The time was 2,400 years ago. A rough craft approaches the southern Pacific coast of Panama, close to modern day Puerto Armuelles. Dehydrated and hungry after several weeks at sea, the crew gazes ahead in the fading light of day and sees a distant volcano, smoke and fire spuming from its summit. The boat reaches a sandy beach and their leader walks onto the shore, he signals a tall African slave to lift him onto his shoulders and then sets out inland.
After a day’s travel they reach a flat open plain west of the modern day town of Volcán.
The chief looks around and sees a nearby spring gushing fresh, crystalline water into a small gorge. He walks a few steps and pulls a fresh fruit from an overburdened tree. His exhausted followers expectantly await his decision. The chief smiles and signals with his outstretched hand that this is where they will build their village. Lost in time is the name of this village, known however today as Panama’s most ancient archeological site – Barriles.
The time is now 1450 A.D. On a riverbank to the western side of the giant Barú Volcano a stone sculptor gazes up to the great monolith with awe and amazement. The volcano again pours fire and smoke into the air. Gazing up at the flame spitting mountain he tries to make a copy in stone of the terrifying sight that is unfolding high above him. Down in the valley below him, in what is today’s town of Volcán, his wife and children huddle fearfully. She fears for the safety of her husband and his role as the tribe’s recorder of events. He hurriedly carves the last curves of the sparkling volcanic ash and is about to head back down to the village, when events take a disastrous turn. High on the slopes of the Barú Volcano is a large water filled lake.
The falling ash cinders send plumes of steam as they drop into the cold mountain water. The stone carver looks anxiously down the valley to where his wife and children are huddled together. Suddenly, the sculptor and his family stop dead in their tracks. The ground starts a violent and terrible shaking; temblors ripple through the ground sending small rocks and dust high into the air. Deep beneath the massive volcano the molten magma of the Earth’s core has become an unstoppable force.
All at once the forces of nature release their pent up pressure in a series of unimaginable horror. The wall of the high mountain lake bursts open, releasing a vast torrent of scolding water followed by a searing pyroclastic flow of lava that incinerates everything in its path. Frozen in horror, the stone carver sees the deadly flow cascading down the mountainside and over his village, wife and children. Within days, a thick ash cloud descends and covers the entire area. Buried under a thick layer of suffocating pumice are men, women, children and animals. Soon, the mighty Barú Volcano, returns to a dormant state. Buried underneath mountains of a fine white powder are the inhabitants of the area. Their unique culture and tragic deaths will lie undiscovered for hundreds of years.
Located six kilometers west of the Chiriquí mountain town of Volcán, is Sitio Barriles, Panama’s oldest and most mystical archeological site. First discovered in 1905, but only fully excavated in 1947, the questions and answers that surround this site and the ancient people that lived there, could mean rewriting history books. One of the first discoveries was unearthed by Pedro Corella, credited for finding the huge sacrificial metlate type stone. Local amateur archeologist, Kurt Hemmeling is also credited for buying the stone and donating it to the national Museum.
The first Panamanians may have been of Asian (Ainu) and African origin; the life-sized statues, unearthed at Barriles, now on display at Panama City’s Reina Torres de Araúz Museum, give credence to this theory. One statue shows an Asian featured person with a pear-shaped face, sitting on the shoulders of a distinctly African man. The dating that does exist shows this culture was in the pre-classic period from 2000 BC to 250 AD.
Before Aztecs, Mayas and Incas.
Petroglyph carvings at Barriles are consistent with others at Caldera and El Valle. Willian Fredric Houx, owned a coffee farm at Barriles and with German immigrant Kurt Hemmeling, they were the first to start documenting the artifacts. My introduction to the site was courtesy of Houx’s granddaughter, Edna Houx. She pointed to several cylindrical (barrel shaped) stone rocks – the same stones that give the site its name. Edna theorizes the stone barrels were an old form of wheel, enabling large logs to be moved over rough ground. Edna also believes the Barriles people disappeared after the eruption of the nearby Tizingal Volcano, around 300 A.D. This may have been a Pompeii style explosion that completely wiped out the Dorasque civilization.
Examining some of the stone “barrels” other possibilities spring to mind. For one, there are matching sockets in nearby rocks, so the barrels could have been part of large corn grinders. Another, more gruesome use is that they were used to grind up the bones of the deceased. At Barriles they have excavated hundreds of funeral pots. Archeologists found the ancients cremated their dead and then ground up the bones before depositing them in large ceramic pots. Cremation makes accurate dating of the bones almost impossible. Fortunately, pottery dating though thermoluminessence is accurate.
Archeologists believe there were five founding tribes in Panama: The Chocos, Cunas, Talamancas, Guaymis and finally the Dorasques. Edna’s conclusion is that the people that built this ancient ceremonial site were of the Dorasque tribe.
The “Spiral”: The World’s oldest symbol.
The first Panamanians may have links to the equally mysterious culture on Easter Island. The evidence to support this lies in the matching spiral carvings found not only on Easter Island, but also in the New Hebrides (Vanuatu), New Zealand, Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest. Throughout the world, we find spiral carvings. In our fictional introduction, our stone carver also carved several spirals on the Castillo rock in Nueva Suiza. Some believe these spirals form part of a local map. This possibility exists, as some spirals are linked by interconnecting lines, possibly denoting pathways to satellite towns and villages. Many theories exist but there has been no definitive “Rosetta Stone” decoding these enduring mysteries.
Startling new theory.
One startling new theory about Panama’s ancestors may point to one of the world’s great maritime exploring nations – the Vikings. There is compelling evidence to suggest the Vikings sailed around the northwest passage and populated part of the Pacific Northwest, and therefore may have sailed further down into the Pacific. Did they settle anywhere? Intermarry? Could their descendants be part of the ethno-mix that is Panama today?
Columbus was not the first.
Revered as the discoverer of America – Christopher Columbus was far from being the first. History now shows that many European and Asian cultures came and settled here.
Columbus made several voyages to Ireland. Records show he landed in the west coast port of Galway. Undoubtedly while there he would have heard of the legend of Brendan, the navigator monk, who, they claim, sailed to the new world around 650 A.D.
Panama’s first people were intelligent, articulate, had the ability to make exquisite gold jewelry and could fashion intricate stone objects. Perhaps with the use of ground penetrating radar, this unique site will yield more mystical stone carvings. The artifacts from Barriles make this one of the world’s most intriguing and mysterious sites, the evidence of that is unmistakable. It is literally carved in stone.