Gran Coclé Chiefdoms of Central Panama

Gran Coclé (or Nata) is one of several names used to refer to the societies of cultures of central Panama, where a stratified independent chiefdoms developed between AD 200 and the Spanish conquest of the 16th century. Chiefs ruled over between 1,000-10,000 people living in areas of between 60-300 square kilometers (40-180 square miles). Based on grave goods and house size, the people were ranked into three distinct levels.Excavations at Gran Cocle Site of El Cano, Directed by Julia Mayo

People in central Panama farmed maize and hunted deer. They traded with Colombia to the south and Chiriqui to the west, particularly gold ore and other exotic objects. Cotton, dogs, dried fish, maize, gold ore and finished objects and slaves were traded throughout Panama. Textiles, ceramics and gold working were craft specializations for the chiefdoms of Gran Coclé.

Central Panama Chronology

  • La Mula Phase 200 BC-AD 250
  • Tonisi Phase AD 250-AD 550, first hints of stratification
  • Cubita Phase AD 550-700 elaborated burials at Sitio Conte and El Hatillo
  • Conte Phase AD 700-900
  • Macaracas Phase AD 900-1100, large scale feasting in evidence at El Hatillo, mortuary monuments constructed
  • Parita Phase AD 1100-1300
  • El Hatillo Phase AD 1300-1522

Living in Central Panama

Central Panama was visited by the Spanish conquistador Gaspar de Espinosa (1484-1537) in 1515, 1519, and 1520, and his notes describe the community of Nata, a major settlement at that time. Espinosa reported that several large villages were present in central Panama, each the center of a regional chiefdom. At Nata, said Espinosa, there were 45-50 dwellings, with a population of about 1,500 in an area of about 4 sq km (3 sq mi).

Espinosa’s records, supported by archaeological research since that time, indicate that Gran Coclé people lived in small huts and stored grain in rectangular above-ground granaries. Subsistence was based on maize agriculture and hunting deer. Craft specialization was focused on gold working and polychrome ceramics, both of which were used as grave goods indicating relative status.

The records left by Espinosa also indicate that 16th century rulers such as Parita (or Paris) were capable of assembling a large army to war against neighboring polities. A mass burial discovered at Venado Beach included 369 individuals, which may have resulted from one such conflict. Espinosa attended the burial for Parita, and the body was adorned in painted regalia, gold jewelry and ornaments, and buried with sacrificed retainers and wives. Espinosa reported several levels of social classes, including chiefs, warriors, and local sub-chiefs who controlled village populations.

Large middens (trash heaps) at El Hatillo attest to lavish communal celebrations or feasts, hosted by local or regional rulers. Mortuary monuments in the form of steles were built on the tops or adjacent to the households of the earliest elites. At some areas in El Hatillo, elites owned extra buildings constructed for communal ceremonies; at El Caño, a paved open-air plaza with carved stone columns may have served a similar purpose.

All That Glitters…

Some objects from Coclé sites that looked like gold were actually made of a copper-gold alloy with relatively low gold content. A study of gold objects from Sitio Conte and experiments carried out by Paul Bergsoe in the 1940s revealed the technique used to emphasize the gold content. Copper objects with a gold content of between 50-20% were placed in a solution of ammonium carbonate (i.e., urine) and allowed to stand. In Bergsoe’s experiments, after a couple of days the surface became superficially dissolved and the gold appeared as a blackish-brown, spongy overlay which could then be compressed to the appearance of gold leaf by a combination of hammering and burnishing.

Pottery at Gran Coclé sites include polychrome vessels of red, black, purple, chocolate and black. S.K. Lothrop made a traditional study of the ceramics from his excavations in the 1930s and 40s, and described the main types of pottery as having a white or near white ground slip with red, black or purple designs. Common forms noted by Lothrop were plates with “drooping lip” rims and small bowls, with rim or pedestal bases.

Burials and Social Stratification

Burials at Sitio Conte, El Caño and El Hatillo are remarkable for the amount of gold in the furnishings, indicating social status differentiation. Three ranked types of burials were identified at Sitio Conte. The largest graves were buried beneath built earthen mounds oriented to the cardinal directions, and to depths of 3 or more meters (+10 feet). Grave 26 at Sitio Cocle was a rectangular pit measuring 3.7 x 3.2 m (12×10 ft) and between 2-3 m (8-10 ft) below the surface. Twenty-one sacrificed retainers were laid prone in the pit, surrounding a seated central primary individual. A total of 475 burial objects were recovered from Grave 26, including over 200 pots, ground stone tools, shark teeth, stingray spines, and a metal bell. Several gold objects made in combination with ivory, bone, quartz and emeralds were also buried with this individual.

Middle ranked graves were buried between 1.5-2 m (6-8 ft) deep and held one or two individuals accompanied by an average of 40 vessels. Grave 43 at Sitio Conte was a single prone male buried in a rectangular pit 1.6 x 1.2 m (5×4 ft) and 2 m (8 ft) deep, surrounded by 17 ceramic vessels, ground stone tools, shark teeth, 98 gold beads and a gold disk with a human face. The lowest ranked graves were between 1-1.5 m (3-4 ft) deep, and included a single flexed individual with a few objects. Grave 8 at Sitio Conte held a single flexed individual, without a prepared burial pit, but including 12 pots and three stone artifacts. Some graves contained no grave goods at all.

Recent Excavations

In 2012, National Geographic reported on excavations at the Gran Cocle site of El Caño, led by Julia Mayo, a research associate at the Smithsonian Institution’s Tropical Research Institute in Panam City. The report, wonderfully illustrated, describes Mayo’s excavation of a pit some 16 feet deep and revealing several new elite burials.

Central Panama Chiefdom sites: El Hatillo, Sitio Conte, El Caño, Venado Beach, Comogre, La Mula-Sarigua

Sources

This guide to history is a part of the About.com guide to Precolumbian Panama, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Artifacts and excavation photos of the central Panama site of El Caño were featured in the January 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine, in an article called Panama’s Golden Chiefs. The photos and excavation report from Julia Mayo, funded in part by the National Geographic Society, are well worth reading.

Creamer W, and Haas J. 1985. Tribe versus Chiefdom in Lower Central America. American Antiquity 50(4):738-754.

Ladd J. 1957. A Stratigraphic Trench at Sitio Conte, Panama. American Antiquity 22(3):265-271.

Locascio W. 2010. Communal tradition and the nature of social inequality among the Prehispanic Households of El Hatillo (He-4), Panama: University of Pittsburgh.

Lothrop SK, and Bergsoe P. 1960. Aboriginal Gilding in Panama. American Antiquity 26(1):106-108.

Ranere AJ. 2008. AMERICAS, CENTRAL | Lower Central America. In: Pearsall DM, editor. Encyclopedia of Archaeology. New York: Academic Press. p 192-209.

Williams, AR. 2012. The Golden Chiefs of Panama. Photos by D Coventry. National Geographic January:66-81.

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