National Geographic : 1949 Mar
Exploring the Past in Panama BY MATTHEW W. STIRLING Leader of the National GeographicSociety-Smithsonian Institution ArcheologicalExpedition to Western Panama Illustrations by National Geographic Photographer Richard II. Stewart IT WAS COLD in New York that December afternoon, and it was cold on the deck of the S. S. Ancon as she slowly eased down the East River. Snow covered the city. Wearing light coats, since this was the only day we expected to need them, we shivered a while on deck, viewing the somber but beau tiful sight, before descending to the grateful warmth of our staterooms. Like migrating birds, Gordon Willey, Rich ard H. Stewart, (Mrs.) Marion Stirling, and I were again heading south on our annual National Geographic Society-Smithsonian In stitution archeological expedition, this time to western Panama.* Our final destination was to be the Azuero Peninsula on the Pacific side, 160 road miles southwest of the Canal Zone (map, page 377). From Snow to Tropic Sun Two days later we were lounging on deck chairs as we sailed through sunny seas, thor oughly enjoying the climatic contrast and the brief rest before plunging into the strenuous work ahead. At Colon, to our surprise and pleasure, we were met by a compatriot, Karl Curtis, volun tary aide, guide, and mentor of practically every scientific expedition that has visited Panama in the past 25 years (page 375). In his car we rode across the Isthmus to our hotel in Ancon. On the pleasant two-hour drive from the Atlantic to the Pacific we were again impressed by contrast: this time, the ease of modern travel as compared to the crossing by rugged trail through fever-laden jungle. One of the first mainland points to be touched by the Spaniards, the Isthmus of Panama played from the start a leading part in the opening of the New World.t Here on the wasp waist of the Americas was the obvious point of access to the shores of the great Pacific, first seen by Balboa from his "peak in Darien." Here, Columbus stated, Spaniards saw more signs of gold in two days than they had observed in four years of ex ploration in the West Indies. Soon after the Spaniards had looted fabu lous riches in gold from the native chiefs of Panama, the treasures of Peru were discov ered. For years the wealth of the stricken country of the Incas poured across the Isthmus over the gold road from Old Panama (Panama Vieja) to Portobelo on its way to Spain. Then came the period of the Buccaneers, of Henry Morgan and his "terrible men." The sack of Portobelo and of Old Panama was a blow from which the Spanish Empire never recovered. In the middle of the 19th century this shortest coast-to-coast route revived, and again the magic word "gold" was the cause. California mines started a new stream of treasure seekers across the fever-stricken Isthmus. In 1855 the trans-Isthmian railroad was finished and the trip became easy. An epic story in itself is the construction and final completion of the Panama Canal. During this period Panama became the fore most focus of research in tropical medicine, and continues to contribute much in this field today. Gold Doomed Rich Native Culture Almost lost in this romantic background is the fact that at the time of the Conquest there flourished in Panama one of the richest and most colorful aboriginal civilizations in America. As happened in many other places, the very richness of the natives brought about their early doom. Tantalizing but inadequate descriptions of these people have been left us by Gonzalo de Badajoz and Gaspar de Espinosa, who, be tween 1515 and 1525, led looting expeditions into the region for which we were bound. Center of greatest population and highest culture of Panama in pre-Columbian times, this area consists of the narrow, semiarid Pacific coastal strip lying west of the Canal * For accounts of previous National Geographic Smithsonian expeditions, see the following NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE articles by Dr. Stirling, who is Chief of the Bureau of American Ethnology, Smith sonian Institution: "On the Trail of La Venta Man," February, 1947; "La Venta's Green Stone Tigers." September, 1943; "Finding Jewels of Jade in a Mexi can Swamp" (La Venta), November, 1942; "Expedi tion Unearths Buried Masterpieces of Carved Jade" (Cerro de las Mesas, Mexico), September, 1941; "Great Stone Faces of the Mexican Jungle," Septem ber, 1940; "Discovering the New World's Oldest Dated Work of Man," August, 1939. t See "Panama, Bridge of the World," by Luis Mar den, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, November, 1941.