Early pottery in the tropics of Panama (ca. 4,5003,200 B.P.): Production processes, circulation, and diagenesis

Fumie Iizuka
Anthropology, University of Arizona
June, 2016


Despite the traditional association of the first pottery with food production and sedentism, case studies show that hunter gatherers with different degrees of sedentism commonly adopted ceramics. Monagrillo ware (~45003200 B.P.) of central Panama, among the earliest in Central America, was made by egalitarian slash and burn farmers, cultivating domesticated seed and root crops. People occupied inland rockshelters and coastal shell middens. However, their degree of sedentism is debated. It is unclear whether they were sedentary both in the inland and on the coast and exchanged resources or whether inland people visited the coast during the driest months. Their pottery functions are not well understood either. I provenanced and studied the production processes and diagenesis of Monagrillo pottery through a combination of the life history approach and archaeometric methods. I assessed the degree of sedentism of Monagrillo people, inferred vessel functions producers may have expected, and identified diagenesis that may affect analytical results. My study showed that pottery was produced and used in the foothills and on the coast of the seasonally dry Pacific side of Panama and also was probably made in the Pacific plains, suggesting that people may have been fairly sedentary in those areas around Parita Bay. Vessels produced in the Pacific foothills and on the coast were transported to a Pacific plains site. Pacific foothills wares were also transported to the perennially wet Caribbean slopes, where the production may have been difficult due to the precipitation. According to technical choices made, I infer that potters in the Pacific foothills may have opted for designs that were useful and dependable for cooking. Producers of the Pacific foothills also secondarily weighted the performance characteristics of impact resistance and resistance to weathering for the use and transportation of vessels in rugged terrain as well as the consumption in the wet Caribbean slopes. Pacific coastal producers, on the other hand, produced the vessels for cooking-related attributes, but not transportation. The terrain in the Pacific coast is fairly flat and impact resistance did not need to be prioritized. The Pacific plains site, where vessels were transported both from the Pacific foothills and the coast, also had the highest number of decorated sherds; this suggested that the site may have been used for group gathering, feasting, and exchange. All producers shared the same slab and lump manufacturing techniques; this indicated that ease of manufacture and expediency were important as well as that Monagrillo vessel producers were related. Different diagenetic patterns were found in ceramics excavated from the Caribbean zone and the Pacific coast; this allowed differentiating petrographic and geochemistry of raw materials and changes that occurred post-depositionally. The diagenetic study helped better source pottery. My work contributes to knowledge about pottery origins and degrees of sedentism, technical choices made to reach functional needs, and climatic impact on production and post-depositional changes.