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Gold items in situ on the floor of the Coclé lord’s tomb. Source: Panama Ministry of Culture

Gold-Filled Tomb of Pre-Hispanic Lord Unearthed in Panama

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For gold lovers, it doesn’t get much better than this discovery at the archaeological park of El Caño in Panama. Archaeologists have unveiled the tomb of an esteemed Coclé lord from the pre-Hispanic era. This spectacular find, brimming with golden artifacts, marks a pivotal moment in understanding the region's ancient history.

Cultural Preservation Project Finds Lord’s Tomb

The excavation identified as Tomb No. 9, is part of a comprehensive archaeological project led by the El Caño Foundation in collaboration with Panama's Ministry of Culture (MiCultura), at El Caño Archaeological Park, located in the district of Natá, province of Coclé.

According to Linette Montenegro, national director of Heritage at MiCultura, as presented in a press release, this initiative is a part of a long-term effort that kicked off in the dry season of 2022, funded through the “Cultural Cooperation Agreement No. 025-2021” between MiCultura and the El Caño Foundation.

Montenegro highlighted that importance of the find is not only that the tomb contained ceramics and gold artifacts, significant to the funerary customs of the time, but that these items hold "incalculable historical and cultural value."

The unearthed treasures include five pectoral plates, gold bead belts, bracelets, and earrings shaped like human figures, among other precious items.

Inside the grave at El Caño Archaeological Park, scientists discovered an array of gold treasures. (Panama Ministry of Culture)

Inside the grave at El Caño Archaeological Park, scientists discovered an array of gold treasures. (Panama Ministry of Culture)

Insights from the Excavation Site

Dr. Julia Mayo, director of the El Caño Foundation and a long-standing overseer of the archaeological project, suggests that the grand tomb belonged to a high-status male from the Rio Grande chiefdom, dating back to around 750 AD. This revelation provides deeper insight into the societal structures and burial practices of the era.

The practice of burying individuals face down, as observed with the prominent lord in this case, is noted as a customary burial method in this society. Dr. Mayo also brought to light that the burial site contained multiple individuals, suggesting a form of sacrificial rite or a tradition of burying servants or companions with the deceased.

The tomb included multiple individuals and large number of votive offerings of gold and ceramics. (Panama Ministry of Culture)

The tomb included multiple individuals and large number of votive offerings of gold and ceramics. (Panama Ministry of Culture)

A Glimpse into a Forgotten World

El Caño site, which served as a necropolis or 'city of the dead,' has revealed complex cultural practices dating back to around 700 AD. This recent discovery sheds more light on the unique burial traditions, such as multiple and simultaneous burials, where high-status individuals were interred alongside others, possibly sacrificed to accompany them in the afterlife.

Over the years, El Caño has revealed several pre-Columbian burial grounds believed to date from 700 to 1000 AD. These discoveries have provided valuable insights into the hierarchical chiefdom-based societies of Central America prior to European contact.

The site first came to light in 1925 through the efforts of American adventurer Hyatt Verrill. However, despite early finds, formal archaeological interest in El Caño didn't materialize until the 1970s, spurred by accounts of the Spanish Conquistadors and their encounters with the gold-adorned elites of local societies. These initial investigations yielded few significant findings and were halted by political changes in Panama, leading to decades of neglect.

A gold breast plate being carefully removed from the earth. (Panama Ministry of Culture)

A gold breast plate being carefully removed from the earth. (Panama Ministry of Culture)

Revival and Groundbreaking Discoveries

Interest in El Caño revived in the 1990s following political shifts in Panama. Archaeologist Julia Mayo, building on earlier works and employing modern surveying techniques, led a resurgence in excavation efforts. Her team's work from 2005 onwards, particularly with the use of transient electromagnetics, uncovered burial sites of high cultural significance, identifying a significant area of pre-Columbian burials among stone monoliths.

Notably, in 2008, Mayo's team discovered the grave of a high-status warrior adorned in gold, marking a major find for the site. The excavation gained further momentum in 2011 with significant governmental and international support, leading to the discovery of a warrior chief and a complex burial site featuring 25 arranged bodies.

Another of the fantastic gold pieces found at El Caño in 2023. (Panama Ministry of Culture)

Another of the fantastic gold pieces found at El Caño in 2023. (Panama Ministry of Culture)

This latest find at El Caño shows that the full historical richness of the site is yet to be uncovered. El Caño stands as a shining example of Panama's rich pre-Columbian history, its archaeological potential, and its capacity to draw interest from around the world, highlighting the intertwined nature of historical discovery and modern community benefit.

Top image: Gold items in situ on the floor of the Coclé lord’s tomb. Source: Panama Ministry of Culture

By Gary Manners

References

Martinez, Eduardo, ‘IMPORTANT TOMB WITH SUMPTUOUS GOLD OUTFITS DISCOVERED IN EL CAÑO ARCHAEOLOGICAL PARK’,  Panama Ministry of Culture. Available at: https://micultura.gob.pa/descubren-importante-tumba-con-suntuoso-ajuar-de-oro-en-parque-arqueologico-el-cano/

 
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Gary

Gary is an editor and content manager for Ancient Origins. He has a BA in Politics and Philosophy from the University of York and a Diploma in Marketing from CIM. He has worked in education, the educational sector, social work... Read More

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