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Forests, Gardens, and Fisheries in an Ancient Chiefdom: Paleoethnobotany and Zooarchaeology at Sitio Drago, a Late Ceramic Period Village in Bocas del Toro, Panama


In seeking to understand variation and change in past human societies, archaeologists have shown that complex societies develop in a variety of cultural and ecological contexts. Reconstructions of emergent complexity throughout the New World reveal that past peoples constructed and maintained the type of landscapes ideal for supporting larger, more sedentary populations. An excellent case study of built landscapes is the prehistoric chiefdoms of lower Central America, a region bordered to the north by present-day El Salvador and Honduras and to the south by Colombia. By AD 200, prehistoric settlements located in both agriculturally productive and marginal areas became part of a network of paramount chiefdoms spanning lower Central America. These chiefdoms experienced population growth and political expansion up until sixteenth-century European colonization.

In this study, the relationship between environmental conditions and sociopolitical complexity is addressed through examination of plant and animal remains excavated from midden contexts at Sitio Drago (AD 800 to 1900), a Late Ceramic phase village site located on a Caribbean island in western Panama. The analyzed macrobotanical and faunal remains are derived from five excavation units representing human occupations spanning the Pre-Biscuitware (AD 800 to 1200), Biscuitware (AD 1200 to 1450), and Historic (AD 1600 to 1900) Phases. This project is the first integrative analysis of plant and animal remains from western Panama and provides new datasets valuable for regional and global comparisons.

Analyses of plant and animal taxa present in the assemblages suggest that Late Ceramic people at Sitio Drago used continual investments in the landscape to overcome the island’s thin, acidic soils. Differences in ubiquity values, densities, and standard counts confirm that villagers intensified production of tree fruits and maize in fields near residential structures. These managed plant foods appear to have become more important in the overall diet during a phase of population growth, while diversity of plant and animal resources declined. During the same time, as local fisheries are overexploited and depleted, people focused more on trapping and hunting terrestrial animals that are attracted to cleared-edge forest and orchards. This reconstruction of subsistence activities at Sitio Drago provides an example of how people living in areas less agriculturally productive and lacking key material resources can develop a resilient subsistence economy capable of supporting complex society without degrading the environment.

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