Reconstructing history while expanding the Canal

With the start of the civil work project to expand the Panama Canal, the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) also undertook a project to preserve the country's cultural resources. Archaeologists and construction workers alike have found porcelain plates, bottles, cannonballs, wagon axles, buttons and even a rifle.

An archaeological discovery could change the way the story is told of when and how the Panama isthmus was formed. The documentation we have about the emergence of our country as a land bridge could possibly be abandoned for a new theory.

What is making us doubt the conventional history now is not humans but animals, specifically the fossil remains that have been unearthed during excavations for the  Panama Canal expansion. Four years ago, Aldo Rincón, a paleontology intern at the Smithsonian Institute, found one of the most complete pieces that has been dug up so far in Panama: the set of teeth of a three-toed horse the size of a modern donkey, who fed on fodder and walked the continent between 18 and 15 million years ago.

This finding clashes with the theory on the geological formation of the isthmus, which explains that it came into place some 3 million years; such a discovery suggests that it could have occurred long before.

The piece is still being examined, according to Smithsonian spokespersons.

Spurred by the interest of reconstructing the past, over the first five years of research the paleontologists have already found 8,862 additional samples of paleontological material, such as rocks, sediments and fossils of plants, mollusks, echinoderms, arthropods, sharks, reptiles and mammals, the environmental specialist Hortensia Broce told us.

As they eagerly continued investigating, more and more pieces appeared, like fragments of skulls, bones and teeth of horses, camels, rhinoceroses and snakes.

It has been seven years of intense study since the inter-oceanic expansion project began, and not only paleontological material has been found, but also archaeological.


It was not intended to be a museum, but the ACP office in Corozal soon turned into a storehouse for all the articles found during the expansion. They were all exhibition-worthy.

A slender young man with a Mexican accent opened the door and ushered us in. He was the archaeologist Jonathan Hernández, who was accompanied by the young Panamanian anthropologist and museologist, Guillermina De Gracia. A quick look-over of the main room in the office-turned-warehouse was a bit disappointing at first, as there was only one pick axe clean of any mud and a few objects stored in a cardboard box, but Jonathan and Guillermina had much more to reveal.

The specialist were creating a database of their findings, and both rushed to show us what was inside a stack of sealed boxes. They were archaeological artifacts, some dating to pre-Columbian era, others from the colonial period and the rest part of the Republican age. Despite being a foreigner, Jonathan demonstrated as much passion as a Panamanian each time he withdrew an object from the boxes. He exhibited the head of a porcelain doll, well only from the cheeks to the chin since it was cracked, but he also found one of its legs.

Among the other items were a coin, two buttons, one glass lens, porcelain plates, a bedside pot and bottles; curiously, there were more bottles than anything else, whether for liquor, medicine, soda or writing ink.

Such findings provide a window into the lifestyle of the canal workers in those times, including their diet, funerals and other ways of life, explains Zuleika Mojica, an environmental protection specialist for the ACP. The "oldest" materials they have date back to about 700 B.C., Jonathan points out. The items are not only stored in the main room, but also in at least two more storehouse rooms, where the "drivables" can be seen, because cars have also been found, according to Mojica.

Construction workers

It is not just these archaeological experts who are involved. The construction workers laboring in the Panama Canal expansion are the first to discover the pieces.

They have been trained on cultural resource conservation and shown photos of potential items they might encounter. The workers stop whatever they are doing when something is found and wait for the archaeologist in charge to arrive and extract the object before proceeding.

The number of pieces is uncountable. For now they are under the custody of the ACP, until the Historical Heritage department of the National Institute of Culture (INAC)  requests that they be transferred to one of the museums in the capital city.