Communal Tradition and the Nature of Social Inequality Among the Prehispanic Households of El Hatillo (HE-4), Panama

William A. Locascio

PhD Thesis 2010

Prehispanic chiefdoms of Central Panama provide interesting cases for investigating why societies first began to organize themselves hierarchically and why members began to relate to one-another in ways that emphasized the relative status of each. The particular activities through which a small number of individuals elevated their social status above the majority of a population, gaining influence over them, and the broader social circumstances that permitted this transformation are critical to understanding processes that lead to the emergence of social inequality.

This dissertation presents data from archaeological excavations of households at the village of El Hatillo/He-4 –the principal political center of a prehispanic chiefdom that existed in the Río Parita Valley of Central Panama between about A.D 700 and A.D. 1522. These data and the patterns they reveal provide a basis for comparison of domestic activities and contexts across time within El Hatillo/He-4. Identifying differences in households (observed synchronically and diachronically), like the organization of space and activities that were undertaken within, is among the best ways to understand why certain groups were socially more important and influential than others.

The Río Parita chiefdom, like most, also consisted of multiple villages socially unified under an elite leader, or chief, forming a more-or-less cohesive political unit, or chiefdom. Thus, principles of social organization and bases of authority extended beyond relationships among households at El Hatillo/He-4 to also include larger communities and outlying villages. Since household data do not permit us to understand interactions among groups across the village, let alone other villages in the polity, as clearly, the data presented in this dissertation are interpreted alongside data collected at the community scale (Menzies 2009), representing interactions among all communities within El Hatillo/He-4, and data collected at the regional scale (Haller 2008), representing interactions among villages within the chiefdom. Patterns from all scales of analysis – Household, Community, and Regional – come together to provide a complete basis for interpreting change as it occurred at all levels of social interaction. This permits precise conclusions about the emergence of inequality and the nature of social change in the Río Parita valley that are reported in this dissertation.