National Geographic : 1950 Feb
Exploring Ancient Panama by Helicopter BY MATTHEW W. STIRLING With Illustrations by National Geographic PhotographerRichard II. Stewart THE time was approximately the year 1450; the place, the central cordillera of the Isthmus of Panama, a short dis tance east of what is now the Costa Rican border. The great cone of the long-dormant vol cano, Chiriqui, towered 12,000 feet into the tropical air. At the bottom of the crater was a deep, clear lake. The upper part of the cone, where it penetrated into the cold zone, sup ported a sparse growth of stunted vegetation. Lower down, the slopes of the mountain were cloaked with a lush tropical forest, ex cept for small patches where enterprising In dians had cleared the jungle with their stone axes so they could grow corn, beans, and pump kins. In the valleys around the base of the mountain were much larger clearings. Clusters of oval huts with steep, conical palm-thatched roofs marked the villages of the natives. From the summit of the cone on a clear day an Indian could look to the south and see the blue Pacific. Turning to the north, he could see the waters of the Caribbean. In this well-watered region the rich vol canic soil supported a dense and prosperous population. The climate of these valleys, from 3,000 to 6,000 feet high, was cool and pleasant. Earthquakes Ruin Prosperous People The Indians of this salubrious region were a tall and handsome people. Normally they used little clothing. On special occasions or when traveling, the women wore fringed skirts of woven cotton which reached from the waist to the knees; men donned ankle-length robes of fringed cotton. They painted their faces and bodies in bright red, blue, and white designs. The more prosperous wore beautiful orna ments of gold in the form of birds, frogs, and monkeys, or large disks hung on the breast. For several centuries the Indians had tilled their fields. The women made beautiful pot tery vessels, some of the most shapely in all the New World (pages 238 and 239). Then, one day, came calamity-a savage earthquake shook the entire region. It was followed quickly by others even more violent. Eventually came a convulsion greater than all the rest. The side of the crater was breached, and the waters of the lake rushed out in a great avalanche of mud and enormous stones. Tearing down the mountainside, the flood destroyed or buried everything in its path. The Indians fled a desolate waste of sterile ash and naked tree trunks. They never re turned. By the time Nature had restored the forest and the rains had leached out the ash layer to a thin deposit that would permit cultiva tion of the soil again, a much greater catas trophe came. The Spaniards had arrived and begun the conquest of the people who so obviously were rich in gold. Goal of Latest Panama Expedition Such is the story we found written in the geological and archeological records of the Chiriqui highlands where the National Geographic Society-Smithsonian Institution expedition to Panama conducted most of its field work during the winter and spring of 1949.* The preceding winter we had spent four months digging in the Azuero Peninsula, on the Pacific coast of Panama. This year we had planned to focus our investigations on the prehistory of Panama, in the Province of Veraguas and in the highlands of Chiriqui (map, page 229). Especially were we interested in a Chiriqui locality called Barriles, where Dr. Alejandro Mendez had secured for the National Museum of Panama a number of amazing life-size statues of unusual artistic merit and strange design. His other discoveries were several remark able four-legged metates, or corn-grinding stones, beautifully carved and decorated and of enormous size. Of equal interest were large urns with boldly incised designs, painted red or orange, representing curiously stylized birds *The 1949 National Geographic Society-Smith sonian Institution Expedition to Panama is the latest in a comprehensive study of pre-Columbian cultures in Middle America. For accounts of previous expedi tions, see the following NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGA ZINE articles by Dr. Stirling: "Exploring the Past in Panama," March, 1949; "On the Trail of La Venta Man," February, 1947; "La Venta's Green Stone Tigers," September, 1943; "Finding Jewels of Jade in a Mexican Swamp" (La Venta), November, 1942; "Expedition Unearths Buried Masterpieces of Carved Jade" (Cerro de las Mesas, Mexico), September, 1941; "Great Stone Faces of the Mexican Jungle," Sep tember, 1940; "Discovering the New World's Oldest Dated Work of Man," August, 1939.