The “Golden Chiefs” of Panama

In 700–900 ce, political organization in central Panama took the form of chiefdoms. According to Spanish accounts from the early 1500s, Panama was divided into a series of related, densely populated chiefdoms organized into three basic social levels:  an elite group that controlled most of the wealth and power; a more numerous commoner group; and slaves.  Each chiefdom was said to have been ruled by a paramount chief (queví) assisted by secondary chiefs (sacos), who made up a hereditary noble class. 

The chiefs settled disputes and maintained order in their territories, led in battle, and supervised a network of trade relationships. The elite were distinguished by their wealth and privileges, and their most important, permanent symbol of status was gold, including the chief’s arm cuff. According to early Spanish accounts, only paramount chiefs had the right to wear certain types of gold ornaments, such as the breastplate. They alone had supernatural power as well as political authority.

Early Spanish sources indicate that gold plaques and other gold adornments were worn to war and to the grave.  They were symbolically as well as visually important signifiers of the power of the individual they adorned.  It has been suggested that ancient chiefs selected predatory animals for use as insignias, which would be embossed on gold cuffs and plaques that served as breastplates.  It is also possible that these motifs were related to origin myths of descent groups or used as family emblems. 

The gold plaque of ca. 700–900 ce (pictured on the right), is embossed with a bird-human motif and reptilian features.  The figures on the gold plaques in the exhibition have been identified by scholars as a “Crocodile God” or a saurian-human. They are represented as single or paired figures, combining other animal attributes or traits, including those of a bat (below).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image Top: Gold bell pendant.  Sitio Conte, ca. 700–900 ce. 1.2 x .98 in.  University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia, PA (40-13-198). Bottom Right: Embossed gold plaque.  Sitio Conte, ca. 700–900 ce.  8.6 x 8.5 in.  University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia, PA (40-13-2). Bottom Left: Embossed gold plaque.  Sitio Conte, ca. 700–900 ce.  8.7 x 9.0 in.  University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia, PA (40-13-4).  Photos: Penn Museum.