Ancient Panama adds depth to our understanding of the political and religious elite ruling in Panama at the time of the European conquest. Mary W. Helms's research greatly expands knowledge of the distribution, extent, and structural nature of these pre-Columbian chiefdoms.
In addition, Helms delves more deeply into select aspects of ancient Panamanian political systems, including the relationship between elite competition and chiefly status, the use of sumptuary goods in the expression of elite power, and the role of elites in regional and long-distance exchange networks. In a significant departure from traditional thinking, she proposes that the search for esoteric knowledge was more important than economic trade in developing long-distance contact among chiefdoms.
The primary data for the study are derived from sixteenth-century Spanish records by Oviedo y Valdés, Andagoya, Balboa, and others. The author also turns to ethnographic data from contemporary native people of Panama, Colombia, tropical America, and Polynesia for analogy and comparison. The result is a highly innovative study which illuminates not only pre-Columbian Panamanian elites but also the nature of chiefdoms as a distinctive cultural type.