Ornaments excavated from the site include a human-headed pendant about five inches tall. Artifact courtesy National Heritage Office (DNPH), National Institute of Culture (INAC), Panama; Photographed at Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
Ornaments excavated from the site include a human-headed pendant about five inches tall. Artifact courtesy National Heritage Office (DNPH), National Institute of Culture (INAC), Panama; Photographed at Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

The Golden Chiefs of Panama

The excavation of a cemetery more than a thousand years old has uncovered tombs of powerful warriors adorned in gold. One of the richest discoveries in the Americas in decades, the site is shining new light on a little-known culture.

In a grassy, sun-parched field in central Panama, gold was coming out of the ground so fast that archaeologist Julia Mayo was tempted to yell, Stop, stop! For years she had been working for this moment, waiting for it, but now she was overwhelmed.

Determined to uncover new evidence of the ancient society she had been studying since graduate school, Mayo and her team began geophysical surveys in 2005 at a site known as El Caño, named for a waterfall on one of the area's many rivers. The results identified a circle of long-forgotten graves. By 2010 she and her team had dug a pit 16 feet deep and discovered the remains of a warrior chieftain bedecked in gold—two embossed breastplates, four arm cuffs, a bracelet of bells, a belt of hollow gold beads as plump as olives, more than 2,000 tiny spheres arranged as if once sewn to a sash, and hundreds of tubular beads tracing a zigzag pattern on a lower leg. That alone would be the find of a lifetime, but it was just the beginning. Mayo had struck a lode of treasure.

The team returned last year during the January-to-April dry season and unearthed a second burial every bit as rich as the first. Bearing two gold breastplates in front, two in back, four arm cuffs, and a luminous emerald, the deceased was surely another supreme chief. Near him lay a baby similarly adorned in gold, most likely his son. Beneath both of them stretched a layer of tangled human skeletons, possibly sacrificed slaves or war captives. Radiocarbon tests would date the burials to about A.D. 900—the era when the Maya civilization, some 800 miles to the northwest, was beginning to unravel.

Read This Next

Meat production leads to thousands of air quality-related deaths annually

At last, a malaria vaccine has passed important clinical trials

Oil company accused of ignoring community concerns about water, wildlife

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet