This post is also available in: Spanish
The history of Panama starts approximately 3 million years ago in the Pliocene Epoch. Tectonic movement of the North American and South American plates caused the narrow land bridge to rise from the Ocean and connect the two continents. The Isthmus of Panama permitted flora and fauna from North and South America to cross in both directions. Ever since its formation the history of Panama is influenced by the isthmus’ position and its impact on the migration of people, knowledge and technology throughout the Americas.
The first peoples on the American Continents are classified as Paleo-Indians. During the final glacial episodes of the late Pleistocene period, they migrated from Asia (Eurasia) to North America over a land and ice bridge that existed approximately 47,000 to 14,000 years ago (today’s Bering Strait). Small groups of hunter-gatherers followed the animal migration into Alaska and along ice free corridors along the Pacific coast towards North, Central and South America. The primary evidence of this first human activity on the American Continents are stone tools, particularly projectile points and scrapers. In the history of Panama, the earliest evidence of human presence found are Paleo Indians projectile points that date back 12,000 years.
Later in the history of Panama, Central Panama was home to the Monagrillo cultures which date back about 4,500 to 3,700 years. The Monagrillo, living in the area of today’s Azuero Peninsula, are mostly famous as being among the first pottery making cultures in the Americas. They evolved into significant populations today classified as Gran Coclé culture. The Gran Coclé culture is best known through spectacular burial sites such as El Caño that date back to 500 – 900 after Christ and beautiful polychrome pottery. Alongside the Gran Coclé culture, scientists classify the Gran Chiriquí and Gran Darién cultures of the same period.
Before the arrival of the Spanish to Panama, the country was mostly inhabited by Chibchan, Cocoan and Cueva Indians. Their customs, languages and lifestyle is poorly documented and there is no accurate knowledge of the size of the Pre-Columbian indigenous population of Panama at the beginning of the Conquista, however, studies estimate a number of around 200,000. Thanks to descriptions of European explorers and some archeological findings, we know that the indigenous tribes of Panama were advanced societies with a large cultural variety. They usually lived by hunting and collecting edible fruits and plants as well as by growing corn, cacao and root crops. The indigenous had already established regional trade routes between North and South America long before the arrival of the Spanish. They lived in huts covered with palm leaves and usually slept in hammocks.
The history of Panama states that Rodrigo de Bastidas was the first European claiming the territory of today’s Panama in 1501. Panama’s coastline was mapped one year later by Columbus, when he sailed down the Caribbean from Honduras over Costa Rica to Panama. On this journey, Columbus discovered the Chagres River and the bay of Portobelo.
One of the most important dates in the history of Panama is 1513: The year Vasco Nuñez de Balboa was able to confirm the existence of the Pacific Ocean, a fact that has been known to the indigenous people long before the arrival of the Spanish. This discovery established Panama as Isthmus of the American Continents and founded its role as crossroad of the Old and New World.
In 1519, Panama City was founded, being the first city on the Pacific shore of the American Continent. It became an important hub for the Spanish on the way to Peru. The Inca gold and silver was shipped from Peru to Panama City and then crossed the Isthmus overland, before being shipped over the Atlantic to Spain. The trail crossing Panama from Panama City to Portobelo was soon known as Camino Real (Royal Trail). It became one of the most important trade routes of that time and remained it until the construction of the first railway in the 1850s. Today, large parts of the Camino Real are lost in the dense rainforest of the Chagres National Park, however, several archeological projects are currently recovering and investigating this hugely important trail for the history of Panama. Some parts of the Camino Real can be visited on a tour and for adventurous travelers in good shape, a 4-days hike along the Camino Real can be organized.
The first city of Panama was destroyed in 1671 when the British buccaneer Henry Morgan attacked Panama City coming over land from the Atlantic coast. During the attack, Panama City was looted and completely destroyed. Today, only ruins are left at “Panama Viejo” (Old Panama). Just two years later, a new Panama City was built approximately 10km away. As the locals feared another pirate attack, the new Panama City was built on a small peninsula surrounded by shallow water full of rocks that made it impossible for ships to get close. Additionally, thick city walls were built around the city which is today’s “Casco Antiguo”, a colonial quarter with huge importance in the history of Panama.
During the time of the conquista – from 1501 until 1821 – Panama was part of New Granada and governed by the Spanish Crown. As a consequence, the local indigenous tribes were suppressed and eradicated (mostly by diseases) as on the entire American Continent. In the early 19th century, in several Latin American countries independent movements took place as the Spanish Empire started to lose influence and importance. On November 10, 1821, La Villa de los Santos on the Azuero Peninsula declared the town’s independence from Spain. In the following days and weeks more villages, towns and cities joined the independence movement which culminated on November 28, 1821 in Panama City, where Panama as a country declared its independence from Spain. At the same time, Panama joined Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador as part of Gran Colombia under the lead of Simon Bolivar.
Even though Panama enjoyed a high degree of autonomy, the country undertook several intents to become independent from Gran Colombia as the history of Panama shows. But it was until 1903, after the failed attempt of a French investor group under the lead of Ferdinand de Lesseps to build the Panama Canal, when Panama, with support of the United States of America, finally separated from Colombia.
The US however, received a 10 miles wide strip across the Isthmus to build the Panama Canal, the so called Canal Zone. Over the next ten years the US managed to control the diseases transmitted by mosquitoes and engineerial problems and were able to open the Panama Canal on August 15, 1914.
From its independence on, Panama was a constitutional democracy. In the mid-1950s however, the army started to get involved in politics. Several putsches took place and a military junta under the lead of Brigadier Omar Torrijos was established. The history of Panama with the United States was also affected. In the 60s and 70s a strong nationalistic movement started, leading to several violent encounters between Panamanians and the US army. In 1977, Panama and the United States signed the Torrijos-Carter-Treaty committing the US to give back the Panama Canal and the Canal Zone to Panama by the end of the millennium.
In the 1980’s the history of Panama and the US changed again for the worse. General Manuel Noriega, became president of the country and ruled dictatorially over Panama. He was accused of drug trafficking and money laundering in the US. In 1989, Noriega lost the elections, however, did not accept the election results and maintained himself in power with the help of the army. Due to this development, the US invaded Panama on December 20, 1989 under the operational name “Just Cause”. The US army reached their targets very quickly as they didn’t face much resistance. During the operation, Noriega was arrested and sent to the US to serve a prison sentences. It is not known how many casualties the war claimed as neutral organizations were not allowed in Panama until the third day of the invasion.
After the Noriega regime, Panama’s political situation stabilized and further elections in the history of Panama proceeded without incidents. On December 31, 1999 the United States returned the Panama Canal and the Canal Zone to the Panamanian government and withdrew all troops. In the new millennium, Panama’s economy is growing fast and recent big projects include the expansion of the Panama Canal (opening late 2015) and the construction of a subway system for Panama City (opening early 2014).
Latest posts by Marianela Dominguez (see all)
- Traditional Mud-Hut Building: Fun & Corporate Social Responsibility - March 20, 2015
- At rescue of our traditions: Participation in a traditional Mud-Hut-Building - January 6, 2015
- Cubitá Tours participates in Traditional Rice Harvesting Meeting - December 11, 2014