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Nature, material, culture, and the volcano: The archaeology of the Volcán Barú in highland Chiriquí, Panamá

Nature, material, culture, and the volcano: The archaeology of the Volcán Barú in highland Chiriquí, Panamá


Department of Anthropology, Columbia University, New York, NY 10027, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.


This thesis can be seen as a dossier on one volcano and the ways in which it is currently ‘thought’. I discuss a moderately bounded local area (240 km2) on the eastern slopes of the Volcán Barú in the Chiriquí province, Panamá and examine roughly 2,000 years of human occupation within the volcanically active environment by drawing upon ethnographic, geological, historical, and palaeoecological data in a framework of landscape archaeology. The modern study of Latin American volcanoes began with the fieldwork of Alexander von Humboldt (1799-1804); I encourage a return to Humboldt’s conceptions of the inextricable interconnection of natural and social sciences in the investigation of volcanic landscapes.

The chapters of the thesis build upon one another much in the way that a Geographic Information System (GIS) layers consecutive strata of data. My research focuses on an examination of the role of volcanic materials, eruptions, and objects in the volcanic landscape both in the past and in current archaeological interpretation. New data provided in the thesis include: the first AMS-dated grave context from the Chiriquí province of Panamá; locations and representations of 24 previously unknown petroglyphs in the Boquete survey area; petrographic analysis of Volcán Barú tephra; maps of looted pre-Columbian cemetery locations extrapolated from nineteenth and early twentieth-century reports and accession files; and possible quarry locations and transport paths for volcanic materials used in Barú area grave construction.

The research is influenced by aspects of social archaeology in that it examines the past and present social value of material culture and emphasizes archaeology’s unique positioning between the sciences and humanities. I highlight the epistemological link between the unstable categories of subject, object, nature and culture. While assessing and reinterpreting the timing and impact of volcanic events in the pre-Columbian past, I urge a greater emphasis on the role of human experience and the importance of the volcano in non-eruptive periods. If contemporary and pre- Columbian perspectives of landscape have any parallel, I suggest that it may be a shared uneasiness with perceptions of a reversal or inversion of the accepted order that rapid environmental change creates.