Archaeologists working at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama have discovered a cluster of 12 unusual stones in the back of a small, 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 Casita de Piedra rock-shelter in 2007. A piece of charcoal found directly underneath the cache was radiocarbon dated to 4,800 years ago. A second fragment of charcoal in a level above the cache was dated to 4,000 years ago.
"There was no evidence of a disturbance or pit feature to suggest 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 subsequently decomposed."
Based on the placement and the unusual composition of the stones in the cache, Richard Cooke, STRI staff scientist, suggested they 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 white, translucent quartz; a bladed quartz and jarosite aggregate; a quartz crystal aggregate; several pyrite nodules that showed evidence of use; a small, worn and abraded piece of chalcedony; a magnetic andesite flake; a large chalcedony vein stone; and a small magnetic kaolinite stone naturally eroded into an unusual shape, similar to a flower.
"A fascinating aspect of this find is that these are not ordinary stones but are rocks and crystals commonly associated with gold deposits in the Central Cordillera of Panama and Central America," Redwood said. "However, there are no gold artifacts in the rock-shelter, and there's no evidence that the stones were collected in the course of gold prospecting as the age of the cache pre-dates the earliest 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 is lost to us."
Indigenous groups who lived near this site include the Ngäbe, Buglé, Bribri, Cabécar and the now-extinct Dorasque peoples. Shamans or healers (curanderos) belonging to these and other present-day First Americans 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 Casita de Piedra in 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 such as food processing and cooking, stone-tool manufacture and retouch, and possibly woodworking. 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 Ranere originally proposed. Her research also showed that the people who would have benefitted from the shaman's knowledge practiced small-scale farming of maize, manioc and arrowroot, and collected palm nuts, tree fruits and wild tubers. They also probably hunted and fished in the nearby hills and streams, but the humid soils in the shelter destroyed any evidence of animal bones. Other Preceramic peoples in Panama who lived in small, dispersed communities across the isthmus by 4,000 years ago commonly practiced these activities.
Dickau, R., Redwood, S.D., Cooke, R.G. 2012. A 4,000-year-old shaman's stone cache at Casita de Piedra, western Panama. Archaeol Anthropol Sci. doi 10.1007/s12520-012-0112-5 online
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute: http://www.stri.org
This press release was posted to serve as a topic for discussion. Please comment below. We try our best to only post press releases that are associated with peer reviewed scientific literature. Critical discussions of the research are appreciated. If you need help finding a link to the original article, please contact us on twitter or via e-mail.
Free-living songbirds show increased stress hormone levels when nesting under white street lights. But different light spectra may have different physiological effects as this study finds, suggesting that using street lights with specific colour spectra may mitigate effects of light pollution on wildlife
Scientists identify the condition aphantasia, in which people cannot create images in their head
The dust in our homes contains an average of 9,000 different types of fungi and bacteria, a study suggests.
A mosquito can bear up to 23 times its total body weight on each leg, which is crucial for landing on water – the insect's secret is way it stands
Tropical species with smaller geographical ranges are more likely to die out in a warming climate than those that can adapt by ‘invading’ new regions
Most people think of bacteria as germs, signs of filth, or unwanted bringers of disease. Slowly, that view …
The gloomy octopuses crowded at Jervis Bay, Australia, appear to spit and throw debris such as shell at each other in what could be an intentional use of weapons
Therapies based on hormones that make us more trusting enhance our natural placebo effect – a finding that could alter the way clinical trials are conducted
The blind, hairless babies born recently at Washington D.C.'s National Zoo are completely dependent on their mothers—who can sometimes accidentally crush them.
The poop-hoarding insects have an amazingly advanced internal GPS that allows them to navigate by day or night.