Darién

large boulder covered with geometric carvings, also covered in moss

La Mola

Letter to Students

Hi Students!

My name is Lucy Gill, and I’ve been an archaeologist for about ten years. As a kid, I loved going to natural history museums, especially the Field Museum in Chicago, where I’m from, but I didn’t know that you could actually be an archaeologist – I thought it was a job that only existed in movies. When I got to college, I signed up for an archaeology course my first semester, but only to fulfill a requirement, since I thought I was going to major in biology. I didn’t have the chance to do any archaeological fieldwork for another three years, but I immediately fell in love with the way archaeology made me think critically about how histories are created and what those histories can teach us about how to be good stewards (caretakers) of landscapes. Since then, I’ve worked at archaeological sites in Belize, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, and the United States, and I love how much time I get to spend outside!

I’m now working towards my PhD at the University of California, Berkeley and co-direct an archaeological project in the Darién Province of Panama, which borders Colombia. My project was named Darién Profundo (Deep Darién) by Noé Alvarado, a community leader in Darién and local radio host, who wanted to emphasize the diverse local history of the Province. His ancestors founded the first known free Black settlement in the Americas in 1570, called Santiago del Príncipe, just one of the many interesting but understudied events that have taken place in this area! Darién was first settled by Indigenous people more than 10,000 years ago. The Indigenous population numbered in the millions by the time the first Spanish settlement on the American continent was founded in 1510. During the 1690s, Darién was the site of Scotland’s only colonial expedition, which failed after only eight months due to tropical disease. 

My research works with local communities who live in Darién to answer questions that are relevant to them today. At the moment, we are focused on two main topics:

1) How people interacted with the environment in the past (including my favorite topic, what people liked to eat!), and how that continues to affect the environment today; and 

2) How cultural traditions, like pottery making and stone tool making, have persisted and changed over time, and what that can tell us about sociopolitical organization. 


I hope you enjoy this journey through the dense jungles of Darién! First step: hop in our field hãp’a (canoe, in the Emberá language)!

Saludos,

Lucy

view from inside a canoe, brown river, dense green foliage

View from inside a canoe in Darién

Key Terms

Emberá: one of the three Indigenous groups in Darién

woman standing next to large boulder covered in carvings

Me with a boulder covered in Indigenous rock art in the Darién region of Panama, which I first documented on my birthday in 2019!

Map

Timeline

DatesEvents
11,000 BCE First evidence of Indigenous Panamanians, mostly stone tools and modified animal bones found in coastal rock shelters, as well as forest management through burning.
5000 BCE First evidence of domestication, which corresponds to a shift in forest management strategies.
2000 BCE First evidence of pottery production, tied to sedentism, agricultural intensification, and food storage.
1510 CE First Spanish settlement on American continent was founded.
1570 CE Santiago del Príncipe, first known free Black settlement in the Americas was established in Darién

Introduction to Darién

Today, Darién is covered by dense tropical jungle and is known for being remote and difficult to access – so difficult that this area is still the only ‘gap’ in the Panamerican Highway that runs from Prudhoe, Alaska all the way to Tierra del Fuego in Argentina. It is home to three Indigenous groups: the Emberá, the Wounaan, and the Guna. The Panamanian government has tried multiple times to complete the highway, and each time these groups have protested in order to protect the rainforest and their ways of life, so far with great success. Between the 1960s and 2016, few non-Darienistas (people from Darién) traveled to the Province because it was occupied by the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), a paramilitary group that engaged in kidnappings, illegal mining, extortion, and drug trafficking. Despite the peace deal signed by the FARC in 2016, the legacies of narcoterrorism and illegal exploitation of land continue to plague this area.

Billboard with Spanish messages against drug trafficking

Billboard on the side of the road in Darién, created by the Panamanian paramilitary border patrol group SENAFRONT, which reads, “Your decision, your future: narcotics trafficking has only two paths: jail or death. Don’t choose these paths and report illegal activities.”

