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Thu Sep 27, 2018, 11:28 PM

Suicide, Sacrifice, And Mutilations In Precolumbian Cemetery Questioned By Archaeologists

Sep 24, 2018, 10:39am
Suicide, Sacrifice, And Mutilations In Precolumbian Cemetery Questioned By Archaeologists

Kristina Killgrove
Senior Contributor

Archaeologist, Writer, Scientist

Just outside of Panama City, a precolumbian cemetery excavated in the 1950s was originally interpreted as containing extensive evidence of suicide, sacrifice, and mutilated bodies. A new analysis by archaeologists who specialize in human remains, however, questions the presence of anything irregular about the burials.

The archaeological site of Playa Venado (also called Venado Beach) was identified in 1948 when the U.S. Navy began digging in the target practice area of now-decommissioned Fort Kobbe, adjacent to Howard Air Force Base in the Panama Canal Zone. Because of its location, the site was quickly ransacked for antiquities belonging to the long-lived prehistoric Coclé culture that included fine goldwork, carved bone and ivory, semi-precious gemstone jewelry, and intricately decorated pottery.

In 1951, archaeologist Samuel Lothrop of Harvard University's Peabody Museum directed an excavation at Playa Venado and recovered 202 skeletons and grave artifacts. An additional 167 skeletons were later unearthed by avocational archaeologists. Lothrop published his thoughts on the cemetery, which dates to 550-850 AD, in a 1954 American Antiquity article he titled "Suicide, sacrifice, and mutilations in burials at Venado Beach, Panama." Unfortunately, in this time period, bioarchaeology was not yet an established discipline and Lothrop's conclusions about the culture, drawn largely from the writings of 16th century Spanish historian Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, did more harm than good, being widely and incorrectly cited as evidence of violence, cannibalism, and trophy head-taking in precolumbian Panama.

A newly published report in the journal Latin American Antiquity by Nicole Smith-Guzmán and Richard Cooke of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, however, calls into question Lothrop's sensationalistic interpretation of the Playa Venado skeletons through a reanalysis of archival documents, photographs, ethnohistoric accounts, and a subset of 77 skeletons that Lothrop sent back to the U.S., now stored at Harvard University.


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