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An ARTery of EMPIRE. Conquest, Commerce, Crisis, Culture and the Panamanian Junction (1513-1671)

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - ArtEmpire (An ARTery of EMPIRE. Conquest, Commerce, Crisis, Culture and the Panamanian Junction (1513-1671))

Reporting period: 2020-07-01 to 2021-06-30

This project analyzed a convergence of peoples and goods from four continents on the Isthmus of Panama during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It brought together archaeologists, geneticists, historians, anthropologists and computer engineers to produce new knowledge about pre-Hispanic as well as early modern individuals. Data from sources rarely considered together have enabled the team to forge new methodological approaches to such questions as the conquest of America, seventeenth-century crises, and the biological and cultural impacts of early globalization.
ArtEmpire’s social contribution emerges from an inclusive, pluralistic approach to the past that seeks to overcome opposing historiographical legacies of euro-centricism, on the one hand, and hispano-phobia, on the other. Based on sources previously unavailable or underexplored, it recovers the agency and experiences of diverse groups of Africans, indigenous Americans and Europeans who crossed the Isthmus of Panama or died there. In order to maximize its social impact, ArtEmpire’s database became accessible around the world in 2019, 500 years after the foundation of Old Panama, when a documentary about the project produced by the Universidad del Norte was also screened. The project’s findings contribute to a more inclusive and less elitist view of historical processes that drove peoples and goods from very different areas of the world across an artery of early globalization.
The historical and archaeological teams have recovered human remains and cultural artefacts as well as documentation, more than doubling the material previously available. Excavations in Old Panama’s Cathedral and to the south of its Main Plaza in 2017 and 2018 increased the number of colonial individuals and associated cultural material rescued and analyzed. At the same time, historical research in Seville’s Archivo General de Indias, Lima’s Archivo General de la Nación and Archivo Arzobispal and other repositories has brought a wealth of relevant data to light. The researchers have applied the most rigorous criteria possible to the collection and analysis of material, which also has been subjected to cross-disciplinary scrutiny. The main results entail a dynamic understanding of Old Panamá’s population and the changes that it underwent from 1519 through 1671, with particular attention to opportunities for social mobility and cultural integration for women of Indigenous American, African and mixed descent, as well as other individuals under-represented in traditional historical accounts.
ArtEmpire held full-team scientific meetings open to the public and involving external experts in Panama from 20-22 April 2017 and in Seville, Spain from 28-30 November 2019. It has also involved meetings as a team and with members of indigenous and other local communities in order to discuss findings before their release. Main results include the development of a methodology based on continuous, interdisciplinary discussion and interpretation of findings, as reflected in recent publications ( In addition to these publications, ArtEmpire has supported three Ph.D. theses through completion, the development of an interdisciplinary data model and elaboration of the database available at
The project has documented the presence and roles of under-studied agents on the early colonial isthmus of Panama, with particular attention to the alimentary, cultural and economic strategies pursued. The archaeological recovery of the remains of significant numbers of female individuals of African, Indigenous American and mixed descent buried in the Cathedral nave at Panama Viejo, interpreted using historical sources and further corroborated by isotopic and ancient DNA analysis, challenges previous historiographic interpretations. It has also transformed popular awareness of the site and its meaning.
While ArtEmpire has shed light on the social and geographic mobility of women of diverse backgrounds, it has also addressed questions regarding Indigenous American populations before contact with different groups of Europeans and Africans. In the framework of this project, ancient DNA, and particularly the human nuclear genome, has been extracted and sequenced from the region’s pre-Hispanic and colonial inhabitants for the first time. The results illuminate long-standing debates regarding specific burials at Panama Viejo, highlight genetic continuities from pre-Hispanic times to the present, and point to divergent demographic trends among Indigenous groups, some of whom led processes of population contraction that began long before the sixteenth century and precocious recovery into the seventeenth century.
Changes in the ecology and diet at Panama Viejo --- with the spread of cattle, the Asian banana and African rice -- reflect cultural and social interaction among peoples of different ancestries and origins. While reporting no evidence of dietary distinctions based on sex or ancestry, the team has documented gradual shifts in local dietary strategies from pre-Hispanic times to the seventeenth century. On the other hand, Panama Viejo’s European inhabitants appear to have suffered from infectious disease and other conditions associated with nutritional stress slightly more than individuals identified as most likely having Indigenous American or African ancestors. Illuminating the roles of individuals previously considered marginal, such findings suggest that survivors adapted to the resources available, while confronting frequent epidemiological challenges on an artery of early global transport.
Rather than separate, even competing Atlantic and Pacific trade systems, this project has found that connections between these economic circuits, which became increasingly interdependent, intensified across the isthmus. In particular, the trade in slaves of American, African and, to a much lesser extent, Asian, origins, reveals a rise in trans-imperial (and not exclusively or even mainly Pacific) commerce after 1641. Such commerce made Panama more attractive as well as more accessible to invaders, including those who sacked the city in 1671, provoking its subsequent relocation.