Darién is also currently in the news because just this past year, a record number of 42,000 migrants from as far away as Southeast Asia journeyed through the deep jungle of the Darién Gap trying to reach the United States and Canada.

Now, why should we care about the contemporary politics of Darién? We’re studying archaeology, which looks at material from the past! First of all, my project uses a framework called community-based participatory research, which works with stakeholders who live in communities around the Province to identify research questions that are relevant to them today and then design research methods in partnership with them to answer those questions. This means we use some methods that are standard in archaeology, like archaeological survey (walking around looking for new archaeological sites) and excavation (digging!), but we also use methods that are a little more uncommon, like interviews, participatory mapping (helping community members map their towns and historical landmarks), and video production. It’s important to understand how people are living now in order to make sure that the research we do about the past is useful. Second, all archaeological projects create history, and as archaeologists we want to think carefully about the effects that history can have today. For example, archaeological evidence has both been used to help Indigenous groups protect their land and to take land away from them.

Key Terms

Darién: The southeasternmost province of Panama, which borders Colombia.

Community-based participatory research: A research framework that treats stakeholders as equal partners in designing research questions and methods, based on their interests and what actions they wish to take in their community.

Stakeholders: People that have a vested interest in a particular archaeological site. Often, this refers to local or descendant communities, but it can also refer to museums, landowners, archaeologists, governments, etc.

Changing Narratives: Community-Based Participatory Research

Community-based participatory research is a great way to do research because it incorporates expert voices who usually get excluded – in this case, the voices of contemporary Indigenous people, who are descended from the people who built the archaeological sites we research. While a lot has changed over the past several millennia, tribes have preserved a lot of their Traditional Ecological Knowledge about how the forests work and how people should sustainably manage them, along with other cultural practices.

man in dense forest holding long leaves

Antonio, an Emberá tribe member from the community of Mogué, showing me a tropical forest plant that is used in traditional medicine.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge is very important for conservation work today, but it is also important for reconstructing what happened in the past. Until 2019, when I started Darién Profundo, there was no scientific archaeology that had ever been done in Darién Province. Therefore, I didn’t have any local archaeological information to start from – where should I look for sites? What research questions should I ask? I would have had to infer these things from my previous research and the research of other archaeologists in other parts of the world, which may not be very helpful for figuring out what happened in Darién, since every context is unique. The Indigenous communities that still live here, though, know a lot about these places – including the archaeological sites that they live with and are often still considered sacred sites – and they have questions that they want answered. 


Sometimes, communities can help resolve longstanding archaeological debates and then inspire questions that lead research in new directions. Often, this research is related to contemporary politics. For example, one of the biggest questions for archaeologists of Darién is: what is the relationship between the tribes who live in the Province today (the Guna, the Emberá, and the Wounaan), and Darién’s pre-Hispanic Indigenous inhabitants? Spanish conquistadors refer to the Indigenous people of Darién as “the Cueva” and recorded 23 words of the supposed Cueva language. However, recent scholarship has shown that this list includes words from the Guna and Wounaan languages, as well as some from Arawak (a language used in Indigenous South America) and others from around the Caribbean. This could be the result of linguistic exchange between the Guna, Wounaan, and other Indigenous peoples of Darién, and Indigenous communities from South America and the Caribbean – there is good archaeological evidence that such long distance travel by canoe was very common. However, it could also be the result of faulty record-keeping by Spanish chroniclers.

At the very least, the Spaniards who recorded these words did not seem to understand that multiple tribes were living in Darién and had different, more fluid concepts about land boundaries than the Spanish. Many texts have also stated that “the Cueva” went “extinct” shortly after the Spanish arrival. While the Spanish conquistadors did undoubtedly murder and enslave many Indigenous people in their Darién colony, and many more died from disease, “extinction” has usually been used an excuse to take land away from contemporary Indigenous people. While there is a lot more research to be done on this topic, collaborative archaeology with Indigenous partners has been very enlightening so far, as you’ll learn in the section about Indigenous Sociopolitics, below.

