealth was brought to light.  Most of the gold images recovered were melted down but some still remain, principally in the various museums.  Other archaeological findings were carelessly destroyed in the rush of the natives to open graves for gold.  Even today Chiriqui yields rich archaeological finds but in greatly diminished quantities.

In 1916 Karl Curtis of Ancon (now Gorgas) hospital attending the Panama Exposition, was more wide awake than I.  He saw an exhibit of Coclé which Hector Conte found on his property uncovered by the washing action of the river Rio Grande de Coclé.  His interest finally led to the archaeological studies of Central by the Peabody Museum of Harvard University under the leadership of Samuel Kirkland Lothrop in 1930-1931 and 1933.

Curtis also interested A. Hyatt Verrill who in 1925 initiated excavations in Coclé as a more accessible point on the Rio Cano where a large area was covered by ancient refuse.   He unearthed a large enclosure formed by rows of some columns some 20 feet long and a foot in diameter, many rudely carved.

The Panama Indians show linguistic and other racial affinities to the continent to the South.  Millions of them were cruelly exterminated by Pedro Arias, the first Spanish Governor, who also beheaded Balboa.  Anderson in his historical book on Old Panama calls Pedro Arias "The Wrath of God" and "The Timur of the Indies."

From: Our Faith Moved Mountains by Richard H. Whitehead [former Testing Engineer Isthmian Canal Commission], Newcomen Address delivered March 17th, 1943 at the Union League Club, New York City.  Limited edition by Princeton University Press.

January 23, 2000

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