An ancient priest’s tomb filled with gold and the bodies of several sacrifices was found at an archaeological site in Panama

(CNN) — Excavations at an archaeological site in Panama revealed the tomb of a religious leader buried more than 1,200 years ago, as well as gold objects and numerous other human remains.

Researchers found the ancient tomb in the El Caño Archaeological Park, a place in Cocal province known as a center of pre-Columbian discoveries, especially lavish burial chambers. The newly discovered enclosure, built around the year 700, is the ninth tomb uncovered from the park since excavations began in 2008, according to a March 1 statement from Panama’s Ministry of Culture.

Dr. Julia Mayo, leader of the dig and director of the heritage-study group El Cano Foundation, said the tombs, including the latest discovered, are the resting places for people who had high status in their societies. Through investigation at the archaeological site. The research team believes that the man found lying in the center of the tomb had a high status, indicated not only by his physical condition, but also by the gold and ceramic artifacts surrounding the body.

The civilization of the area around El Caño at that time considered the site sacred and worshiped their “ancestors”, referring to people remembered for having performed important deeds. “After the death of these people, (it was believed that) continuous communication was established between the ancestors and their descendants,” Mayo said. “Our study (of the graves) sheds light on the practice of ritual death in funerary rituals associated with status.”

The newly discovered elite leader was a man probably 30 or 40 years old, he said, who archaeologists nicknamed the “Lord of the Flute” because he was buried with a set of animal-bone flutes, likely used in religious ceremonies. Was done.

The tomb is the ninth excavated by researchers in the El Kano Archaeological Park, which is known for its archaeological discoveries and spectacular burial chambers. (Credit: Julia Mayo/El Cano Foundation)

And as researchers continued to explore the tomb, they realized that the Lord of the Flute must have had many companions on his journey after his death, possibly as many as a dozen companions whose remains were found buried beneath the offerings. , with which they surrounded him.

“Representation of social order”

Mayo said researchers found similar patterns between the grave and eight previously studied graves, suggesting that the other bodies were those of people who were sacrificed after they died along with the deceased. The newly discovered remains appear to have been buried at the same time and also have signs of ritual death, he said.

El Kano is divided into two areas of burial chambers: a high-status area that contains burial chambers with multiple bodies, and a low-status area where burials contain only one body per grave, Mayo said. . The excavation has not been completed, so it is not clear how many bodies are inside the newly discovered grave, but other graves have revealed anywhere from eight to 32 bodies.

While researchers in other tombs believe they were military leaders, the Lord of the Flute was probably a religious leader, as the body was “buried with flutes and bells”, unlike other tombs found at the same location In the case”, along with axes, spears and objects made from the teeth of large predators. It draws attention to the importance of religion in this society,” Mayo said in an email.

Excavation of the ninth tomb is expected to be completed by this time next year.

ancient funeral customs

The statement said archaeologists found the body of the alleged religious leader buried face down and on top of the body of a woman. Mayo said it is unknown what relationship the man may have had with the woman.

“The prone method of burial was common at this time in this region, but the positioning of the man over the woman was not,” said Nicole Smith-Guzman, curator of archeology at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City. E-mail.

However, he said other researchers have reported the discovery of human remains more than 1,000 years old buried in a similar position at a nearby site called Sitio Sierra, in the same province as El Caño. At the time, investigators speculated that the pair represented a husband and wife, but the theory remains unconfirmed.

“However, it is likely that there were some types of social ties between two individuals during life that were important to maintain after death,” said Smith-Guzman, who was not part of any of the discoveries.

Gold ornaments strengthened powerful alliances

Among the artifacts scattered around the burial chamber and the Lord of the Flute were five pectorals, two belts made of gold beads, several gold bracelets and necklaces, as well as two earrings in the shape of human figures and some jewelry fragments. Made from animal teeth, including earrings made from sperm whale teeth, according to the statement.

These “exotic” materials are generally interpreted as strategies of surviving leaders to gain greater prestige in their fields, Ana Maria Navas Méndez, an assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at Illinois State University, said in an email. Ancient Latin American chiefs often established political and economic ties with leaders of nearby communities, he said, allowing the exchange of precious and artisanal goods between them.

Many of the artifacts found inside the tomb were “stylistically similar to artifacts produced in the Quimbaya region (in Colombia),” Mayo said, adding that this indicates there was a lot of interaction and exchange of materials between the populations that lived there. The exchange took place in “Panama and the central region of northern South America”.

City of the Dead

Smith-Guzman said experts believe El Caño served as a regional ceremonial center or necropolis (city of the dead) for elite members of society.

Mayo said, as recently as 2021, two attempts have been made to determine who belonged to various graves found at the El Cano site. But each attempt failed to find DNA in human bones, he added, possibly because the area’s hot, humid climate is not ideal for preservation.

Navas Méndez said, “(This discovery) offers new evidence to continue studying the chiefdoms in Panama that can be compared to previous findings.” “With this new evidence, archaeologists can raise new questions about relationships between chiefdoms, about the political economy of pre-Columbian societies, about religious aspects, about gender, and so on.”

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