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VOL. 11 #17 -- Aug/Ago 12- 25, 2005
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El Caño Archaeological Park:

Discovering the mystery of
Panama’s "Stonehenge"

By: Milagro Vallecillos

View of El Caño museum.

The history behind the mounds and monoliths of El Caño is as intriguing as that of Stonehenge in England. However, a number of clues at Panama’s first in-situ museum have given archaeologists a partial picture of one of the most prosperous pre-Columbian, Native American cultures.

Covering an area of eight hectares, El Caño Archaeological Site (which bears the name of a tiny community located 176 km south west of Panama City) was discovered by accident in the 1970’s when the tractors and bulldozers of a sugar cane milling company unearthed a number of pre-Hispanic artifacts. After almost a decade of excavations and studies, archaeologists discovered a large number of mounds surrounded by a circular row of huge stones. The mounds turned out to be Native American tombs of "middle-class" individuals, buried there between 500 and 1550 A.D.

The people buried at El Caño were mostly middle-class individuals of the prosperous "Coclé Culture".

El Caño is the second major archaeological discovery in the province of Coclé. The first one was at nearby Sitio Conte, when back in the 1920’s Richard Cooke, a U.S. adventurer, discovered a similar site surrounded by carved monoliths, most of which he unearthed and shipped to the Museum of Indian Culture in New York.

Backed by the information provided by Spanish conquistadors in the area around the 16th century, historians have been able to conclude that the entire region corresponding to the present-day province of Coclé was an extremely prosperous Native American settlement with a history covering over five millennia.

As with other pre-Columbian cultures, members of the so-called "Coclé Culture" buried their dead with their belongings. In the case of middle-class residents (perhaps the leaders of the hunting, fishing and agricultural groups of the tribe), bodies were left to rot for a number of months and the bones were later placed in well-adorned ceramic urns, some of which are on display at El Caño’s museum. The gold ornaments and artifacts are on display at Panama City’s Anthropology Museum, on Plaza Cinco de Mayo.

The "Coclé Culture" flourished between 500 and 1,550 AD.

Archaeologists now know that the mounds helped to preserve the bodies in a flood-prone environment. The monoliths, however, are the source of much speculation. Although there is strong evidence they were part of a Pre-Columbian sport, others believe it was a religious-ceremonial site. The real mystery is how those huge stones, some of which weigh several tons, were transported there, since similar stones are only found in the Central Cordillera mountain range, many kilometers away.

El Caño Archaeological Park opens Tuesday to Saturday, from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., It is closed on Mondays and holidays. Admittance is $1.00 for adults. Retirees, students (with ID) and children pay 25 cents. For more information, call: (507) 987-9352

Archaelogical Site in El Caño.

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