Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Secrets of the Rain Forest Volume 54 Number 3, May/June 2001
by Benjamin Ryder Howe

Panama's trackless wilderness yields evidence of gold mining and an indigenous people destroyed by Spanish invaders.


Darién, a patchwork of farmland, swamp, and rain forest stretching from the outskirts of Panama City to the foothills of the Colombian Andes, is one of the least-known parts of the Western Hemisphere. Roads here are few, villages lack electricity, and population density runs about ten people per square mile. Has Darién always been so desolate? Unlike neighboring parts of Panama and Colombia, the region has yielded few archaeological discoveries, leaving scholars to debate the evidence of Spanish chroniclers.

[image] Jungle growth envelops a locomotive at an abandoned gold mine in Panama's Darién region. (James Howe) [LARGER IMAGE]

In 1502, when it first appears on maps, Darién was occupied by chiefdoms of indigenous peoples who were numerous enough, the Spanish said, to fill the region with bustling towns and villages. Some scholars take these accounts literally, arguing that Darién's population approached one million--six times its current size--before the Spanish arrived. They explain the disappearance of this vast number of people with other Spanish accounts, like that of Alonso Zuazo. Sent by Cardinal Cisneros to report on the Spanish colonies of the New World in 1517, Zuazo documented the horrific annihilation of the native peoples of Darién. Another official marveled that "so many people could have come to an end in so short a time." But other scholars question the accuracy of the Spanish accounts, noting the lack of archaeological evidence for populous chiefdoms and maintaining that the inhospitable environment of the region today is little changed from centuries ago. Darién, they say, could never have supported more than a fraction of the number of people claimed in the chronicles.

Benjamin Ryder Howe, an associate editor at The Paris Review, is writing a book about eastern Panama.

© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America