The Emergence and Development of Chiefly Societies in the Rio Parita Valley, Panama

Mikael Haller

PhD Thesis 2004

Having contributed to early definitions of chiefdoms, the pre-Columbian societies that developed in the Central Region of Panama during the last millennium before Spanish contact in A.D. 1515 have been considered by many specialists in cultural evolution to be archetypes of ranked societies. This investigation was designed to examine the emergence of chiefly societies and evaluate current models used for interpreting the development of social complexity in Panama. It was necessary, first, to determine when social ranking emerged and then to explore how specific sociopolitical and economic factors influenced the development and operation of pre-Columbian chiefly societies up to the time of European contact. The strategy adopted in this study focused on a regional settlement survey, documenting 1700 years of social change in a 104 km2 area of the Río Parita Valley of central Panama.

At no time during the pre-Columbian occupation in the valley did population levels come even close to carrying capacity, so demographic stress on subsistence resources, or leading to conflict, does not appear to have been an important factor in chiefly emergence. Although the presence of warfare could not be substantiated from the survey data, status rivalry and warfare is mentioned with some regularity in the ethnohistoric accounts and was most likely present during the pre-Columbian period. The location of the main chiefly center 14 km from the coast in low fertility land does not support the idea that controlling subsistence production was crucial to elite power. On the other hand, ethnohistoric accounts describe chiefly larders full of subsistence goods, suggesting that mobilizing these goods was important to the development of social ranking. By A.D. 550, the standardization of craft goods and their wide distribution throughout the Central Region implies the existence of macro-regional exchange networks. Settlement changes in the Río Parita Valley at the same time suggest that local, regional, and macro-regional exchange was most likely involved in the emergence of chiefly societies; however, the lack of long-distance trade goods found in the Río Parita and other valleys in the Central Region does not indicate that long-distance trading was a foundation of elite power.