This 1,200-Year-Old Tomb in Panama Contains a Treasure Trove of Artifacts and Up to 32 Bodies

Researchers found flutes, bells, gold jewelry and the body of an important religious leader inside the elaborate shared grave

El Caño Archaeological Park in Panama Tomb
Researchers uncovered an over 1,200-year-old tomb filled with ceramic and gold artifacts at El Caño Archaeological Park in Panama. Ministry of Culture of Panama

Archaeologists digging in El Caño Archaeological Park in Panama have just uncovered the shared tomb of an important Coclé lord buried around 750 to 800 C.E.

El Caño is a rich archaeological site known for its ancient burial grounds. The newly discovered tomb is the ninth that researchers have unearthed in the park since the team began excavations in 2008.

Inside the tomb, researchers discovered a bounty of ceramic, bone and gold artifacts. The objects comprise breastplates, belts, bells, skirts, a set of flutes and various jewelry—inlcuding a set of earrings made from sperm whale teeth and plated in gold.

According to a statement from Panama’s Ministry of Culture, the objects not only have “economic value,” but also “incalculable historical value,” per Google translate.

Julia Mayo, director of the El Caño Foundation and the excavation's leader, believes that the Coclé lord was around 30 to 40 years old when he died. The presence of musical instruments within the burial site, rather than weaponry, leads the archaeologists to think that the lord was likely a religious leader, per CNN’s Taylor Nicioli. In turn, the research team has dubbed the individual "Lord of the Flutes."

The Coclé people were a native group who lived in the central region of what is now Panama from about 200 B.C.E. to 1550 C.E. They are known for their pottery and metalwork, vibrant cultural life and intricate ceremonial rituals.

Elaborate group burials were custom for Coclé people of high social standing. According to the Ministry of Culture, researchers discovered multiple other bodies around Lord of the Flutes. 

Mayo says that similar high-status tombs in the area contain bodies "sacrificed to serve as companions” to important individuals, per the statement.

Still, not every individual that the researchers found iniside the grave was buried in this way. One body in particular, a woman's, was found right underneath the Coclé lord.

The lord was buried face down on top of her, and experts are uncertain about the nature of the relationship between them.

“The face-down mode of burial was common at this time period in this region, but the positioning of the male over the female individual is not,” says Nicole Smith-Guzmán, an archaeology curator with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City, per CNN. 

She adds, “Nevertheless, it is likely that there was some sort of social relationship between the two individuals during life that was important to maintain in death.”

According to the Ministry of Culture, excavation on the ninth tomb began in 2022 and is still ongoing. If the other eight tombs are any indication, somewhere between eight and 32 total bodies are expected to be unearthed from the site.

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