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Within the interdisciplinary project, the studies carried out at CEZA focus on the diet of people from colonial and pre-Hispanic contexts as well as on their changes over lifetime.

  • Runtime: 01.09.2016 – 20.02.2020
  • Supporter: Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft
  • Partner: Landesamt für Denkmalpflege Baden-Württemberg

The narrow Isthmus of Panama, which both divided and connected the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, was a strategic crossroads of the Spanish Empire and a crucial location for early modern globalization in the 16th and 17th centuries AD. Old Panama was a place of convergence of people and goods from four continents. Therefore, the city offers an extraordinary opportunity to study the often asymmetrical effects of cultural and commercial contacts.

Participants: Dr. Bethany Aram, Eva Manzano Pérez, Aurelio López Fernández, Daniel Muñiz Amian, Jorge Díaz Ceballos, Dr. Alejandro García Montón, Dr. Amelia Almorza Hidalgo (Universidad Pablo de Olavide Sevilla, Spanien), Dr. Juan Guillermo Martín Rincón, Iosvany Hernández-Mora, Dr. Javier Rivera (Universidad del Norte, Kolumbien), Dr. Alessandro Achilli, Marco Rosario Capodiferro (Università di Pavia, Italien).

Spanish and various other European interests in the region, as well as an influx of African slaves and Asian goods, have left a unique material heritage, which the project seeks to unlock through an interdisciplinary research approach. The study of written sources, bones, teeth and artifacts offers deep insights into the cultural and biological effects of early globalization and reveals survival strategies of different groups. Such strategies include changes in diet, the pursuit of profit, and the development of local production and supra-regional trade networks. The project combines historical, archaeological and archaeometric methods to study people and goods from Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia who came together on the Isthmus of Panama during the 16th and 17th centuries. It includes archival work, archaeological excavations, anthropological investigations as well as isotope analyses of strontium, oxygen, carbon and nitrogen and the study of ancient DNA. The interdisciplinary approach challenges both Eurocentric and Hispanophobic interpretations of the effects of the conquest of America and early globalization. The project takes a contextualizing, interdisciplinary and qualitative approach to characterize cultural and commercial exchange.


Within the interdisciplinary project, the studies carried out at CEZA focus on the diet of people from colonial and pre-Hispanic contexts as well as on their changes over lifetime. Furthermore, they are devoted to the distinction between persons who grew up in old Panama or on the isthmus (possible representatives of the native population or subsequent generations of immigrants) and the first generation of immigrants. Among them are African slaves, European colonialists, people from other parts of America and possibly even from Asia. The study includes teeth and bones from human burials and comparative samples of animals from the site. Samples of 37 individuals from excavations associated with the cathedral and a cemetery south of the central square represent colonial contexts, whereas about 25 individuals come from several pre-Hispanic sites.

From each skeleton the enamel of two teeth was sampled, of which one represents the years of early childhood and the other those of later childhood or adolescence. Moreover a bone sample was also taken from each burial. Multi-element isotope analyses were performed on all these samples. For enamel, these included strontium isotope analysis, isotope analyses of oxygen bound to the phosphate group as well as to the structural carbonate, and carbon isotope analysis. For bone samples, the isotopic composition of carbon and nitrogen in collagen, and the isotopic composition of carbon and oxygen in bioapatite were determined.

The data are combined with the results of age and sex determinations, evidence of artificial modification of the crowns of the incisors, morphological characteristics of the skulls, and the results of ancient DNA analysis. An important tool for the interpretation of the analytical data is an extensive collection of comparative data from the literature, which will be integrated into the isotope database of

All isotope compositions of bones and teeth are remarkably variable. They indicate different average diet compositions during childhood and adulthood and — for some individuals — fundamental changes in eating habits during their lives. Strontium and oxygen isotope data provide evidence of individuals coming from regions with different geological or climatic conditions. Thus, the analysis confirms the written tradition of Old Panama as a melting pot of a multicultural population. The data collected on bones and teeth testify to the use of the cathedral as a burial place for people from various population groups, including presumed slaves of African origin.