Precolumbian Panama (Central America)

Archaeologists have traditionally organized the ancient cultures of Panama into three regions:


  • Western region: includes the eastern portion of Chiriqui and the Boca del Toro areas, divided by the Atlantic and Pacific watersheds. Archaeologists  believe that the two sides maintained close contacts and developed similar cultural patterns. Important sites are:  La Pithaya, Cerro Brujo,  Barriles, and Isla Palenque.
  • Central region: the most studied area of Panama, the central region includes the regions of Veraguas, Coclé and the Parita Bay. Sedentary life emerged here around 2500 BC close to the coast. Important sites include Las Huacas, Monagrillo, El Indio, La Mula, Cerro Mangote, Sitio Sierra, Sitio Conte, Guaniquito, El Hatillo, Aguadulce Shelter and Cueva de los Ladrones.
  • Eastern region: Traditionally the least known of the three regions. It includes the territories between the Colombian border and the Panama Canal, specifically the Darien and the Panamá areas. At the time of the Spanish conquest it was occupied by groups organized into chiefdoms. The Eastern region was an important point of communication and trade between South America and the northern region of central and Mesoamerica. Important sites: Aguas Buenas, Lake Madden, Palo Seco, Playa Venado, Miraflores, Panama Viejo.

    Precolumbian Panama Chronology

    • Paleo-Indian Period (10000 – 8000 BC): Human occupation of the isthmian area seems to have predated the traditional Paleo-Indian period. However, few evidence exists about this pre-projectile points occupation. During the Paleo- Indian phase groups are socially organized in bands and subsistence is based on hunting and plant collection. Tools included fluted points, similar to the fishtail points from South America. Important sites: Lake Madden.
    • Early Preceramic Period (8000 – 5000 BC): People practiced hunting, plant collection and fishing. Many sites of this period are caves and rock shelters used temporarily. Important sites: Cueva de los Vampiros.
    • Late Preceramic Period (5000 – 2900 BC): Settlements are now located on the coast. These include rock shelters, shell mounds and some open sites. Subsistence system is more varied: hunting, fishing, collection of crabs and shellfish, collection of aquatic and terrestrial plants. Tool-kits are more sophisticated with use of grinding stones and axes. Important sites: Cerro Mangote, Cueva de los Ladrones, Aguadulce Shelter.
    • Early Ceramic Period (2900 – 300 BC): Introduction of maize cultivation by 1500 BC. Sites are mainly small villages. Ceramic appears on the coast of the Western region at Monagrillo. Other important sites are: La Mula, a large, nucleated village, Zapotal, El Limon, Guacamayo and Playa Venado.
    • Late Ceramic Period I (300 BC – AD 750): By 300 BC, diffusion of large, permanent maize-cultivating villages. Still intensive exploitation of hunting and aquatic resources. By AD 500, emerging of ceremonial centers with public architecture. Increasing social differentiation visible in burial types and goods. Examples of mass burials located around interment of single individuals, who are accompanied by luxury items. Bichrome and polychrome pottery with zoomorphic and geometric motifs. Wide array of tools used for stone jewelry and stone carving. Gold appears by AD 500 in co-occurrence with higher display of social status. Important sites: El Hatillo, Sitio Conte, Sitio Sierra, Las Huacas, Panama Viejo, El Caño
    • Late Ceramic Period II (AD 750 – 1510): Cultural patterns developed in the previous period continue. Chiefdom societies correspond now to the ones encountered by the Spaniards at their arrival in the 16th century. The region is ruled by chiefs with large armies and resources obtained through interregional exchange as described by ethnohistoric sources. Personal leadership is displayed through gold ornaments, weaponry and painted items. Diffusion of funerary urns and burials in artificial mounds. The end of the period is signed by the Spanish conquest in 1510 and the beginning of the Colonial era. Important sites: Panama Viejo, El Hatillo, Nata, Miraflores, Guaniquito, Sitio Sierra, El Caño.


      Cooke, R., 1984, Archaeological Research in Central and Eastern Panama: A Review of Some Problems, in The Archaeology of Lower Central America, edited by Frederick Lange and Doris Z. Stone. School of American Research Book, Unversity of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, pp: 263-302

      Locascio, William A, 2010, Communal Tradition and the Nature of Social Inequality among the Prehispanic Households of El Hatillo (HE-4), Panama, (Ph.D. Dissertation) University of Pittsburgh (Accessed on-line, 10/14/2010),

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