Tombs of the Golden Warriors

An archaeological dig taking place in El Caño, Panama has revealed several clues to an ancient society that once roamed central Panama known as the “Golden Warriors.”

An archaeological dig taking place in El Caño, Panama has revealed several clues to an ancient society that once roamed central Panama known as the “Golden Warriors.” With tombs yielding thousand-year-old gold, gems, stone tools, jewelry and ceramics, archaeologists believe that the excavation could be the most significant find for Panamanian culture since the beginning of the 20th Century.

In 1926 El Caño was first excavated by U.S. Explorer Hyatt Verrill followed by the nearby site of Sitio Conte, excavated by Samuel Lothrop of Harvard University in the 1930’s.

Until now, Sitio Conte was the only major site to provide significant evidence of the Golden Warriors culture,  which can be traced back to as early as  250 A.D. The culture continued until as late as the 16th Century, when Spanish conquerors arrived in Panama. Artifacts recently excavated from El Caño date between 700 and 1050 A.D.

Since El Caño is marked with ancient monoliths it was the target of early 20th Century treasure seekers. Unfortunately for them, the graves they dug up were burial sites for common people and lacked gold or other precious artifacts.

It was only after having worked at Sitio Conte, a site also marked by ancient monoliths, that Panamanian archaeologist, Dr. Julia Mayo, then a research associate with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, decided to reinvestigate El Caño. This time, the archeological team literally struck gold.

Dr. Mayo’s ground surveys began in 2008 and have the  support of  Fundación El Caño, Instituto Nacional de Cultura de Panamá (INAC), Secretaria Nacional de Ciencia Tecnología e Innovación (SENACYT), the Smithsonian, and National Geographic. In 2010, the team uncovered Tomb T2, the tomb of an important warrior buried with 26 more warriors and adorned with a decorative breastplate, patterned arm cuffs, and a belt of large golden beads.

In 2011, the tomb of a major warrior was discovered, his body supported by a platform of tightly arranged bodies. Dr. Mayo believes those skeletons may have been warriors of low status or slaves that were sacrificed or committed suicide. This interesting theory connects the site to Sitio Conte, where similar burial arrangements have been found. Curiously, the apparent sacrifices were found buried with a vessel of blowfish (pufferfish) bone which could be a clue as to how they died.

Last year, Dr. Mayo, along with her brother Carlos Mayo, three archeologists from Spain and excavators from the local  El Caño community,  completed work on Tomb 7. This tomb contained 45 bodies, some of which were adorned with gold and jewelry made of canine, feline and shark teeth. They were  buried with numerous stone tools and many pieces of beautifully decorated ceramics.

Today Dr. Mayo continues to lead the project as director of the dig and president of the El Caño  Foundation.The team began work again this season on Tomb 4 during the the last week of February. So far 16 skeletons have been uncovered, one wearing a gold necklace and gold nose ring, in addition to numerous stone tools and ceramics.  Dr. Mayo hopes the artifacts found at El Caño, which include axes, stingray spines, and a belt made of whale and jaguar teeth, can shed new light on the Golden Warriors and this ancient society.

Normally a dig season lasts two to three months. Due to a lack of funding, this season will end early. In an effort to gain as much knowledge as the site can offer Dr. Mayo and the team of archaeologists are seeking individual and corporate sponsors. The team is also working hard to find donations of supplies or in monetary form. Supplies needed include: tupperware, ziplock bags, zip-ties, stationery, wheelbarrows, shovels, trowels, tarps, tables, fridges, laptops, hard drives, cameras, a marco lens and memory cards.  The lab is seeking a microscope, stereoscope, scales, Total Station and a digital caliber. Those interested in donating items to the project or becoming a sponsor, can contact the foundation at For those who wish to find our more about the dig and the El Caño foundation  visit or visit the park Tuesday through Saturday from 9 A.M. - 4 P.M.

A book titled “Golden Warriors” was recently published covered the history of the project in El Caño. It is a hardcover coffee table book in both English and Spanish. It details the history of the project as well as the finds alongside beautiful color photographs. If anyone is interested in purchasing a copy of the book you can do so through Parque Arqueologico El Caño or at Fundación El Caño. City of Knowlege, building 221, PB. Clayton. Ciudad de Panama. The purchase price is $85.00. Donations to the Foundation can be made directly through their bank account at Banco General account#0395010755254.

To get to the site, take the Interamerican Highway west through Penonome. Approximatly 20 minutes, or 18 kilometers, after exiting Penonome there is a blue information sign on the right hand side of the highway with a graphic of a Necropolis. On the right hand side is a low concrete sign with “Parque Arqueológico El Caño” on it. Make a left turn at that sign. Follow the road until it dead ends at the entrance to the park.