The Spectacular Tombs of El Cano in Panama
In 2011, in the province of Cocle in Panama, a major discovery was made. A pre-Columbian cemetery was discovered with the remains of bodies, weapons and artefacts made of gold that dated back to between 400 and 900 AD, a period in which the Mayan civilization had reached their highest state of development.
The excavation that took place, in collaboration with the National Geographic Society and Panama's National Institute of Culture and National Secretariat of Science, Technology, and Innovation, discovered several tombs of warriors that belonged to an unknown society. The tombs were found in multiple levels and the warriors were bathed in gold, making the discovery one of the richest discoveries in America.
An analysis of the tombs suggested that the society to which these individuals belonged was following a form of hierarchical organisation (chiefdom). Archaeologist Julia Mayo first discovered the remains of a chieftain covered in embossed gold breast plates, arm cuffs, bracelets and a belt, as well as more than 2,000 small spheres (as shown in the picture) arranged in a way that suggested they were used as part of a sash. Surrounding the chief, 25 bodies were found carefully arranged. More tombs of chieftains were later discovered as well as skeletons of what could have been sacrificed slaves. Each digging brought to the surface more and more gold artefacts and at the bottom of the pit, 15 bodies in a very tight arrangement created the platform upon which the chieftain was supported.
One of the more unusual findings was the bones of a very poisonous blowfish, which may have been used to kill all the people that were presumed to have been sacrificed for the chief. All bodies surrounding the chief were covered in pieces of ceramic plates for unknown reasons. Among the findings there were axes, packets of stingray spines and a belt made of whale and jaguar teeth.
Among the jewelleries and artefacts that were found, some were depictions of half human, half mythological creatures similar to werewolves and vampires according to project leader Julia Mayo of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.
The archaeological site of Caño de Nata, where the discovery was made, is not the first one of its kind. Sitio Conte is another archaeological site in the Coclé Province discovered in 1940, where a necropolis of more than 90 tombs was found, again belonging to an unknown society. Sitio Conte also dates back to between 450 and 900 AD.
The extraordinary amount of gold that was found at Sitio Conte and Caño de Nata shows how important it was for those societies and how it was used as a symbol of status. Whether the sites of Sitio Conte and Caño de Nata are related or not is unknown, although both sites have similarities in the burial arrangements and both sites are marked by ancient monoliths, as shown in the picture.
What we do know is that the people were called Nata and they were the first people that the Spanish met when they conquered the area. However, details of the Nata that used Sitio Conte and Caño de Nata as burial sites are unknown, as they were wiped out following the Spanish invasion, along with all traces of their civilisation. Their destruction was so complete that we do not even know the language that they spoke.
More tombs are waiting to be explored and maybe something will be revealed about the history of this unknown society.
By John Black