Key Terms

Traditional Ecological Knowledge: Evolving knowledge about the relationships between human, animal, and plant communities and other features of the environment, in a specific place, acquired by local communities and passed down over long timescales. It often includes information about how humans can sustainably manage landscapes.

Pre-Hispanic: A term used to refer to Indigenous history in the Americas prior to the arrival of the Spanish in 1492. Keep in mind, some Indigenous peoples did not directly encounter the Spaniards or any other Europeans for decades or even centuries after 1492.

Landscape Learning and Climate Change

Panama was first occupied by Indigenous people at least 13,000 years ago (11,000 BCE). Archaeological evidence of this time period is typically found in rock shelters near the coast, which would have offered protection from the heavy tropical rainfall and extreme heat. These environments are also good for archaeologists because they preserve organic materials (plant material, bone, charcoal) that otherwise can decompose quickly, especially in a very damp rainforest. Because Panama is a very thin isthmus that bridges North and South America, and it has more early Indigenous sites than any other country in Central America, it is extremely important for understanding the peopling of the Americas, particularly the relationship between early sites in North and South America. 


The most common archaeological artifact from this time period is the Clovis point,a particular type of stone projectile point identified by their grooves that extend from the base of the tool about a third of the way up. Ancient peoples made these  grooves so that the points could be hafted – attached to spears or possibly knives. These stone tools were usually made in designated workshop areas, located near to quarries where the stone was collected. In Panama, these tools were made from chert, jasper, quartz, and other types of stone. Clovis points are diagnostic to the window of time between 13,500 and 12,800 years ago.

drawings of about 20 different stone projectile points in slightly varied shapes

Clovis points from Central America (c, d, f, h, and i are from Panama). Courtesy of Cooke (1998).

At the same time as people arrived in Panama, the climate warmed by ~10°F, as the last glacial period came to an end. While we don’t fully understand all the causes, we think this glacial melting was related to more sunlight reaching the Earth. Unlike today’s climate change, this wasn’t caused by people but was the result of natural fluctuations in Earth’s orbit, tilt, and wobble. With that increase in temperature, the ecosystem began to shift from a forest of trees like oak, holly, and myrtle – now only found in Panama on mountains – to the lowland tropical plants with brightly colored flowers and berries that are more common in the region today. Therefore, people had to learn not only how to live in a new place, but in a place that was rapidly changing around them. As part of this learning process, they began to use fire to manage the ecosystem. They regularly burned particular sections of forest, maintaining them as grasslands. This created more local biodiversity, which made the ecosystem more resilient but also provided people with more types of animals and plants to eat without having to go far away. While the Indigenous people of Panama didn’t have to worry about forest fires as much due to the humid climate, this practice is very similar to the traditional controlled burning that Indigenous people in the Western United States perform, both to lower fuel load to prevent large forest fires and to create biodiversity.

Key Terms

Isthmus: A narrow piece of land connecting two larger areas (in this case, North and South America) across an expanse of water that separates them.

Diagnostic: In archaeology, an artifact that is characteristic of a particular culture or time period and can be used to determine the chronology of a site.

woman in baseball cap holding up a stone arrowhead

Me, very proud of the stone arrowhead I found at Quebrada Seca. This is large enough to be attached to a spear and used for hunting deer and other large mammals.

Farming, Food, and Settling Down

At least 7000 years ago, Indigenous inhabitants of Panama began to introduce cultivation of three important crops, alongside their continued hunting and gathering: corn (Zea mays), manioc (Manihot esculenta), and arrowroot (Maranta arundinacea). I probably don’t need to tell you about the advantages of growing corn, since we continue to get a lot of our starch from this plant today in the United States. You may know manioc as cassava or yuca, which is very tasty boiled, fried, or fermented into the alcoholic beverage chicha. The boba pearls in bubble tea are also made from this plant! While you may not have heard of arrowroot, it is a starchy root plant like manioc, most commonly ground into flour. At one site that I documented in Darién, called Santiago Barbúa, we found metates (grinding platforms) and manos (pestles) that were used to produce this flour. This work was typically done by women, and analysis of human bones from a neighboring area has shown that because of all the grinding they did, women typically had larger, stronger arm muscles than men! This shows we should be careful about making assumptions about gender roles and anatomical differences between men and women when we study the past.

flat stone in half-circle shape, hammer-shaped object, plastic bags

Metate fragment (and geological pick) on the surface of Santiago Barbúa.

