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Petroglyphs in Panama: Monkey Stone of Darien Gap
2007 Mar 06

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Deep in the Panamanian Rainforest discoveries of carvings, until recently known only to the indigenous Embera tribe, throw light on the ancient human diaspora through the americas. Robert E. Hyman of the Explorer's Club describes his expedition in this unchartered territory and why protection is required to enable further research.

Petroglyphs in Panama

"Daniel confided in me that he had a secret known only to a few in his Embera tribe. He described a place deep in their jungle territory, in a different watershed than our first expedition, which outsiders much less foreigners had never visited. It was a massive sacred rock decorated with intricate petroglyphs, pre-historic rock carvings etched by Daniel's ancestors hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago."

On a damp September morning in 1994, I excitedly awoke at dawn, stretched out in my canvas jungle hammock slung between two giant trees along a quite stream. I was deep in the Panamanian rain forest, hundreds of miles from anything urban or industrial. Here in a quiet place near the Indian village Sambu, under the triple canopy of the fantastic Darien Gap, there were no sounds of man.

Near the slowly-swaying hammock, where I had collapsed the night before after a grueling three-day hike, was a huge rock face covered with vines and growth, which the local Embera (Choco) Indian tribe called 'Yarre Mongara', the Monkey Stone. This simple rock was the reason I had trekked here with my friend, interpreter, guide and Embera elder, Daniel Castaneda. Here was pristine evidence of an ancient civilization painstakingly etched into stone thousands of years ago. This was the purpose of our exhausting hike upstream from the village on Panama's Pacific coastline.

An invitation to be the first American to see this secret rock near Sambu - where we were about to make an important archeological discovery - came only because I had earned Daniel's trust during an earlier trip deep into the dark woods of the Darien. On that first expedition, we had to survive traversing hundreds of miles by foot and by boat through a lawless frontier, where even friendly advisors had given us dismal odds of ever being seen alive again.

At 5:30 in the morning I awoke feeling as excited as a kid at Christmas. After breakfast we constructed scaffolding from materials provide by the rain forest, which supported us while we cleaned off the years of undisturbed growth. After hours carefully cleaning the petroglyph using the river water, I photographed the entire rock face from every angle and then each individual, deeply-etched carving, which resembled human faces and animals.

I wondered if I was really the first outsider to see these amazing and beautiful works of art. But the Embera and archeologists in the intervening years since assured me that I was. We took precise measurements of the carvings and the surrounding area as the day faded to evening. Recent estimates by noted Panamanian archeologist Prof. Carlos Fitzgerald, date the Embera rock carvings to 3,000-5,000 B.C. Our hunters returned with a fantastic dinner of wild turkey and iguana. Smoke filled the air from our fire, which lighted our camp late into the night. I listened to my Embera friends' voices and laughter as I drifted off to sleep in my hammock.

The next morning we dismantled camp, packed our gear and took some final photographs. As I was leaving, I turned to look at the sacred rock one more time. I wondered whether I would return to this special place that holds the secrets of the Embera.

Panic and Celebration

As we retraced our path back to the coast, our boatman Delio was bitten by a '24-hour' snake, so named for the amount of time one had to live after a fatal strike. I performed first aid and rushed him back to our starting point, the village of Sambu. We arrived at the health clinic in three hours with the deceased snake in hand. The doctor started Delio on an intravenous anti-venom drip, as his leg had already swelled to twice its normal size. We did all we could and were assured by clinic staff members that he would most likely recover.

As we left, Daniel mentioned that Embera Indians are always bitten in twos and that the empty clinic bed next to Delio would be filled with another snake-bite victim by tomorrow. I was skeptical. But sure enough, the next day when we returned to visit Delio, another victim had been admitted.

I had requested to see a traditional Embera celebration upon our return to Sambu, and the villagers prepared their finest. A slaughtered boar, traditional music, festive dress and body painting were all in various stages of progress. My gracious hosts insisted that I participate in the body painting and assured me it was not permanent. I shaved my jungle beard to the delight of the children watching me intently and then let them apply their carefully prepared dye to my face and arms. They adorned me with a chief's headdress and some sort of Olympic-style medal around my neck for the finishing touch. I was quite a spectacle. We partied for two days while Delio recovered-no dancing for him.

I arrived back in Washington with my body art still proudly displayed, to the stares of fellow travelers and the amusement of my wife, Deb. I had made a trip of a lifetime and was fortunate to see a few of the secrets of Sambu.

Epilogue

Our documentation of the petroglyph known as 'Yarre Mongara' was used as one of the sustaining arguments presented to the Panamanian National Legislative Assembly for protection of such sites. Panamanian Law 17, 2000 was passed in April 2000 and now provides protection for the Darien's indigenous archeological heritage.

The Tri-Lingual Dictionary of Embera-Spanish-English by Daniel Castaneda and Soloman Sara was published in 2001 by Lincolm Europa, Languages of the World/Dictionaries 38.

In March 2005, Daniel and I returned to the Darien of Panama and documented two more petroglyph sites carrying Explorers Club flag No. 51. Daniel and I are the only explorers to document the first four known petroglyph sites in the entire Darien province of Panama. Future expeditions to the Darien are being planned to locate other archeological sites.

Acknowledgements

I thank my wife, Deb Atwood, for all her patience and help since 1990 and Bill Harp, who was instrumental in my success in Panama from the very beginning. I owe a great debt to the Embera Indians and all of those in Panama who participated in my three expeditions. Thank you to JoAnn Goslin and James Gordon Meek for their skillful help editing. And lastly, thank you to my good friend Daniel Castaneda, who protected me and trusted me with the secrets of Sambu.

Biographical Statement

Robert Edgar Hyman is a photographer, mountaineer and explorer who has participated in numerous scientific expeditions around the world including four Explorers Club flag expeditions, two of which he organized and led. Robert's expeditions focus on scientific research in the areas of archeology, sociology, conservation and high altitude medical technology. Robert has given lectures to The Explorers Club, The Smithsonian Institution, Society of Woman Geographers and numerous academic and civic institutions. Robert's photos have appeared in publications such as National Geographic Adventure Magazine and he is the recipient of various honors and awards.

Photos by Robert E. Hyman

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