Day 11: Naos Island Archeological Laboratory

Naos Island Archeological Laboratory
(A STRI Branch Facility of Panamá City, Panamá)

Water. A quick drive over the causeway completed from rocks excavated during the construction of the Panamá Canal, brings you over a series of islands, one of which is Naos. This was our afternoon pit stop. A short walk through the trusty mid-day tropical rain showers, all the while observing the boats in the cove bouncing like little toys; we followed a rotting fish smell to knock on the door of a building marked “Archeology Lab”. The fish smell we would come to learn is the work of a Panamanian man named Maximo, who toils in a small room overloaded with small drawer systems full of fish bones. The undercurrents of water continued to flow through the events that unfolded once we stepped inside the facility and waited for the rest of our group to trickle in. When all had arrived, we split into two groups to weave our way through the tightly filled quarters. For those without science background the tour was an opportunity to see behind the scenes, and for those with science background it was analogous to reliving university days in a way.


Boxes upon boxes were stacked in hall ways, on desktops, and on shelves lining the walls, leaving no empty space in their wake. Dr. Richard Cooke, a witty Englishman whom we had had the pleasure of listening to at the Tupper Talk the night before, took each group through to a room filled with numerous artifacts. He took us through time by telling us the story of when humans first arrived into the New World.


As he handed off many of the artifacts on the table before us, he spoke of the primary migration that took place along the Pacific Coast all the way through South America nearly 30,000 years ago. He also mentioned a second migration as evidenced through both genetic and archeological movements documented by the artifacts found at the isthmus. Many of the changes over time to both the flora and the fauna of the area point to anthropogenic causes. Some of the evidence he shared with our group in reference to this was through clovis points and the fluted markings on animal bones left behind. The two are connected by extinction events and are abundant in the Isthmus of Panamá.


Up a set of stairs our look into the archeology lab continued with a deep discussion with post doctorate researcher, Nicole Smith Guzmán. Originally from North Carolina, she studied bioarcheology and paleopathology, and has worked on malaria related research in Egypt. Her post doc work focuses on an excavation site from Cerro Brujo in Bocas del Toro, Panamá. Of note, she has found evidence of a malignant cancer in the humerus bone of a young female skeleton dating between 900-1100 CE.


Our group was mesmerized with findings from an additional site she is investigating from a cathedral in Casco Viejo. The removal of the church floor revealed a mass pit of mixed bones that are pre-1870. She walked us through the steps for processing such a site from organizing and classifying the inventory much like a puzzle, to aging, sexing, and determining stature, to noting pathologies as evidenced from the bones, to ultimately drawing conclusions from the data collected and presenting those findings. This sort of work comes with all types of obstacles from looters in the pits pilfering gold and other objects of value placed in the tombs, to difficulties due to the tropical environment and the wet humidity of the area wreaking havoc on the preservation of the site and bones, to politics and the lack of historical record in many cases leaving unanswered gaps. One conversation thread that’s worth mentioning from our discussion with Nicki was the idea of cultural and ritualistic preservation of corpses. Specifically, she explained smoking of a body post death and cranial modification for aesthetic or functional purposes. She showed us evidence of both of these rituals from the bones of the Casco Viejo site, which was no less than fascinating!


Finally, as alluded above, we had the great pleasure of meeting Maximo and looking at some of the special samples from the largest library of fish skeletons in the world. He was proud to show us a couple of catfish species that were new discoveries and have since been named after him or family members. All the talk of fish and our growling bellies led us on a short walk down the causeway to Mi Ranchito where we ate a delicious dinner surrounded by water and great discussion.

Once back at our home base, we wrapped up our trip with a traditional pool side chat, where ideas and comments about the day continued to flow freely. Several great questions and thoughts were laid out during the discussion such as: Is having scientific debate and discourse important or productive? Why is the closing of the isthmus so important to us? Is taking artifacts and fossils from Panama fair to the Panamanians? Should we leave things where they are found or should they be studied? What sorts of questions can we ask/study from the data collected in the field? Is this relevant to the general public today or to the K-12 education system?

I would argue that today’s experience was a breakthrough from a reflective standpoint. The group as a whole came to the realization that this work DOES matter. The findings and questions that can be answered by studying artifacts can benefit the general public, allow for cross professional field collaboration, and K-12 concepts can be connected to current research. The study of the isthmus closure and the artifacts (both paleo and archeological) bare significance on current hot buttons such as evolution and climate change, and they further weave a story about who we are and how we connect globally. I couldn’t help staring at the water in the pool and thinking about how water (its abundance at times and its lack there of at other times) is really responsible for much of why we are here. It drives geological processes and shapes our planet and it causes migration of plants and animals. Water both fresh and saline is dynamic and sometimes static just like ideas and theories in science.

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