Corn was first domesticated from a wild plant called teosinte about 9000 years ago in southwestern Mexico and quickly became popular throughout Central and South America. Manioc and arrowroot, by contrast, were first domesticated in northern South America, possibly in what is now Brazil or Ecuador. Panama is the only pre-Hispanic context in Central America where all these domesticates appear, which shows that it was an important location for interactions between Indigenous communities to the north and south. This feature makes its archaeology particularly unique (and sometimes confusing!) and continues to influence contemporary Panamanian food, music, language, and politics. 

Indigenous Panamanians were also some of the first people in the Americas to develop the technology to produce pottery, about 4000 years ago. We found ceramic fragments from Santiago Barbúa that are from this time period – some of the oldest in the hemisphere! You may ask why archaeologists care so much about pots. It’s because they were very important for revolutionizing food storage. This ability to save leftovers from successful harvest seasons, and trade them with others, both locally and far away, also encouraged people to settle in one place rather than moving around – what we call in archaeology the origins of sedentism. Before this time period, people moved from the coast, where they would fish and gather shellfish, to more inland sites, where they would gather plants and hunt terrestrial animals, depending on the season. Being able to store and exchange surpluses (extra food), however, allowed people to more reliably have resources to stay in one place. 

This, in turn, led to an increase in agriculture, because it’s much easier to farm if you live near your fields rather than having to travel a long distance to visit them. People still hunted and fished for their protein – unlike today, the Indigenous Panamanians at this time had no farm animals for food or dairy. And they continued to gather plants for a significant amount of their food, medicine, construction material, etc, just like the Emberá and other Indigenous communities do today. However, the introduction of storage vessels meant that people could grow greater quantities of corn, manioc, and arrowroot and not have to worry about it going to waste (and they could save it in case of drought, insect infestations, or other conditions that led to a bad harvest). My colleague analyzed starch grains adhering to ceramic samples that I collected from the site of Santiago Barbúa – still there after 3000 years! – to show that vessels at this site were used to hold not only this domesticated species, but also wild varieties of beans. Yum!

series of small photographs of globular shapes, some individual, some stuck in clumps

Microscope photos of starch grains from Santiago Barbúa.

Key Terms

Metate: A flat or slightly concave stone on which materials such as grains, tubers, and cocoa are ground using a mano, similar to a mortar and pestle.

Mano: A smooth hand-held stone that grinds food in a metate through abrasion.

Sedentism: The practice of living in one place for a long time (in contrast to nomadism).

Starch grain: Tiny structure made by most plants during photosynthesis, made up of units of glucose sugar.

Domestication: The process of taking wild animals or plant seeds and intentionally breeding them to promote traits that are advantageous for human consumption, which results in permanent genetic modification.

Indigenous Sociopolitics

dirt path through dense vegetation, a woman, and houses on stilts in the distance

One of my collaborators, Doña Bélgica, wearing a traditional Emberá skirt and carrying a pail of water. The thatched roof houses in the background are traditional constructions, made of multiple types of local plants. The houses are elevated so that animals can be stored underneath them and so that the area can be used for chores that might be too dirty to carry out inside.

While working with the Emberá community of Mogué, community members introduced me to two different archaeological sites: La Mola and Quebrada Seca.

Both of these sites are located within the contemporary territory of this Emberá community (although they don’t have a legal title to this land – something they are working on, which archaeology might be helpful for). However, they are very different from each other: La Mola is a boulder carved with petroglyphs, with little other material culture, located far away from any natural resources. Quebrada Seca, which means “dry creek”, is a more typical settlement site, located on a river, where people were making ceramics and stone tools, hunting, fishing, and collecting water.

