National Geographic : 1953 Aug
Hunting Prehistory in Panama Jungles 271 Tracing Lost Indian Civilizations, an Archeologist and His Wife Narrowly Escape Disaster on the Isthmus' Wild North Coast BY MATTHEW W. STIRLING With Illustrations by National Geographic Photographer Richard H. Stewart W ESTWARD for 130 miles from the busy world crossroads of the Panama Canal extends one of the most iso lated and inaccessible coastal stretches of the Western Hemisphere. This almost-forgotten region, where primi tive ways of life still survive, is the jungle matted north shore of Panama which faces the Caribbean Sea between the Canal Zone and the Laguna de Chiriqui (map, page 275). All year winds sweep the coast, ridging the sea with huge rollers that beat against the shore in a booming surf. There are no harbors and few anchorages, even for small craft. The rough mountains of the isthmus, cloaked with tropical forest and drenched by soaking rains most of the year, extend down to the sea. This wild land is sparsely peopled in the interior by Indians in direct bloodline from the aborigines of pre-Columbian times, and along the seacoast mostly by Negroes, many of whose ancestors probably were escaped slaves. These inhabitants have virtually no contact with the outside world. A few small launches periodically visit the coast to pick up cargoes of bananas; ill marked and difficult jungle trails twist across the mountains. Yet it was in this area that Columbus, on his fourth voyage to the New World in 1502 03 first found in any quantity the gold he sought. Here he established the first Spanish colony on America's mainland, at the mouth of the Rio Belen. Along this coast, too, he encountered the greatest difficulties with storm and surf of his entire career. In the Footsteps of Columbus On a gray January dawn my wife Marion and I arrived off this inhospitable shore at the mouth of the Rio Cocl del Norte on one of the semimonthly banana boats. We had come, under the joint auspices of the National Geographic Society and the Smithsonian Institution, not to seek gold but to hunt for pottery, arrowheads, stone axes, ancient graves, and other remains of the Indians who lived here during and before the time of Columbus. We hoped to gain from a study of such relics a better understanding of the rise of prehistoric Indian civilizations in the New World. All night long on the voyage from Col6n, in the Canal Zone, our little craft had pitched and tossed in heavy swells, fully living up to her name, Tumbaita, the Little Tosser. As we rose stiffly from fitful sleep on the hard deck, we could see white breakers underlining the base of lonely green-clad mountains. Explorers Have Shunned the Area Ever since the time of Columbus explorers have shunned this forbidding land. For cen turies it has defeated those who sought the gold reported in Columbus's accounts. We were to face far greater difficulties and dangers here than on any of our previous expeditions to study the archeology and pre history of Middle America.* This first visit to the Cocl del Norte was a scouting trip for later explorations, for we had been unable elsewhere to find reliable in formation about the interior. Almost nothing has been published about this area since the accounts of Columbus's voyage 450 years ago. As the wind whipped the waves and Tumbaita labored in the heavy sea a mile offshore, we were reminded of a passage writ ten by the great explorer of this very coast: "... The storm recommenced, and wearied me to such a degree that I absolutely knew not what to do... never was the sea so high, so terrific, and so covered with foam; not only did the wind oppose our proceeding onward, but it also rendered it highly dangerous to run in for any headland, and kept me in that sea which seemed to me as a sea of blood, seething like a cauldron on a mighty fire... All this time the waters from heaven never ceased descending, not to say that it rained, for it was like a repetition of the deluge. .. "f Though we did not realize it then, these words were strangely prophetic of what was to happen to us. Accounts of Columbus's voyage tell that the Spaniards found the Indians wearing gold ornaments in the shape of disks, frogs, and *For titles of previous articles on researches in Panama and Mexico by Dr. Stirling, who is Director of the Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution, see the two-volume Cumulative Index to the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, 1899-1952. t From Select Letters of Christopher Columbus, translated by R. H. Major, published by the Hakluyt Society, London, 1847; page 179.