4,000 year old shaman stones discovered near Boquete, Panama

Archaeologists working at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama have discovered a cluster of 12 unusual stones behind a prehistoric rock-shelter near the town of Boquete. The cache represents the earliest material evidence of shamanistic practice in lower Central America.

Ruth Dickau, Leverhulme Post-doctoral Fellow at the University of Exeter in England, unearthed the cache of stones in the rock shelter known as Little Stone House in 2007. A piece of charcoal found directly underneath them was radiocarbon dated to 4,800 years ago. A second fragment of charcoal in a higher level of the group of stones was dated to 4,000 years ago.

“There was no evidence of a disturbance or pit feature to suggest that someone had come along, dug a hole and buried the stones at a later date,” Dickau said. “The fact that the stones were found in a tight pile suggests they were probably deposited inside a bag or basket, which then decomposed.”

Based on the placement and the unusual composition of the stones in the cache, Richard Cooke, staff scientist at the Smithsonian in Panama, suggested that these were used by a shaman or healer. Consulting geologist Stewart Redwood determined that the cache consists of a small dacite stone fashioned into a cylindrical tool; a small flake of translucent white quartz; a sharp-edged quartz and a jarosite aggregate; a cluster of quartz crystals; several pyrite nodules that showed evidence of use; a weathered and worn piece of chalcedony; a magnetic andesite flake; a large stone with a chalcedony vein; and a small magnetic kaolinite stone eroded into an unusual shape, similar to a flower.

“A fascinating aspect of this find is that these are no ordinary stones; they are rocks and crystals commonly associated with gold deposits in the Central Cordillera of Panama and Central America,” Redwood commented. “However, there are no gold artifacts in the prehistoric rock shelter, and there is no evidence that the stones were collected in the course of gold prospecting, as the age of the cache pre-dates the oldest known gold artifacts from Panama by more than 2,000 years. But the collector of the stones clearly had an eye for unusual stones and crystals with a special significance whose meaning has been lost.”

Indigenous groups who lived near this site include the Ngäbe, Buglé, Bribri, Cabécar and the now-extinct Dorasque. The shamans or medicine men belonging to these and other present-day First American peoples in Central and South America often include special stones among the objects they use for ritual practices. Stones containing crystal structures are linked to transformative experiences in many of their stories.

Anthony Ranere, from Temple University in Philadelphia, first identified and excavated Little Stone House during an archaeological survey of western Panama in the early 1970s. He found that the small rock shelter had been repeatedly occupied over thousands of years and used for a variety of domestic activities. Dickau returned to the site to expand excavations from December 2006 to January 2007.

Dickau’s group radiocarbon dated charcoal from the base levels of the shelter and discovered it was first occupied more than 9,000 years ago, much earlier than originally proposed by Ranere. Her research also showed that the people who would have benefitted from the shaman’s knowledge practiced small-scale farming of maize, cassava and arrowroot, and collected palm nuts, tree fruits and wild tubers. They probably also hunted and fished in the nearby hills and streams, but the humid soils in the shelter destroyed any evidence of animal bones. Other Pre-ceramic human groups in Panama who lived in small, dispersed communities across the isthmus some 4,000 years ago commonly practiced these activities.

This research project was authorized by Panama’s National Institute of Culture and funded by the Smithsonian and the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, headquartered in Panama City, Panama, is a unit of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The Institute furthers the understanding of tropical nature and its importance to human welfare, trains students to conduct research in the tropics and promotes conservation by increasing public awareness of the beauty and importance of tropical ecosystems.