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1. Tierra Firma: the association of riches and adventure in Chiriquí

An aura of adventure and profit has long been associated in western imagination with the isthmus of Panamá, which was part of the area known as Tierra Firma during the Spanish colonial era.


Figure 1: Tierra Firma map (1640). © the James Ford Bell Library, University of Minnesota. From Laet, Joannes de. L'histoire du Nouveau Monde ou description des Indes Occidentales, contenant dix huit livres. Leyden, Bonaventure & Abrahm Elseuiers, 1640 [View static image]

The archaeological region of Chiriquí [View Comments], falls at the north-western boundary of the area of Tierra Firma that was somewhat romantically called the Castilla de Oro (Castille [city] of Gold) following Vasco Núñez de Balboa's discovery of the Pacific Ocean in 1513. The specific mention of oro – gold and riches – references the wealth and opportunity associated with the area throughout the colonial period of New World exploration.

A 1685 maritime map of the Chiriquí coast of Panamá prominently highlights the summit of the distinctive Barú volcano. The atlas from which this map is taken (Fig. 2) was seized by Captain Bartholomew Sharpe from the Spanish ship Rosario, and multiple copies were made for British use. These early maps were primarily linked to hopes of finding financially remunerative resources; knowledge or information, in this sense, would lead to the attainment of economically valuable objects. The monumentality of the volcano, which forms the geologically active southern bookend of the otherwise dormant Talamanca Cordillera, ostensibly provided sailors with a highly visible mnemonic or marker of the bay of Chiriquí and its perceived wealth as they traversed the coast of Tierra Firma.

Figure 2

Figure 2: The Bay of Chiriquí as portrayed in a 1685 maritime map. © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, 'P/33(40) Chiriquí, Hack'. Repro ID F1838

If they were associated in the colonial mind, the Barú volcano and the conception of Tierra Firma wealth to be plundered would subsequently have been reformulated and strengthened in the nineteenth century, following the discovery of gold objects in pre-Columbian Chiriquí graves. As the news of the discovery spread, treasure seekers from throughout the Americas and Europe rushed to Chiriquí. The artefacts removed became part of the burgeoning European and United States interest in pre-Columbian material that began in the mid-20th century (Brodie and Luke 2006, 306-7; Shelton 1984). Myriad stories of adventurous exploits by western explorers circulated at this time; the Barú volcano, referenced in a number of these accounts, was alluded to as 'ever the great central figure of the scene' that, according to published accounts, provided the treasure hunter with a somewhat ominous symbol of the exoticism that was seemingly attached to the act of opening the graves (Meagher 1861, 207 Link to archived PDF). Objects from the past, the search for riches, and the volcano merged associatively in this conception of looting as a sublime and socially acceptable – even glorified – experience.

Reader Comments

Author's Comment:
Chiriqui is the name of the province in Panama, an archaeological cultural time period (roughly 1000-1500 AD), and a culture area that spans the modern border between Costa Rica and Panama. While it is important to note that in this article I only discuss an exceptionally localized portion of the Panamanian side of Chiriqui in order to streamline the discussion, I invite discussion and debate regarding the usefulness of the concept of 'culture areas' in general. Does the heuristic value of a culture area compensate for the static nature and uniformity it imposes upon what were likely very permeable and varied cultural areas in the past?
  • Karen Holmberg
  • 29-SEP-2010 at 13:18
Culture areas like Gran Chiriqui have been defined in normative terms. These offer some sort of heuristic value in a culture-historical sense when one discusses the artwork and monuments of the region, even if such statements are ultimately based upon few sites or studies. The culture area also productively links researchers on each side of a national border into the same intellectual discussion, which is a relatively rare phenomenon elsewhere in the world. For the first time in a long time, a conference on Gran Chiriqui archaeology is both desirable and possible. However, where to the draw the lines between various culture areas (or whether such line drawing is actually productive) continues to be a topic of vigorous debate in Southern Central America.

In my opinion, one of the principal strengths of Chiriqui archaeology has been to eschew normative concerns in recognition of the highly variable sequences which the region presents to archaeologists. The classic example of such an approach has been Linares and Ranere (1980, eds.) Adaptive Radiations volume, which explored the differences between the Pacific, highland, and Caribbean sequences. Such organizational variability has clear empirical support in the Chiriqui record, and if careful comparisons are attempted between sequences, the analysis of such differences offers broader theoretical potential. The culture area concept is certainly laden with all sorts of undesirable connotations, but it hasn't discouraged most Chiriqui researchers from exploring similarities and differences in increasingly sophisticated ways. In this case, the long-term effects of culture area concept upon archaeological interpretation appear to have been relatively harmless.
  • Scott Palumbo
  • 24-NOV-2010 at 04:36

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