Biblical Archaeology Review 37:3, May/June 2011


Chiriqui province, Panama

Two grotesque figures with leaf-shaped, upturned noses and sharp, pointed teeth adorn this 3-inch-tall gold pendant recovered from a cache of gold objects buried perhaps a thousand years ago in western Panama. While their distinctive noses and teeth mimic some of the chief characteristics of Central American bats, the figures are otherwise quite human in form. Each is shown wearing a distinctive angular headdress, a wide-collar necklace and a loin cloth, while also holding a spear thrower in one hand and a paddle-shaped club in the other. The pendant, like much Central American art of the pre-Columbian period, appears to show composite beings that have both animal (in this case, bat) and human characteristics.

Until the arrival of Europeans in the late 15th and 16th centuries, most of Central America, including what would become Panama, was occupied by a variety of culturally sophisticated but loosely organized tribal groups that unfortunately left no written records describing their history or society. Without such records, archaeologists may never know exactly what the composite creatures from this pendant were meant to symbolize, although there is some evidence that bats were particularly revered for their uncanny ability to navigate through darkness. Similar discoveries of bat-nosed figures from surrounding regions suggest they could represent tribal heroes, mythical warriors or shamanistic beings.

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