The Development of Complex Society in the Volcán Barú Region of Western Panama

Scott Palumbo

PhD Thesis 2009

This dissertation evaluates the relative importance of craft production and ceremonial activities to the development of village communities and political hierarchy in the highland tropics of Western Panama. Previous researchers had suggested that control over the management or distribution of stone axes crucial for land clearance and woodworking activities had provided an avenue for incipient social elites to influence aspects of the broader subsistence economy. Alternatively, other researchers have stressed the importance of the role that ceremonial activities played in the development and persistence of social inequalities and political hierarchies. To evaluate these possibilities, occupational refuse was sampled from seven previously identified archaeological sites occupying different tiers of the settlement hierarchy. Artifact samples from various sites and the residential sectors within them provided the basis for an examination of approximately one millennium of social change and continuity.

This work suggests that a sparsely populated region with small agricultural villages and farmsteads provided the social context in which forms of social rank and political economy initially developed and persisted, but that these differences were expressed in variable ways over time. The sponsorship of feasting activities contributed to the expression of elevated social status and the growth of the region’s largest village, while a stronger association between incipient elites and lithic craft production elsewhere in the settlement system may have resulted in distinct organizational differences. Relatively isolated farmsteads, by contrast, exhibited less diversity and intensity in various activities than villages throughout the sequence. Combining perspectives from regional and village scales, this research concludes that the evidence for political hierarchy and occupational differentiation developed gradually over time and these differences remained relatively subtle through the sequence.

The emergence and persistence of elevated social rank and regional political organization accompanied increasing specialization in serving activities and stone tool production between different villages, rather than being concentrated in one. The detailed sequence presented in this dissertation provides a comparative perspective to models of sociopolitical change in Southern Central America, and highlights one of the variable pathways by which small complex societies may have developed more broadly.