The community members of Mogué identified Quebrada Seca as their ancestral site, and I was able to see similarities between the technology they use to make ceramics today and the process that was used at that site.

woman seated on a floor, looking at a large round ceramic vessel

Doña Bélgica showing me a ceramic vessel that her mother made.

fragments of ceramic on the ground

Large ceramic sherds, probably from water-carrying vessels, on the surface of Quebrada Seca.

The layout of the ~1000-year-old agricultural fields at Quebrada Seca is also similar to those that the village uses today, which might imply that there are similarities in sociopolitical structure. Today, the village of Mogué is managed by a cooperative system – no one owns the land, and the village council determines how much land each family is responsible for cultivating and maintaining. The fields are subdivided based on the number of families and their allotments. Unless we have written information in addition to archaeological data about a society, it can be very difficult to figure out how the power structure of a society is organized (Who was in charge? Were there established socioeconomic classes, or was the society more egalitarian? Did people own land, and how was that decided?). Archaeologists typically look for evidence of power and hierarchy by excavating burials and looking at whether some people are buried with more or fancier objects than others. However, many communities do not want scientists to dig up their ancestors, and this desire should be respected. Also, merely establishing whether or not inequality existed does not tell us much about how the society actually functioned. Therefore, working with descendant communities to reconstruct these systems is crucial. 

As you can see in this photo of Quebrada Seca, the water level of the creek is low, which might explain why the community no longer cultivates this area. As they plan future land uses, the community is interested in learning about how climate change has impacted (and will impact) different areas of their territory in different ways.or example, why have some areas flooded, while others have become drier?, so this is a very interesting question for future archaeological study.

steep banks on either side of a very small stream, vegetation on either side of the stream

Quebrada Seca

Unlike Quebrada Seca, the Emberá community of Mogué does not recognize La Mola as an ancestral site. They maintain a path to it through the forest and visit it regularly, but they did not create it. Rather, they named it La Mola because it was created by the Guna people, who today mostly live on the Caribbean coast of Panama, on the opposite side of the country. The Guna are famous for their handmade multicolored textiles, called molasin the Guna language. Today, they are made with fabric, but in pre-Hispanic times these traditional motifs were painted on the body and drawn on other media – including this stone boulder. 


Based on Emberá oral history and information from historic documents, Mogué was never the ancestral territory of the Guna, but they had negotiated certain hunting, fishing, and trading rights with the Emberá, and this boulder was carved as a representation of the relationship between these communities. The Emberá people of Mogué maintain it today because they recognize the continued importance of this relationship. If you look closely at this boulder, you can see human figures, a geometric spiral, and a river, all iconographic motifs that are common in molas crafted today by the Guna.

large boulder covered with geometric carvings, also covered in moss

La Mola, the stone artifact

multicolored textile with geometric design in similar shape to carved stone, known as La Mola

Example of a Guna textile, called a mola. Note the similarity in design to La Mola. Can you see why La Mola was given that name?

Key Terms

Petroglyph: A rock art image created by removing part of the surface of the rock through carving or grinding.

Descendant community: Living people whose ancestors created or had an important relationship with an archaeological site. Descendant communities are one type of stakeholder.

Oral history: Stories that impart information about historical events and are passed down verbally from generation to generation. These stories often contain Traditional Ecological Knowledge and other place-specific information.

Sociopolitics: How communities organize their social (family, relationships) and political (decision-making and governance) systems. These can range from more hierarchical to more egalitarian, more patriarchal to more matriarchal, etc.

Mola: Traditional textile made by Guna craftspeople, usually women, who stitch together layers of brightly-colored fabrics and then cut them using applique techniques. The word means bird plumage in the Guna language, and these textiles are traditionally made into blouses and worn by Guna women. They often depict geometric patterns, as well as animals and plants.

Archaeologist Video

Archaeologist Video: Darién

Learn More

See more examples of molas from the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University.

Working with Indigenous Peoples to Protect Forests in Panama