If I had to list my three favorite talks from this course, Richard Cooke’s presentation would undoubtedly be in that group. On Saturday Dr. Cooke took us on a trip back in time: first to the initial migrations of humans to America, then to the rapid spread of these early Native Americans throughout the continent, and lastly to the establishment of communities in Panama and their subsequent decline after the arrival of Europeans.
Though I have lived in Panama for most of my life, the picture that Dr. Cooke painted during his presentation came as a surprise to me in many ways. I was interested in the connection that many native groups had to the sea. The presence of remains of marine animals in archeological sites, such as tiger sharks and dolphins, show that these early groups were experienced seafarers. This is a stark contrast to my previous view of native groups as sedentary agricultural societies. I was also impressed by the fact that native groups in the Caribbean of Panama harvested monk seals, a species which is no longer found there.
Aside from those interesting facts Dr. Cooke’s presentation illustrated how human communities can alter ecosystems. Sediment cores suggest that forests in central Panama declined quickly after the arrival of these first human groups. Prior to human settlement central Panama was covered in dry forests. The cores suggest that once humans established the forest receded rapidly, and signs of secondary forest and charcoal appeared. Interestingly, the same cores show that after the arrival of Europeans forests reappeared, suggesting that native groups were abandoning their communities.
I find it both interesting and sad that in Panama, where 83% of the population shares native lineages, this history is ignored and is not discussed in schools. This lack of attention to the history of native groups is surely at the heart of the social issues facing modern day native communities in this country.