The legendary chiefdoms of Panama have loomed large in anthropological theories of political power within small-scale polities. First recorded by sixteenth-century Spanish conquistadores, Panamanian chiefs were noted for their keen, entrepreneurial interest in the acquisition and trade of exotic imports, particularly finely crafted gold ornaments. Despite pronounced anthropological interest in the early historical accounts of Spanish chroniclers, the physical "on-the-ground" reality of Panamanian chiefdoms, as well as their antiquity, has never been established-rendering this political form more apparent than real. Proposed research will remedy this situation by conducting archaeological research at one of the historically documented chiefly seats of power-Parita or Antatara-in the lower La Villa valley on the Azuero Peninsula of Panama.

This research builds on a long-term program of investigation sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution and directed by archaeologist, Richard Cooke. Focusing on the hilltop site of Cerro Juan Diaz, Cooke has documented that the site was an important regional center from ca. 200 BC until the period immediately following the Spanish conquest. Current data suggest, however, that the site's function changed through time, from settlement, to ritual center, and then back to settlement. What is not clear is the total size of Cerro Juan Diaz, its relationships with other Pre-Columbian settlements in La Villa valley, and whether or not it was a seat of power within the historically described Parita chiefdom.

In order to expand our base of knowledge beyond the hilltop center, Ms Isaza will conduct an archaeological investigation of the lower La Villa valley that will be pursued in three stages: (1) survey and surface collection, (2) remote sensing of subsurface deposits in selected areas, and (3) limited excavation. Within the first stage of survey, topographic maps and commercial-grade aerial photographs will help to guide the survey and to select tracts of land where artifacts will be collected. Archaeological sites, indicated by mounded architecture and the presence of artifacts (primarily sherds, lithics, and worked shell) will be mapped with a hand-held GPS receiver. This phase of field research will yield data relevant to the relative dating of sites (via ceramic style), the presence of site hierarchies (a pattern of one or more large sites surrounded by many small villages), and the presence of locales of specialized production. During the second phase, selected locales will be subjected to a resistivity and a magnetic survey using a GEOHM 3 Resistivity Meter and a Cecium-vapor Gradiometer. These instruments have the potential to detect subsurface anomalies-such as fire hearths, structure walls, and burial pits-which will then be targeted for excavation during the third and final stage of the investigation. Overall, these methods will permit the systematic documentation of the spatial distribution and temporal depth of archaeological remains in the lower La Villa valley. Preliminary reconnaissance and identification of scattered polychrome ceramics, marine shell, and polished manos and metates (grinding stones) suggest that most sites in the valley were occupied between AD 300 and 1300. The observation of sites with dramatically different artifact inventories also suggests the possibility of specialized workshop locales for artisans working within the chiefly realm.

This investigation will advance our knowledge of the deep history of Panama in two critical ways. First, this study will establish the first "footprint" of a historically known Panamanian chiefdom by providing a body of physical evidence to complement Colonial chronicles. Second, this investigation will provide seminal evidence with which to evaluate the antiquity of chiefdoms in Panama. That is, if a site hierarchy similar in structure to contact-period settlement patterns can be established for much earlier periods, then it is likely that chiefly governance enjoyed great antiquity in the Central American isthmus. On the other hand, if the distribution of earlier sites is one of dispersed small villages, then an earlier acephalous political organization is more likely. Either way, this investigation will have a profound impact on both anthropological and political theories of the integration of small polities and on the cultural heritage of Panama.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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John E. Yellen
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Boston University
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