Animal remains at Panama’s archaeological sites

So what can we tell from animal remains at Panama’s archaeological sites?

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) is a biologists’s stronghold. However, there are also scientists of other disciplines who work at the institute. One of them is Richard Cooke, an archaeologist and STRI staff member who has been working digs around Parita Bay — whose littoral is formed by the beaches of Cocle province and the eastern edge of the Azuero Peninsula that juts southeastward from the isthmus near Aguadulce — for nearly 30 years now. On November 23 Dr. Cooke spoke at the Tupper Auditorium, as part of the Tuesday noon lecture series, on “pre-Columbian farmers’ interactions with terrestrial animals in the seasonally arid lowlands of Panama.”

To start, Cooke dismissed the “romantic view” of Panama before the conquest. Both the archaeological record and the records of the sixteenth century Spanish conquerors show that the area was open country before white people arrived, and in fact had been cleared and farmed for thousands of years.

(The fossil and soil core content records of the La Yeguada lakeshore, he added, indicate that starting about 7,000 years ago that area was deforested, with the trees coming back only after the Spanish Conquest.)

On Cerro Juan Diaz, near the La Villa River in Los Santos, Cooke has worked on digs dating as far back as 2200 BC and as recent as 700 AD, but all of those sites were the settlements of farming peoples rather than hunters and gatherers.

This is not to say that they didn’t hunt, because it is known that they did, particularly for white tailed deer. But the records from the time of the conquest and the suggestions from archaeological findings indicate that on this little isthmus there was a patchwork of often warring tribal territories, where it must be presumed that it was neither polite nor safe to hunt on a neighboring community’s turf.

Fishing was also important along rivers and the coast, and the presence of fish bones in the garbage dumps of inland communities where little or no fishing paraphernalia is found suggests that fish were caught, smoked and salted on the coast, then traded inland.

So what animals did they have, and which did they eat?

Cooke said that more than 56 animal species were available to be eaten, but less than half of these actually were. And then there were other animals that clearly lived in human communities, but probably were not eaten.

Among the latter, he thinks, were dogs. In graves, Cooke said, perforated dog teeth have been found as part of the burial goods. But dog bones with butchering marks are not found in the household refuse. The Spaniards derided the dogs of the people they conquered as yappy little things, and Cooke believes that their principal function in human society was for hunting.

Would one expect that in an agricultural society with an economy largely based on growing and storing corn and beans, rats and mice would be attracted? As would surely be found in future digs if Ancon Hill turned out to be a volcano that exploded tomorrow and buried the Panama City metro area under several feet of ash in the course of an afternoon, Cooke found the remains of a lot of rats and mice at the Cerro Juan Diaz digs. Among the rodents that were eaten by humans must be counted ñequis (agoutis, in American Standard English, though in local English parlance the Spanish word has been incorporated) and bush rabbits.

Venison was clearly part of the diet, and the bones and antlers of deer were used to make a wide variety of tools.

The meat of iguanas and fresh water turtles was consumed. The remains of sea turtles, however, were rare at Cooke’s digs.

The people of Cerro Juan Diaz ate lots of opossums and armadillos. They didn’t eat tapirs, sloths, coati mundis or red deer.

They don’t seem to have eaten sainos (peccaries). Their pierced tusks were found in necklaces and their pierced teeth were part of what Cooke believes was ritual attire.

The Spanish conquerors mentioned caged birds in their annals, and birds’ importance is indicated by their common presence. There were lots of parrot bones, particularly those of macaws. Also, lots of duck remains, about half of them of the Muscovy species. “It does look like we had domesticated moscovies at these sites,” Cooke opined. There were also remains of water birds (particularly American egrets and boobies), doves and raptors.

A single find that could have great archaeological significance was the remains of a cardinal. In modern times, those birds are not found south of Mexico. The suggestion is of a much larger pre-Columbian trading network than many people might think.

Cooke thinks that, although certain birds were important sources of food, the people around Parita Bay probably prized many species particularly for their feathers. He believes that those birds that were eaten were either raised or captured nearby, while species used for their feathers or kept as pets often came from farther away, by trade.

Pottery found at the sites, and remaining dry forest populations, show that monkeys were known to the culture but not eaten. Big cats were ritually important, but likewise not eaten. Also known, but apparently taboo as food, were crocodiles, caymen and sea turtles.

There are surely subtleties that are not easily discerned from the archaeological record of preliterate people. Cooke noted that there might be all sorts of cultural reasons why certain animals may not be eaten, and these might only apply to certain individuals or castes rather than a society as a whole. Acknowledging that the Spanish accounts say that certain people who lived around Parita Bay in the 1500s couldn’t eat meat, he nevertheless said that the archaeological record suggests otherwise.

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